Project Commons offers innovative way to add experiential learning to courses

A group of students sit around a table and discuss a project

Launched by the York Capstone Network, the Project Commons makes it possible for faculty members to easily infuse their courses with interdisciplinary projects that are already linked to on- and off-campus partners.

By Elaine Smith, special contributor

If you’re looking to add an experiential education (EE) component to any of your courses, look no further than the Project Commons, York University’s one-stop shop for “real world” projects that can be integrated into any York classroom.

“The Project Commons makes it possible for faculty members to easily infuse their courses with interdisciplinary projects that are already linked to on- and off-campus partners,” said Danielle Robinson, an associate professor of dance in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD).

Danielle Robinson
Danielle Robinson

The Project Commons was launched by the York Capstone Network to provide students across campus with challenging, real-world projects that allow them to apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired during their university careers. Robinson and Franz Newland, an associate professor at the Lassonde School of Engineering, co-founded the network.

With assistance from staff in the YU Experience Hub and Lassonde, they have made connections with a wide assortment of organizations, businesses, and even cities and schools that are eager to work together with students in solving complex problems. Many of these projects – which are directly tied to United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) – have been taken up by capstone courses, but they are available to faculty for use in any of their classes.

“For faculty members, it’s plug-and-play experiential education,” said Robinson. “We have done the legwork of finding partners and projects that are already connected to UN SDGs. There are so many ways the projects can be used: as course assignments for a whole class, as team or individual projects, as year-long classroom activities.”

Franz Newland
Franz Newland

Carolyn Steele, who teaches in the Department of Humanities and is the career development co-ordinator in Career Education & Development, says Project Commons’ offerings are “invaluable.” Last year, her students in the humanities community-focused experiential education course Doing Culture chose to use five of the available curated projects. One project, for example, was done in conjunction with African Community Services of Peel and explored ways to engage Black communities by organizing and running a series of community conversations.

“The projects are posed as a question and students are invited to respond to part of it based on their skill sets and interests,” Steele said. “The projects can, therefore, play out in many different ways.

“When the students take on one of these projects, they meet with the partner, decide on the direction and deliverables they wish to take, and forge ahead. They own the process, and the skills and knowledge they acquired throughout their degrees are put forth in a new context. Many had no idea they could do these things, and they see that all their learning really matters.”

Michaela Hynie, a professor in the Department of Psychology, taught an honours thesis course option for community-based research. A group of her students worked with a Project Commons organization, the Markham Arts Council, to evaluate a seniors’ dance program – collecting data, making observations and providing the council with their findings. Each student was able to use this collaborative project experience as the basis of their individualized honours thesis.

“It was helpful to have this resource available,” said Hynie. “It aligned nicely with the course and the students benefited. They were able to apply their research skills in the real world, not just in an academic setting.”

“These efforts help organizations, too, giving them tools and ways of thinking about the impact of their work along with the data.”

Jeffrey Harris, an assistant professor in the teaching stream at the Lassonde School of Engineering, has accessed several of the opportunities offered by the Project Commons while working with the YU Experience Hub to source project experiences for students in his third-year class, Mechanical Engineering: Professionalism and Society.

“I’ve made the course project-focused so the students must work on a project with some kind of societal/social implication,” Harris said. “One of my goals is to get engineering students to think about how they can make contributions to the world and also develop empathy and communications skills.”

The Project Commons comes in very handy, said Harris, because “over time, I’ve learned that students need authentic projects to work on.”

Last year, his students worked with: startup YU Ride, using a commuting lens to consider how to reduce the University’s carbon footprint; Peel Community Climate Council, to determine ways that food waste can be reduced; and MaRS, to explore how laneway spaces in Toronto can be utilized better.

“It would be a huge effort to do the networking required to curate these partnerships year after year,” he said. “I’ll continue to use this resource. In fact, I’m thinking about how to engage with partners for a 500-person first-year class, because when students work on a project beyond the walls of the institution, it resonates a lot more.

“Project Commons makes it a lot easier to add experiential education to our existing courses.”

Steele says the Project Commons is “a phenomenal resource.”

“In many areas, the pressure to create projects fall on the professors, which means making connections; it can be daunting and time consuming. But you can take one of these projects, think about how it makes sense in your course and determine how it could meet the learning objectives of the course. There are more than 70 projects just sitting there waiting to be used.”

Faculty across York’s campuses are invited to explore the EE options that Project Commons provides.

The president provides an update on winter term

Students walk through the centre of the Keele Campus

Dear colleagues,

The University has undertaken extensive planning this year to support a safe and gradual return to York’s campuses. Our plans have enabled us to increase in-person courses from around five per cent in summer to 33 per cent in the fall, and all buildings on York’s campuses are now open, including offices and research spaces.

The combination of our safety protocols, along with optimistic public health indicators, improving vaccination rates and forecasts from the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, provide a level of assurance that we can proceed with the planned full return to on-campus academic activities for the Winter 2022 term. (See the Senate Executive communication published on Oct. 7.)

Key components of winter term planning

I would encourage all community members to refer to the Senate Executive update for further details, but in brief, the winter term projections allow us to plan for a student learning experience that looks much closer to what was possible prior to the onset of the pandemic.

Under this scenario, courses are being planned without class size caps or temporal gaps between classes. We know that students and instructors alike share a deep appreciation of the tremendous value of in-person instruction to achieve student learning outcomes, engagement, connection and overall well-being. We expect mask protocols among other health and safety measures to remain in place, and ask for everyone’s co-operation in continuing to observe them now and into the winter term.  

There will be a small amount of flexibility for continued remote learning this winter. Many programs will continue to offer online courses or components (as they did prior to the start of the pandemic) to accommodate the diverse needs of students and to enrich the student learning experience. We have also learned a great deal about technology-enhanced learning these past 19 months, and some colleagues are planning to pilot new e-learning methodologies this winter for potential longer-term adoption.

Such long-term changes to courses and/or programs do, however, require appropriate governance approval in contrast to the emergency remote teaching implemented in response to the pandemic. To facilitate the sharing of high-quality pedagogical innovation, and to develop recommendations for the University beyond the pandemic, the provost will be establishing a collegial Task Force on the Future of Learning at York University. More information on this will be shared shortly, and colleagues who are interested in participating should contact the Provost’s Office directly.  

In the short term, some important reminders regarding the winter term are provided below:

  • Any changes to the course calendar for winter must be submitted to the respective dean’s or principal’s offices no later than Oct. 27.
  • The agreement of a dean, principal or designate is required for any temporarily elevated levels of online or remote course delivery that exceed an increase of 15 per cent relative to what was offered by the unit or program before the pandemic.
  • As supported by senate executive, planning is underway to further increase study spaces for students, improve technical support in classrooms and teaching supports for course directors, and to further reinforce the University’s health and safety measures on campus, including daily screening and mask wearing.
  • Instructors who wish to seek medical or family status accommodations for the winter term should contact their dean’s office or the Office of Health, Safety and Employee Well-Being.

As always, our plans continue to be informed by the Ontario government, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health and Toronto Public Health. In the event that guidance from these authorities changes, we will adapt plans accordingly, including reinstating additional emergency measures, if required.

I want to thank you all once again for your ongoing commitment to upholding a community of care while on York’s campuses and for continuing to use YU Screen daily to screen for COVID-19 symptoms. Please continue to visit the Better Together website for the latest updates.

I look forward to seeing more of the York community safely on our campuses this winter.


Rhonda Lenton
President & Vice-Chancellor

Mise à jour sur le trimestre d’hiver

Chers membres de la communauté de York,

L’Université a entrepris une planification approfondie cette année pour soutenir un retour sécuritaire et progressif sur les campus de York. Nos plans nous ont permis de faire passer les cours en présentiel d’environ 5 % cet été à 33 % cet automne. Tous les bâtiments des campus de York sont désormais ouverts, y compris les bureaux et les espaces de recherche.

La combinaison de nos protocoles de sécurité, des indicateurs de santé publique optimistes, de l’amélioration des taux de vaccination et des prévisions de la table scientifique COVID-19 de l’Ontario nous donne l’assurance de pouvoir procéder au retour complet des activités académiques sur le campus pour le trimestre d’hiver 2022 (voir la communication du Sénat du 7 octobre 2021).

Composantes clés de la planification à long terme pour l’hiver

J’encourage tous les membres de la communauté à se référer à la mise à jour du Sénat pour plus de détails, mais en résumé, les projections pour le trimestre d’hiver nous permettent de planifier une expérience d’apprentissage qui ressemble beaucoup plus à ce qui était possible avant le début de la pandémie.

Dans ce scénario, les cours sont planifiés sans plafonnement de la taille des classes ni décalage temporel entre celles-ci. Nous savons que les étudiants et étudiantes ainsi que le corps enseignant valorisent énormément l’enseignement en personne pour atteindre les résultats d’apprentissage et pour améliorer l’engagement, la connexion et le bien-être général. Nous nous attendons à ce que les protocoles relatifs aux masques restent en place, parallèlement à d’autres mesures de santé et de sécurité, et nous demandons la coopération de tous et toutes pour continuer à les observer maintenant et pendant le trimestre d’hiver.  

Il y aura un peu de flexibilité pour l’apprentissage à distance cet hiver. De nombreux programmes continueront à offrir des cours ou des composantes en ligne (comme ils le faisaient avant le début de la pandémie), pour répondre aux divers besoins des étudiants et étudiantes et pour enrichir leur expérience d’apprentissage. Nous avons également beaucoup appris sur l’apprentissage assisté par la technologie au cours des 19 derniers mois. Certains collègues prévoient faire l’essai de nouvelles méthodologies d’apprentissage électronique cet hiver en vue d’une éventuelle adoption à plus long terme.

De telles modifications à long terme des cours et/ou des programmes nécessitent toutefois une approbation appropriée, contrairement à l’enseignement à distance d’urgence mis en œuvre en réponse à la pandémie. Afin de faciliter le partage d’innovations pédagogiques de haute qualité et d’élaborer des recommandations pour l’Université au-delà de la pandémie, la rectrice mettra sur pied un groupe de travail collégial sur l’avenir de l’apprentissage à l’Université York. De plus amples informations à ce sujet seront communiquées prochainement. Les collègues qui souhaitent y participer doivent contacter directement le bureau de la rectrice.

À court terme, vous trouverez ci-dessous quelques rappels importants concernant le trimestre d’hiver :

  • Toute modification du calendrier des cours pour l’hiver doit être soumise aux bureaux respectifs du doyen/de la doyenne ou du principal au plus tard le 27 octobre.
  • L’accord du doyen/de la doyenne, du principal ou d’une personne désignée est requis pour tout niveau de cours en ligne ou à distance qui augmente de plus de 15 % par rapport à ce qui était offert par l’unité ou le programme avant la pandémie.
  • Avec l’appui du Sénat, la planification est en cours pour augmenter encore plus les espaces d’étude pour les étudiants et étudiantes, pour améliorer le soutien technique dans les salles de classe et les supports d’enseignement pour les chargés de cours et pour renforcer les mesures de santé et de sécurité de l’Université sur le campus, notamment celles concernant le dépistage quotidien et le port du masque.
  • Les membres du corps enseignant qui souhaitent demander des adaptations pour des raisons médicales ou familiales pour le trimestre d’hiver doivent contacter le bureau de leur doyen/doyenne/principal ou la division HSWEB.

Comme toujours, les directives du gouvernement de l’Ontario, du médecin hygiéniste en chef de l’Ontario et du Bureau de santé publique de Toronto continuent d’orienter nos plans. Si les directives de ces autorités changent, nous adapterons nos plans en conséquence, y compris en rétablissant des mesures d’urgence supplémentaires au besoin.

Je tiens à vous remercier une fois de plus pour votre engagement continu à maintenir une communauté de soins sur les campus de York cet automne et pour continuer à utiliser quotidiennement l’outil YU Dépistage pour dépister les symptômes de la COVID-19. Veuillez continuer à visiter le site Better Together pour les dernières nouvelles.

J’ai hâte de voir davantage de membres de la communauté de York sur nos campus cet hiver.

Sincères salutations,

Rhonda Lenton
Présidente et vice-chancelière

York improves in several categories in Maclean’s 2022 University Rankings

Two students in front of Vari Hall

Right The Future is more than mere words; it reflects how our students, faculty, instructors and staff come together every day, sharing their knowledge, experience and skills to drive positive change in our local and global communities. What we do is who we are. And now, thanks to the collective effort of many, others are taking notice.

Students in front of Vari Hall 2021

As captured in the newly released Maclean’s 2022 University Rankings, York University has been successful in advancing our vision to provide a high-quality education at a research-intensive university informed by a clear set of core values. The rankings highlight solid progress in several important areas, including an impressive sixth-place ranking against all other comprehensive universities in Canada for the second consecutive year. 

Despite the complex challenges presented by the global pandemic, the rankings reflect York’s sharp focus on empowering our community to build a better future. Guided by the University Academic Plan 2020-25, York is on a path for continued success in strengthening our impact on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and advancing our strategic priorities – 21st-century learning, knowledge for the future, from access to success, global engagement, working in partnership and living well together.

“York’s sixth-place ranking as one of Canada’s top comprehensive schools confirms to our students, and the broader community, that York is providing the high-quality learning experience and research needed to produce the talent and innovation that will keep Canada competitive,” said President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton. “Over the past year and a half, York has demonstrated that our reputation for relevant programming, critical inquiry, scholarship, knowledge translation and internationalization extends well beyond our campus walls.”

York’s rankings are up in key priority areas, including the national Reputation category, where we climbed two spots to 18 out of 49. The Reputation score is comprised of the following three categories, and York showed improvements over last year in all of them:

  • 13 out of 49 in the Leaders of Tomorrow category (up three spots);
  • 17 out of 49 for Highest Quality (up five spots); and
  • 20 out of 49 for Most Innovative (up one spot).

As a community, we are tackling complex global issues and preparing students for long-term success. This commitment is reflected in the Student Satisfaction section (Comprehensive University category), where there are noteworthy achievements, with York up two spots in the Mental Health Services category, up three spots in Promoting Indigenous Identity and up five spots in Steps to Prevent Sexual Assault.

Individuals drawn to York come inspired to drive positive change and are inspired by each other to do more. Many of our students pursue opportunities to strengthen their impact in their local communities and around the world, facilitated by the entrepreneurial activities and experiential education available in their programs. Looking forward, the University will continue to meet the changing needs of our students and of society through leading scholarship and research, creative new programming, and flexible learning options offered across our multiple campuses and in collaboration with partners in the private and public sectors. Together, we will relentlessly pursue our shared commitment to enhance the well-being of the communities we serve. 

There is much to be proud of and – importantly – more work to do.

Seminar offers instructional strategies to support science students’ mental health

image shows a class in the Curtis Lecture hall

An increasing number of post-secondary students are experiencing emotions such as anxiety in response to academic and non-academic stressors. On Oct. 19, a special seminar presented by the Faculty of Science will discuss anxiety and other emotions in learning.

The role of psychological stress in learning and cognition is an active area of investigation in neuroscience, psychology, medicine and education. Stress influences attention, decision speed, memory formation and recall. It is well established that worrying thoughts and feelings that present as test anxiety serve to reduce students’ cognitive capacity that is required to show what they know on tests.

Jaclyn Stewart
Jaclyn Stewart

Jaclyn Stewart, associate professor of teaching in the Department of Chemistry and the deputy academic director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology at the Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia (UBC), will present a special talk on the topic of stress and students. Her talk will be delivered online on Tuesday, Oct. 19 at 2 p.m. All are welcome to attend this presentation, which will be held via Zoom at

Stewart’s research with organic chemistry learners indicates student anxiety correlates strongly with increased feelings of shame and hopelessness, and weakly with decreased grades, strategic learning behaviours, perceptions of homework value and persistence. Encouragingly, supportive teaching practices can promote students’ emotional health and quality of life. Her talk will discuss strategies to foster social connection, learning motivation, and perceptions of learning in large and small science classes. Designing courses with emotions in mind allows for students to remain hopeful in the face of challenges and persist in working toward their learning goals.

Stewart has a BSc degree in honours chemistry, a MSc in wood science and a PhD in educational psychology. She is passionate about helping students learn to use research-tested study strategies and supporting faculty to adopt evidence-based instructional methods. Her current research interests include investigating how emotions influence learning from feedback, learning assessment, and equitable and inclusive teaching. She is a member of the inaugural UBC Equity and Inclusion Scholars Program.

Event offers faculty a chance to learn about Academics Without Borders

FEATURED Global Health

Academics Without Borders and York International are co-hosting an information session on program opportunities, Tuesday, Oct. 12, between 10: 30 a.m. and 12 p.m. ET.

Academics Without Borders’ mission is to help people in the developing world realize their dreams through higher education because education is the key to a flourishing society. Projects undertaken by Academics Without Borders involve the full range of university activities from expanding and improving existing institutions and programs to helping create new ones.

York University faculty members are invited to join the Oct. 12 information session, which will offer an overview of Academics Without Borders programs and opportunities; information about it’s Strengthening Engineering Education and Research (SEER) Initiative; testimonials from Academics Without Borders’ partners and volunteers on their program experience; and, information about ways to get involved with Academics Without Borders as a York faculty member.

To view the full agenda, click here.

In addition to presentations from Academics Without Borders’ Executive Director Greg Moran and Corrie Young, associate executive director, projects & networks, Professor Marina Freire-Gormaly from York’s Lassonde School of Engineering will be sharing her experience co-leading an volunteer project in Uganda (see this YFile article for a snapshot of her Academics Without Borders experience).

York International looks forward to seeing faculty at this engaging and informative event. To register, use this link:
Please share widely.

SEEC program funding to boost immigrant skills training

laptop webinar computer virtual

The Schulich Executive Education Centre (SEEC) at York University will help unemployed and underemployed immigrants to acquire project management skills thanks to a $400,000 joint agreement with partner organizations and Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Labour and Skills Development.

The Immigrants Working Centre (IWC) of Hamilton will collaborate with the Schulich Executive Education Centre and partner McGraw Hill to develop and deliver a suite of skills development activities for 80 recent immigrants, focusing on employment in manufacturing supply chain operations.

“This initiative is a perfect fit for our capabilities as custom training providers and learning designers,” said Rami Mayer, executive director of SEEC at the Schulich School of Business. “We are pleased to work with our partners in this effort and provide an important impact for clients of the Immigrants Working Centre so that they may be able to upgrade their skills, integrate better into Canadian society and thrive. I look forward to creating a meaningful program for those seeking to learn project management as it applies to the manufacturing and supply chain sector.”

The program is part of the ministry’s $115-million Skills Development Fund that will enable market-driven solutions and unlock the economic potential of skilled trade and broader workforce development initiatives to facilitate economic recovery.

“This project will also help a sector that was hard hit by COVID-19 to recover faster.”

Elena Caprioni, SEEC associate director

SEEC will support the Newcomers in Supply Chain Operations (NSCO) project by developing a suite of online resources to support recent immigrants facing multiple barriers to economic participation and sustainable, living-wage work. The project will create an opportunity for internationally educated individuals to enhance and apply their skills in the local economy and to fill specific workforce gaps related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are excited to be part of this project that will not only help with the post-pandemic recovery but also allow us to showcase SEEC’s capabilities to develop learning programs that directly help educated newcomers find work,” said Elena Caprioni, SEEC associate director. “This project will also help a sector that was hard hit by COVID-19 to recover faster.”

The program aims primarily to serve unemployed and underemployed newcomer job seekers in Hamilton, Ont., and the surrounding area, as well as the Halton and Niagara regions and Brant County. While the program will be delivered remotely, the project will maintain a regional focus to respond to the local labour market context and enable local job development activities towards employment outcomes for participants.

The Immigrants Working Centre delivers innovative models of integrated, employment-focused settlement and language programming to support immigrants’ success in a just and supportive Hamilton.

More information is available on SEEC’s offerings for organizations.

OsgoodePD earns award for innovation in teaching and learning

handshake and books

Osgoode Professional Development (OsgoodePD) has been recognized for its innovative execution in converting a historically in-person, skills-based, learn-by-doing program into an online format.  

The annual Intensive Trial Advocacy Workshop (ITAW) earned the Award of Outstanding Achievement in the Technology category for the 2021 Association of Continuing Legal Education’s (ACLEA’s) Best Awards. ACLEA is the international association for continuing education devoted to improving the performance of continuing legal education (CLE) professionals around the world.

The award recognized innovation in teaching and learning applied to the OsgoodePD program during the pandemic, when the 41st annual ITAW was reimagined in a virtual format.

Osgoode Professional Development (OsgoodePD)’s Annual Intensive Trial Advocacy Workshop (ITAW) won the Award of Outstanding Achievement in the Technology category for the 2021 Association for Continuing Legal Education (ACLEA)’s Best Award
Osgoode Professional Development’s annual Intensive Trial Advocacy Workshop won an award for its innovative approach to teaching and learning

ITAW is a six-day learn-by-doing trial advocacy program that brings together a group of more than 100 instructors and guest speakers, all active members of the bench and bar and trained in teaching oral advocacy. When the in-person event was cancelled due to the pandemic, the OsgoodePD team embraced the opportunity to bring it to the many litigators who depend on the program in a virtual format.

Ensuring the design of the program kept ITAW’s core elements, the program transitioned to online in only a few months, requiring the team to leverage its resources in new and creative ways. OsgoodePD staff and faculty had to be trained in online learning and the use of technological platforms, and equipment had to be repurposed so that ITAW could be run remotely.

Offering the program with a blend of asynchronous elements gave participants the flexibility to learn at their own pace, in any space. The online format also increased accessibility to those outside of Toronto, and made this a viable program for sole practitioners and smaller firms.

ITAW participants gained invaluable experience in the practicalities of trial advocacy, and were able to practise their trial advocacy skills on digital platforms that have taken on increased importance during the pandemic. In this sense, the program prepared participants to be effective advocates in the new world of digital trial advocacy. Furthermore, participants received an electronic portfolio of their performances to allow them to further review and reflect on their skills development post-program.

“This was an excellent course that will certainly have an impact on my practice. I cannot recommend it enough,” said program participant Dianne Jozefacki, Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP. “You receive invaluable feedback on performing direct and cross-examinations and opening and closing statements, which are key skills that all lawyers who want to be oral advocates must master. I know that I will be a better lawyer for taking this course.”

Learning from this, OsgoodePD has used this innovation to transition other interactive CLE programs online, optimizing the use of digital platforms like Zoom to deliver skills-based CLE in an effective and engaging way.

Due to the success of the online ITAW, the 2021 the program was considerably scaled up and sold out with an extensive wait-list.

“ITAW is a valuable course for new and senior calls alike,” said participant Samira Ahmed, justice for children and youth. “The faculty, lectures and on-your-feet learning will leave you with new confidence and strategies for successful trial advocacy.”

York University’s OsgoodePD offers a broad and flexible range of interdisciplinary graduate-level and continuing education legal programs to professionals with and without law degrees.

Welcome to the September 2021 issue of “Innovatus”


Welcome to the September 2021 issue of “Innovatus,” a special issue of YFile devoted to teaching and learning innovation at York University.

“Innovatus” is produced by the Office of the Associate Vice-President Teaching & Learning in partnership with Communications & Public Affairs.

Featured in this issue:

Welcome back to campus!
Professor Will Gage, associate vice-president teaching and learning, offers a warm welcome back to campus and introduces some new initiatives his office is pursuing. Read full story.

York University’s groundbreaking Academic Innovation Fund turns 10
York University’s Academic Innovation Fund celebrates an important anniversary this year. The program has promoted exceptional innovation in teaching, learning and the student experience and it continues to grow and thrive. Read full story.

Hyflex pilot tests seamless remote participation in courses
As Canada begins to look beyond the pandemic, educators have been pondering what shape education will take at universities. One option is a hyflex model of course delivery, which combines in-class and online instruction, delivered concurrently. Read full story.

Team tasked with reimagining course delivery
A small, multidisciplinary team has been hard at work exploring new ways to enhance online courses and the experiences of instructors, students and administrative staff. They’ve developed an innovative course design concept known as the perpetual course model. Read full story.

York University’s Teaching Commons is always evolving
Courses offered by the Teaching Commons are generally asynchronous and allow busy faculty, course directors and teaching assistants to use the eClass environment to work at their own pace. Read full story.

Faculty, course directors and staff are invited to share their experiences in teaching, learning, internationalization and the student experience through the “Innovatus” story form, which is available at

Welcome back to campus!

YFile Featured image VARI hall

The Office of the Associate Vice-President (AVP) Teaching and Learning, in partnership with colleagues across the University and in every Faculty, is focused on many new initiatives for the 2021-22 academic year, including micro-credentials and digital badges.

By Will Gage, associate vice-president teaching and learning

Are you excited? I am. I can’t wait to be back on campus! I have really missed the energy of the place: randomly bumping into people I’ve known for years while I grab a coffee in York Lanes or while I walk across campus to a meeting; the students – oh, the students, and the energy they bring to campus. But I’m trepidatious, too, like you might be. Perhaps none of us have ever gone through something like this extended period away from campus and then a return. We’re all going to do our best, but even a “normal” September can be stressful; this one is different.

Will Gage
Will Gage

I’m reminded this morning that many of our students and new faculty and staff colleagues have never been to our campus before. I’m reminded that it is so important that we are collectively kind and welcoming to everyone. “Kindness is the new normal,” and you can read more about that here. What small act of kindness can you extend to someone on campus, someone in your lecture hall, someone on your screen?

Clearly, a safe and successful return to campus is paramount. But we’re also thinking about the future and working to make sure that we can provide our students with the world-class experience for which we are recognized. The Office of the AVP Teaching and Learning, in partnership with colleagues across the University and in every Faculty, will be focused on a number of initiatives this year. In no particular order, one initiative is focused on micro-credentials and digital badges. No doubt you’ve heard something about micro-credentials. People are talking about these across the province and all around the world. I will be talking more about micro-credentials this year as we work hard to figure out how these small sets of courses and experiences can augment our degree programs and, critically, how micro-credentials can be used as a mechanism to increase accessibility to higher education for those who might not otherwise engage.

We continue to see experiential education grow and grow in every corner of the University, at Keele and at Glendon, thanks to the work of our colleagues in the YU Experience Hub, the Teaching Commons, and each and every Faculty. I’m very excited, too, to be working with the teams who are creating the new programs for Markham Campus. Experiential education is a central feature of every new program. And I’m very excited to have the opportunity to work with Lucy Fromowitz and the Division of Students as we seek to create a seamless experience for students in Markham. Integration between curricular and programmatic experiential education, essential skills development and career preparedness can be a feature of the degree programs, laddered into the students’ experience progressively across their four years of study.

Of course, the Academic Innovation Fund will be announced soon and, as was the case last year, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will feature prominently. This year, alignment with the SDGs in some way will be a requirement for every Academic Innovation Fund proposal. In this way, York University can help to make meaningful change affecting some of the world’s most challenging issues. Stay tuned, as there will be more to follow on this.

There is so much more we could talk about right now, but the last item I want to mention and leave you with is that we are in the process of searching for and hiring a new educational developer to work in the Teaching Commons to support our instructors across the University with Indigenization and decolonization of curriculum. This is a critical new hire in supporting all of our colleagues in creating more inclusive education and a more equitable community.

This is an exciting year. Without a doubt there are going to be challenges. There are going to be massive successes, too. Welcome back to campus. I can’t wait to see you!

York University’s groundbreaking Academic Innovation Fund turns 10

A hand clasps balloons

York University’s Academic Innovation Fund celebrates an important anniversary this year. The program has promoted exceptional innovation in teaching, learning and the student experience, and it continues to grow and thrive.

By Elaine Smith, special contributor

A photograph of York's President
Rhonda Lenton

Bring on the balloons, the streamers and the cake for York University’s Academic Innovation Fund (AIF), which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The AIF, overseen by the Office of the Associate Vice-President of Teaching and Learning, financially supports projects that advance York University’s priorities in terms of teaching, learning and the student experience, allowing faculty to experiment and innovate in new and creative ways, both in teaching and in pedagogy. Its creation was spearheaded by a team that included President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton, who was vice-provost academic at the time.

“I am delighted to be celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Academic Innovation Fund,” said Lenton. “By supporting groundbreaking approaches to teaching and learning, including technology-enhanced learning, and facilitating increased access to fundamental student success programs and international perspectives that extend around the world, the AIF continues to provide our faculty and course directors with the resources they need to push pedagogical boundaries and enhance the student learning experience, solidifying York’s reputation as an innovative, progressive and forward-thinking institution dedicated to teaching excellence.”

Will Gage
Will Gage

The AIF was also a means of elevating and celebrating teaching and learning in the eyes of the York community, said Professor Will Gage, associate vice-president teaching and learning.

“It showed how committed the University is to teaching and learning and provided leadership to the higher education world around teaching and learning,” Gage said. “When AIF began, our early investments paid dividends in a number of different ways, including helping faculty members advance their priorities, putting a focus on technology-enhanced learning, and creating champions of teaching and learning among the faculty, who served as role models for their colleagues.”

In fact, a report by York’s Institute for Social Research validated the importance of AIF, noting how impactful it was in furthering innovation in pedagogy and curriculum.

Provost and Vice-President Academic Lisa Philipps has seen the AIF continue to flourish and believes it sends “an important signal to faculty that at York we have an aspirational culture around teaching and we value the effort and creativity of our faculty in developing new, high-quality learning experiences for our students.” 

Lisa Philipps
Lisa Philipps

A number of projects that date back to the early days of the AIF are now fixtures at the University: the Cross-Campus Capstone Classroom (C4); globally networked learning (GNL); YU Start, the transition program for incoming students; SPARK, the Student Papers and Academic Research Kit; and an e-learning program from the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design (AMPD) that connects students to the community. The originators of these programs are enthusiastic about the effect that the fund has had in making these projects possible.

Franz Newland
Franz Newland

“The funding makes a huge difference,” said Franz Newland, an associate professor at the Lassonde School of Engineering and one of the creators of C4. “It really enables us, because it pays for things that make innovation possible. Innovation around teaching and learning requires a community of engaged, interested people and AIF is a mechanism to bring them together.”

Danielle Robinson, co-creator of C4 and an associate professor at AMPD, said, “There is no way that C4 could have been launched without the AIF. It gave the program legitimacy and a vote of confidence that amplified its impact across the community, not to mention the financial resources required. Students have directly benefited, because C4 is designed as a personal and professional journey of self-discovery for them.”

Globally networked learning “began as a provost-driven initiative in 2015 with a three-year AIF grant​ that allowed the GNL initial team to work closely with students, faculty and senior administration at both York campuses to inform and train on best GNL practices around the world,” said Dominique Scheffel-Dunand, an associate professor in the Department of French Studies who helped create York’s program.

“York GNL has grown so much that in 2020-2021 alone, more than 600 students – 312 from York and 293 from international partner institutions – have had the opportunity to learn, share perspectives on challenging world-related questions,” added Scheffel-Dunand, who has also taught at the Glendon Campus.

Lara Ubaldi, a member of the team that created YU Start, is appreciative of AIF too. “What a thrill to have an idea and have the University recognize it with funding to help get it started,” said Ubaldi, now director of student advising and academic services. “It makes you feel invested; you can do something to make a change.”

The YU Start program has become an award-winning success.

Danielle Robinson
Danielle Robinson

SPARK also grew out of an early AIF grant. “This was our first real pan-University project,” said Sarah Coysh, digital engagement librarian. “It involved the library, the Writing Department, Learning Skills Services and other groups across the University that supported students. It was an opportunity for us to work together and look at best practices.

“We were one of the first to license such an effort through a Creative Commons licence, something that the AIF afforded us the opportunity to do. It has now been adapted by universities nationally and internationally as a result. We also know that it’s widely used; I hear from faculty if it’s not up to date,” said Coysh.

In addition, SPARK has been translated into French at the Glendon Campus, thanks to a Heritage Canada grant.

Dominique Scheffel-Dunand
Dominique Scheffel-Dunand

At AMPD, faculty members David Gelb, Michael Longford and Judith Schwarz were early adopters of online learning for the arts and pioneers in offering blended studio courses. Their initial grant allowed them to work with a team to build the infrastructure to support online learning across the faculty; develop six large introductory courses, a combination of blended and online; develop best practices for online pedagogies; and nurture a community of practice. They have received subsequent AIF grants to augment these opportunities and establish excellence in media production.

“When the pandemic struck and we had to move fully online, AMPD was prepared to step up to the challenge, offering a full range of support to faculty during that time,” said Longford. “We’re quite proud of that.”

In fact, said Gage, all of the AIF advances “emerged as essential when COVID shut the world down. AIF established a foundation that helped us respond as an institution.”

Karthiga Gowrishanger, program director, teaching and learning strategic initiatives for the Office of the Associate Vice-President of Teaching and Learning, agrees: “AIF innovation helped prepare us to be creative, agile and resilient.”

At York, AIF has become one of the proverbial gifts that keeps on giving.