Anyone who teaches at York University in any capacity has probably encountered the Teaching Commons, the valuable university resource that “brings together … individuals who are interested in exploring and sharing teaching and learning innovation across York University.” However, the Teaching Commons team is now gaining recognition for its work far beyond Keele Street and Steeles Avenue.
The Teaching Commons is staffed by educational developers and post-doctoral Fellows who work to enhance teaching and learning throughout the university, whether through workshops, courses or by building communities of support for innovative practices. The team provides the York teaching community with expert advice about all manner of teaching issues and practices, as well as the university’s educational priorities, while exploring innovative new pedagogical methods and practices. Available Teaching Commons resources include an experiential education guide for students, a first-year experience toolkit and a handbook for course directors.
“Our work has always been really broad in scope,” said Lisa Endersby, one of Teaching Commons’ five educational developers. “We’re involved in really interesting conversations both here at the university and externally, and we’re recognizing that what we talk about are topics that draw interest across educational institutions because they have universal themes.
“Once we really start talking to colleagues at other institutions, it’s exciting to see that what we’re doing here resonates with them. We’ve all contributed to the conversation about teaching and learning, and we’re doing a bit of influencing, rather than just participating.”
The evidence speaks for itself. For example, Celia Popovic, director of the Teaching Commons, has led the creation of the Educational Developers Caucus (EDC) accreditation process for educational development programs, with the most recent interest in accreditation coming from an Australian and Egyptian institution.
Popovic is also a course lead for the International Educational Developers Course, an online course created by the national Educational Developers Caucus, the Council of Ontario Educational Developers (COED) and Britain’s national educational developers’ organization, SEDA. The course is geared toward people new to this growing field or those who are considering it as a career choice.
“It was developed because it’s a course that people were actively seeking,” said educational developer Mandy Frake-Mistak, who serves as one of the tutors for the course, which will be offered again in Sept. 2018.
Two Teaching Commons team members were invited to lead an instructional skills workshop in the United Kingdom, and both developers and post docs have given numerous presentations at international conferences in the United States, the U.K., South Africa and other countries. There has also been an influx of visitors from other countries interested in the variety of Teaching Commons initiatives.
“As our reputation and reach continue to grow, people are reaching out to us,” Endersby said. “This gives us the opportunity to raise the profile of the work we are doing and to elevate these conversations.”
Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier, another educational developer, added, “external recognition and involvement gives us additional validity in positioning ourselves as experts in teaching and learning.”
In fact, during the past five years or so, Maheux-Pelletier noted, Teaching Commons has been heavily involved in the field of experiential education. Team members have developed a York-specific framework and resources that include an online guide. The University has become known for experiential education and Teaching Commons staff have been invited to speak about their work at other Canadian universities.
“We are seen as a source of expertise who can help others get up to speed,” Maheux-Pelletier said.
Like faculty members, Teaching Commons’ Educational Developers pursue research to advance knowledge in the scholarship of teaching and learning that is applicable worldwide, says Frake-Mistak. She and Popovic, for example, have recently submitted a paper to the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Some of this scholarship is collaborative, notes Maheux-Pelletier. She and a colleague at Humber College have recently submitted a proposed book chapter together; both joint and individual efforts of this nature reinforce York’s reputation beyond the campus. Maheux-Pelletier also participates on the editorial board for the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.
The Teaching Commons team is also forging ties and burnishing its reputation throughout Ontario. The director, Popovic, has been appointed as a Distinguished Visiting Teaching Scholar by Trent University. Two of its educational developers are co-chairs of COED and the staff are dedicated participants in its efforts to build a community of people with shared experiences and goals. Many of them are also active in the national organization, the EDC.
“There is a value to sharing ideas and engaging with each other,” Endersby said.
Frake-Mistak agreed, noting, “It’s a great way to see what’s out there and how we can share and give back.”
In fact, the Teaching Commons has taken these local networking efforts one step further by bringing in a visiting educational developer from McMaster University to assist in building capacity in faculty-student engagement. .
“As students change and the world changes, so must we,” Endersby said. “Dialogue implies that there is experimentation and openness to some level of innovation and change. We at the Teaching Commons are good at inspiring those conversations and we are seen as valued and valuable contributors.”
By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer