Teaching Commons pilots Students as Partners initiative

Teachers students celebration

By Elaine Smith

Four students from York University’s Faculty of Education have joined educational developers at the Teaching Commons (TC) to create a new way of working together in partnership.

Students as Partners Teaching Commons

The students – teaching candidates Zainab Chaudhry, Theodora Dobbs and Lauren Wilson, and undergraduate educational studies major Corina Vitantonio – have just completed year-long placements with the Teaching Commons, working closely with educational developers Matthew Dunleavy, Lisa Endersby, and Lianne Fisher to think about how students can operate as partners, rather than as clients, in post-secondary education. Their work will form the foundation for future Student as Partners opportunities at TC, but they also hope that it will serve as a guide for future collaborations between students and staff or students and faculty.

Lisa Endersby
Lisa Endersby
Matthew Dunleavy
Matthew Dunleavy
Lianne Fisher
Lianne Fisher

“When we get student feedback on programs, it’s after the fact and doesn’t speak to their expertise,” Endersby said. “This is a chance to think about how to do it better.”

As the students state in a blog post they authored for TC, “At York, we aim to highlight the importance of student and faculty collaborations and vocalize the idea that within our society various power structures exist that perpetuate inequitable practices. As a united front, we must work together to break down these societal barriers and create meaningful and inclusive practices within our pedagogical work.”

They suggest six concrete ways to incorporate student partnership into teaching practice:

  • resisting client models of education;
  • pedagogical transparency;
  • valuing and centring student experience;
  • active feedback;
  • collaboration in assessment; and
  • self-reflection by everyone involved.

Initially, the idea of being an equal partner to perceived experts was unfamiliar to the quartet.

“I had little experience with the students as partners idea,” said Wilson. “I’m coming from a system where the professors are the experts and being on an equal playing field as an expert in my own lived experience didn’t occur to me. Now, I’ll take with me to my own teaching practice the knowledge that it’s up to me to value students’ lived experience, bring it out and show that it’s valued.”

Theodora Dobbs
Lauren Wilson
Corina Vitantonio
Zainab Chaudhry

Dobbs said, “Even within a course, I often wish I could provide feedback in the moment. It’s more valuable then than during course evaluations.”

Chaudhry noted, “We are programmed to believe in the traditional hierarchy and that’s how I thought. Now, my perspective has changed. Our opinions matter and the faculty can learn from us.”

The students and educational developers collaborated on the research and design of a Students as Partners program framework that will inform future student opportunities at the Teaching Commons.

“We’re designing the program as if it were a course with learning outcomes, and perhaps it will also be a resource for faculty,” Dobbs said. “We’re giving the Teaching Commons a foundation for what the program should be going forward, but it will allow for future students to tweak it. It is a solid place for new students to come in and bridge the gap between themselves and the staff.”

“They gave us control,” said Vitantonio. “It’s cool to know that we had this information in us and it’s appreciated.”

Wilson discovered that the larger themes in Students as Partners apply equally at the university level and the elementary school level where she hopes to practise.

“It’s about valuing the entire student, respecting where they come from and giving the student choice,” she said.

The educational developers are delighted by the collaboration and its outcome.

“The way we envision the program is that the students partner with us to collaborate on the work we engage in with faculty,” said Dunleavy.

Endersby added, “The students’ work is, ultimately, curating and collecting ideas about students as partners to give us a foundation for putting this into practice at the Teaching Commons. We hope to build on this important foundational work by engaging a new group of students to partner with us in piloting these ideas in the fall.”

AIF funds a wide range of teaching and learning projects

Hand holding light bulb with illustration on blurred background

By Elaine Smith

Over the years, York University’s Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) has promoted an inspired shift in teaching, learning, the student experience and internationalization of the curriculum. With the deadline approaching for applications to this year’s AIF, here is an overview of some of the examples of the past projects that received funding.

Will Gage
Will Gage

For Will Gage, York University’s associate vice-president, teaching & learning, the start of the winter term is a sign that it’s time to remind faculty members to submit their applications for Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) grants. And what better way to do so than to share some examples of projects that received grants in the past?

“For more than a decade, the AIF has provided faculty with funding to pilot, develop and test their innovative curricular and pedagogical ideas,” said Gage. “We are proud of the diverse, useful, practical output that has resulted, many of which have been incorporated into the classroom or the student experience.”

For example, an AIF grant is supporting a project related to a topic that is crucial to the University Academic Plan: the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The ‘SDGs-in-the-Classroom” Curricular Innovation Hub is a pan-University, interdisciplinary, scaffolded strategy that aims to infuse the SDGs into more York classrooms more quickly.

Nitima Bhatia and Tracy Bhoola, members of the SDGs-in-the-Classroom Community of Practice, are working under the oversight of Sandra (Skerratt) Peniston, an assistant professor of nursing, to bring this effort to life, thanks to an AIF grant. They led the team that created an SDGs toolkit to make it simple to integrate the SDGs into courses on any subject.

“SDGs do touch on every single discipline, but many people may not realize that, so we want to spread the word across campus,” said Bhoola.

Added Bhatia, “The toolkit has launched, but we are adding resources every day, so it’s a living, breathing resource.”

In time, the toolkit will be located on the hub, which will be home to resources about SDGs, collaboration opportunities and videos created by SDG Curricular Champions. Bhatia and Bhoola are also involved in five workshops being held in conjunction with the Teaching Commons to train faculty to incorporate SDGs into their curricula, and they will be making presentations to the faculty councils about the accessibility and relevance of the tools.

“We really want to get the SDGs into York’s DNA,” said Bhoola.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Robin Sutherland-Harris, an educational developer at the Teaching Commons, has used an AIF grant to develop a speakers’ program for the community of practice that is dedicated to equity, diversity, decolonization and inclusion in teaching and learning. Sutherland-Harris, the project lead, works with co-leads Ameera Ali, another educational developer, and Jessica Vorstermans, an assistant professor of critical disability studies, health policy and equity, to line up speakers for their monthly meetings and set the group’s agenda.

“We launched the community of practice in Fall 2021,” said Sutherland-Harris. “It’s for anyone who deals with teaching and learning at York and we’re always accepting members. We started with 40 people and now have more than 70.

“During our first year, our monthly sessions largely featured members of our community sharing topics of interest or expertise. However, we felt that especially those who are less established or not in the tenure stream were devoting a significant chunk of work to preparing presentations. We wanted to have funding to help support and recognize their labour, and that got us talking about applying for an AIF grant.”

The team plans to apply for a second year of AIF funding to support their monthly lectures and plan for their upcoming May conference.

A partnership between the Schulich School of Business and YSpace is preserving guidance and insights gleaned from York and Schulich alumni in a video database that any faculty member can access. Based on lectures given by these visiting experts, The Entrepreneurial Mindset/Skillset eLearning and Video Database Initiative, offers faculty short clips on myriad topics, such as venture capital and protecting intellectual property, said Chris Carder, executive director of Schulich’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

“Normally, when professors want to use video content for a class, they need to go out and find relevant stories,” said Carder. “Often, however, they are coming from American sources. At Schulich there are so many interviews done and appearances made by York and Schulich alumni and we’re saving it all.

“This program wouldn’t be possible without the AIF grant. I’m grateful that York has such a program that encourages us to push the envelope.”

Another current project, EE With, Not In, focuses on experiential education (EE). Led by Natalie Coulter, director of the Institute for Digital Literacies, and Byron Gray, manager of the TD Community Engagement Centre, this collaborative project supports students in their EE experiences in the Jane and Finch community. It uses a reciprocal approach that is respectful of community knowledge and expertise in the community, rather than being grounded in assumptions and stigmatizations.

Meanwhile, the Collective Inclusive Pathways to Access (CIPA) project is working to increase the success of students with disabilities in work placements. Currently, their access is heavily reliant on an accommodations model predicated on disclosure of a medical diagnosis. Led by nursing professor Iris Epstein, the project will develop a CIPA resource for professionals and those responsible for creating accessible EE. 

The AIF fund allows faculty to exercise their pedagogical creativity. Don’t miss out on this year’s call for applications – check your Faculty’s fast-approaching deadline for submission.

Reading for teaching offers new perspectives and connections  

glasses and pen resting on notebook

By Elaine Smith 

The new Reading for Teaching program offers an informal, collegial space to engage with colleagues from across York University and it is the result of an inspired collaboration between an educational developer and a teaching and learning librarian.

When Teaching Commons educational developer Lisa Endersby and Scott McLaren, teaching and learning librarian, came up with the idea of a Reading for Teaching program, Endersby was looking for ways to continue collaborating with York University Libraries on teaching and learning, while McLaren, who had earned his PhD in the history of the book, was interested in reading communities and their practices and saw an opportunity to see how such a group functioned. The Reading for Teaching program met those goals and many more. 

Reading for Teaching is “an informal, collegial opportunity to engage with colleagues from across campus interested in reading and talking about teaching.” Endersby and McLaren brought it to life pre-pandemic and opened it up to York faculty and staff. Originally, the group met in person, but during the pandemic, the group met online. They hope to return to in-person gatherings soon. 

York librarian Scott McLaren
Scott McLaren

“We draw people from all over the University and every discipline,” McLaren said. “We have faculty from both teaching and research streams, graduate students, post-docs, CLAs and librarians and they all come from different backgrounds. You wouldn’t necessarily think that someone from biology could shed new light on teaching to someone from the humanities, but they do.” 

The group reads books about teaching and meets to discuss them, although the approach has changed over time. 

“We tried to organize around themes and tried to have participants vote on books from a curated shortlist, but we’ve found that reading a common text is the best way to foster engagement,” said McLaren.  

Added Endersby, “The group suggests a topic; Scott can curate suggestions and the two of us pick a book. As a group, we discuss how we want to explore the book together; since they are generally non-fiction, we might look at individual chapters.” 

Lisa Endersby
Lisa Endersby

The program meets four times each term; this winter, the group is discussing How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching by Joshua R. Eyler, a hold-over from last term, given its popularity with the group and the amount of relevant material to discuss. The program’s group generally has 10 people or a few more each term, a size that both facilitators find is conducive to participation and good discussion. Members read the books in varied formats: print, online or as audiobooks. 

“People read as much as they can and come as often as possible,” Endersby said. “If they attend two of the four sessions, we consider that they’ve successfully completed the program.” 

What draws people to Reading for Teaching? There are a variety of reasons, said McLaren. 

“People join to improve their teaching and explore different teaching practices, to experience a sense of community around a common concern and to have a support system,” he said. “It’s a great way to share success and failures in a safe environment.” 

Endersby finds that Reading for Teaching offers people an opportunity to read for professional development with some accountability and to reflect on teaching and take part in reflective conversations.  

“We’re all so busy, we don’t often get to pause and think about what we’re doing,” she said. “I know that personally, I talk about reflection a lot in my work on pedagogy, but I don’t get to do it myself, so this is a learning opportunity for me. I also enjoy hearing various different perspectives; it’s really good learning.” 

McLaren agrees and notes another personal benefit. “I’ve discovered an incredibly rich literature around pedagogy, both fiction and non-fiction; it was quite surprising to me and it’s hard to narrow the selection down to shortlists,” he said.

Other books the group has read include The Slow Professor by Professors Maggie Berg (Queen’s University) and Barbara K. Seeber (Brock University) and the memoir From the Ashes: My Story of Being Homeless, Metis and Finding My Way by York University Assistant Professor Jesse Thistle.

Anyone who would like to join the Reading for Teaching program in exploring their current read is welcome to register. For questions or suggestions about books to read, Endersby and McLaren invite you to contact them. 

How will AI tools such as ChatGPT shape teaching and learning? 

Image shows a computer, chart and international map

By Angela Ward  

ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence (AI) tool that has dominated the headlines of late, has been labelled as a transformational force in academia. How are York faculty harnessing this powerful tool?

Out of all the emerging AI tools, ChatGPT has been the focus lately. The chatbot, developed by OpenAI, interacts with users in a dialogue, answering their prompts with complex responses. Despite the uncertainty that comes with this new technology, it offers exciting possibilities for education.  

Angela Clark
Angela Clark

“We always knew this was on the horizon in the academic integrity world,” said Angela Clark, an academic integrity officer in the Office of the Vice-Provost Academic. “This is a new generation of AI tools that represents a big leap from the AI tools in existence prior to OpenAI releasing DALL-E and ChatGPT last November. We’re still in the beginning stages of learning about what these tools can do and their uses in education.”  

Robin Sutherland-Harris, educational developer in the Teaching Commons (TC) at York University, adds that the use of these tools is already a reality in the working world. “As educators, it makes sense to adapt to these AI tools because students will graduate into this world with AI as part of the landscape. We should think about how we can incorporate them into assessments, strategies and ways that we think about disciplinary writing within academia. AI tools are going to change all of these.  

“I think the process of writing academically will probably shift with the integration of these AI tools into existing software, especially with predictive text completion.” 

Sutherland-Harris is interested in how tools like ChatGPT could help educators reflect on the nature of disciplinary writing and assessments. She said, “I’m excited by the possibilities for thinking about disciplinary writing, thinking about what kind of assessments are robust and how we’re asking students to do what AI is not able to do, such as taking multiple sources in combination and analyzing them for new conclusions.  

“My understanding is that ChatGPT is good at comparing one thing at a time but less adept at using deeper evidence to construct new arguments. How are we building assessments that addresses this, instead of getting bogged down in the mechanics of the writing?” 

ChatGPT can also encourage critical thinking when it comes to fact-checking content in classroom activities since it’s not always accurate with answers and citations. Sutherland-Harris said, “It’s helpful to start with an example text, which can be used to workshop ideas or interrogate what the AI is getting right in terms of a specific thinker, period of history or analysis and ask where the AI is falling short. It gives a useful starting point to push conversations into quite a deep level to really engage with content and discuss how writing should conform to the norms of the discipline, such as English or history.”  

Robin Sutherland-Harris
Robin Sutherland-Harris

Although there are exciting opportunities with AI tools, there are also challenges and concerns within this new terrain. ChatGPT can produce AI-generated essays, programming code and math solutions, which raises concerns about academic integrity.  

“When it comes to academic integrity, there will be some upheaval. It will be challenging as we all adapt to ChatGPT and come up with ways to integrate it into learning. In the short term, there may be more suspicion that students have engaged in academic misconduct. This may lead to more security measures being put in place such as having students write assessments by hand in the classroom or changing assessments from written work to oral. This may happen in order to be cognizant of professors’ time, so they don’t have to scramble to completely restructure how they assess,” said Clark.

In response to ChatGPT, some educators are already changing how they approach assessments and what they’re planning for the semester, said Sutherland-Harris. They are also searching for strategies around course-level policy that can protect academic integrity. Both Sutherland-Harris and Clark agree that this creates an opportunity for open discussion in classrooms, where educators might speak with students in-depth about the ideas they’re presenting or develop a charter with students on the use of academic integrity and AI tools.  

This open communication “engenders trust amongst the learning community,” Clark said. “Given that there are currently no citation guidelines for the content that these tools produce, instructors might even ask students how they think material should be cited.” 

When it comes to ensuring academic honesty, some educators will encourage transparency from students when they submit written work, Sutherland-Harris said. “Professors might ask students if they’ve used any AI or assistive writing technology. What was it and how did you use it? Students might use it to create an outline or draft an introduction before rewriting it. The use of AI for some educators is already being normalized as part of the writing process.”

Reflecting on citations, she notes that there is a gap when it comes to the norms around citing AI. “How do we cite and recognize the use of assistive technologies in the same way we cite other people’s ideas?” 

In terms of what tools like ChatGPT mean for the future, Clark said, “We now have ChatGPT 3.5, which has been shown to make mistakes at times. It can’t really synthesize information from different sources, show evidence of critical thinking and it makes errors when asked to generate programming code or solve math problems. As such, there are ways to detect when it has been used and in the short term, we can maintain our current practices. But GPT-4 will be released soon and who knows what that will bring? It also keeps improving as more people use it, prompting it to ‘learn’ and evolve.”  

“I think the ways that people think about, and structure assessment are already changing and will continue to change,” Sutherland-Harris added. “I wonder about the implications that AI which is good at writing will have on scholarly writing over time, which will affect how we educate students.” 

An upcoming workshop in February will be facilitated by both Sutherland-Harris and Clark to give professors the opportunity to connect on this topic. Instructors who are interested can register here. Different academic integrity resources for instructors and students are in development to help promote more clarity on these tools and their use.   

Workshop series brings SDGs to forefront of teaching and learning

Featured image for stories related to sustainability

A series of one-hour workshops at York University will launch in the new year and share ways in which educators can infuse the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SGDs) into teaching and learning.

Co-developed by York’s Teaching Commons and SDGs-in-the-Classroom Curricular Innovation Hub, The Sustainable Development Goals in Teaching and Learning series launches Jan. 25, 2023 and presents five online workshops.

UN SDG wheel with the 17 SDGs

The series explores how educators might speak to the SDGs through curriculum, teaching practices, course design and assessments. The outcomes are developed to raise awareness of the importance of sustainable development and prepare students with the knowledge, skills and attributes to tackle the world’s greatest challenges.

The workshops, which run from 10 to 11 a.m., are:

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)-in-the-Classroom Curricular Innovation Hub is part of the SDG Teach In, a campaign to put the SDGs at the centre of all stages of education, and across all disciplines. The SDG Teach In, hosted by Students Organizing for Sustainability United Kingdom (SOS-UK), is a student-led education charity focusing on sustainability with a belief that change is urgently needed to tackle the injustices and unsustainability in our world.

The 2023 campaign will run from March 1 to 31, 2023, and encourages educators to pledge to include the SDGs within their teaching, learning and assessment during the campaign and beyond. Educators can pledge to take part now via the SDG Teach in pledge form

Take part in York’s peer assessment pilot project

two computers

This month and next, there are a number of opportunities for York faculty to delve deeper into peer assessment, which involves students giving feedback to their peers based on a rubric provided by their instructor. Faculty can also try out Kritik, one of the online platforms introducing peer assessment into the classroom.

By Elaine Smith

If learning more about peer assessment isn’t on your schedule yet, perhaps it’s time to correct that omission. According to common wisdom, two heads are better than one, and peer assessment is one way for students to discover the value of that maxim – with guidance from their professors, of course.

“We have long known that feedback helps students reach their academic goals,” said Robindra Sidhu, senior research analyst with the Office of the Associate Vice-President (AVP) Teaching & Learning. “Peer assessment is one strategy that course directors are increasingly using to facilitate this.”

Simply explained, peer assessment translates to students giving feedback to their peers based on a rubric provided by their instructor. The goal is to help students produce better work for final submission, whether that means using correct grammar or supporting their conclusions with better evidence.

Peer assessment provides students with a number of benefits, noted Sidhu:

  • the feedback from their peers allows them to make changes to their work as appropriate;
  • students become skilled at giving fair and accurate feedback, and communicate it in a constructive manner; and
  • students have the opportunity to interact and collaborate with their peers, and in doing so have the opportunity to reflect upon their own work.

This month and next, there are a number of opportunities for York faculty to delve deeper into its benefits and to test Kritik, one of the online platforms that they can use to introduce peer assessment into their classrooms. From Nov. 24 to Dec. 8, the Teaching Commons will hold a two-part workshop titled The Peer Review Experience, designed to familiarize faculty with the pedagogy and practice of peer-based learning and to introduce them to the various online platforms available to support them. Meanwhile, the Office of the AVP Teaching & Learning, is inviting faculty members to participate in one of the upcoming onboarding sessions for Kritik, a new peer assessment platform that the University is evaluating.

Yelin Su, an educational developer with the Teaching Commons, says that peer assessment has been used in post-secondary education as an active learning strategy for many years. There is evidence to demonstrate that it is effective in helping students develop critical thinking skills, as well as assisting them in applying the skills they are learning in their courses.

“Many York colleagues are using peer assessment quite successfully, but many more are interested,” Su said. “We have seen this renewed interest due to the pandemic. When faculty were new to online learning, it seemed overwhelming to use an additional technological tool, but after three years of Zoom and eClass, many are ready to go a bit further.

“Currently, York has multiple tools available for free and the TC is there to support faculty in their use. They may need help in setting it up in their course, creating a rubric or deciding how to train students in giving and receiving constructive feedback for learning purposes.”

Sidhu notes that peer assessment platforms like Kritik are simply tools for teaching students, helping them learn to give and accept feedback and to interpret the rubric for evaluating others. They also require thinking more deeply about the course content and “offer a reality check on the quality of their work.” Kritik, for example, tracks students on their skill in creating work, evaluating the work of others and giving feedback. Its features include the ability for students to view each evaluator’s comments and the option of bringing comments to the attention of the instructor if they believe they are unfair. Faculty can also reward students for participating in the evaluation process.

Will Gage, AVP of Teaching & Learning, is eager to obtain faculty feedback on Kritik’s efficacy during the year-long pilot project. “Before we invest significant resources in this platform, we want to spend some time and effort to determine whether it’s effective in enhancing student learning, and also whether instructors derive benefit and find it helpful in their courses.”

Why not be among the growing number of faculty who are engaging their students in peer assessment? Join the Teaching Commons and other faculty to learn more about how to use peer assessment in teaching and Kritik. Faculty can also review the introductory Kritik sessions held at York University in August. YouTube recordings for STEM and for faculty overall are available to view.

Teaching Commons event brings new light to assessment options


By Elaine Smith

A recent Teaching Commons event titled “Why Does Assessment Matter Anyway?” brought together 40 York faculty members and staff this summer to discuss assessment and take the opportunity to view it differently.

Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier
Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier

“We wanted to consider alternative assessment methods that view it as a tool for learning and a way to help students demonstrate understanding that is more real world,” said Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier, director of the Teaching Commons (TC) at York University. “In addition to the usual final exam or essay, there are methods that are more flexible so that students can more easily navigate what they need to do to be successful in a course, approaches such as flexible deadlines.”

The TC staff introduced a series of video interviews with faculty focused on assessment topics and other online resources – short videos and webinars – topics such as assessment design and a toolkit for undertaking an open-book exam. Valerie Florentin, for example, who teaches in the School of Translation at Glendon College, discussed her use of ungrading, a technique of self-evaluation with reference points. Florentin has a frank discussion with the students about what she is trying to measure when assessing their performance and assigning a grade. Then, she provides criteria and offers some coaching as they assign themselves a fair grade. It is a method she has tried both at Glendon and at the Université Laval, and she will do so again this fall to be able to compare and contrast the outcomes.

Merv Mosher, a long-serving, teaching stream faculty member in the School of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in the Faculty of Health, took a combined mastery grading and specification approach toward evaluating students in his large lecture/lab courses. Mosher said he was tiring of having students worrying endlessly about their grades and was frustrated that they were more concerned about the grade than the course content.

“Teaching Commons convinced me that there are other ways to do things,” he added.

With mastery grading, he set an achievable bar for his students, but allowed them multiple attempts to reach it (i.e., master the information). For instance, each of the weekly quizzes he gave required an 80 per cent in order for the mark to count; they had two additional tries for each quiz.

“The mastery approach is telling students, ‘I’m not interested in average work,’” he said. “I wanted the students to stay current with the material and I wanted them to demonstrate an understanding of the material.”

He employed specification grading for labs, providing students with sample lab reports that demonstrated exactly what they needed to create and submit, removing the guesswork from the experience.

The TC session also included an opportunity for participants to discuss what mattered to them with regard to grading. The conversation touched on issues such as equity, grading at scale for larger groups; academic integrity when students have more freedom (e.g., online tests); and formative learning.

Will Gage
Will Gage

Maheux-Pelletier called the session “very engaging” and noted that educational developers are available for one-on-one consultations with faculty who wish to implement such practices. She also issued an invitation to faculty to join a community of practice called the Assessment Evolution Working Group that she co-chairs with Will Gage, associate vice-president, teaching and learning. It meets every six weeks or so and focuses on assessment, deep learning and thinking about knowledge in a deeper manner – perhaps moving toward a competency-based model.

“The last couple of years when we were teaching remotely triggered conversations about assessment and how it could be done differently,” she said. “A competency-based model may be a good way to address equity and inclusion, since students can be co-designers of assessment tasks and equity components can be built in.”

Gage agreed, noting that it was important to know about other methods of assessing learning.

“We tend to stick with exams because they are what we know,” he said. “If we know there are other methods that are just as good or better at demonstrating competence or mastery and they are more accessible to students, then that is useful information.”

Gage said that he would like to see two outcomes from further consideration of assessment:

  • All faculty members having the opportunity to learn more about non-traditional ways of doing assessment; and
  • Seeing York acknowledged for breaking new ground and making these methods part of the way faculty teach and help students succeed.

“Our working group has been talking about what courses could look like and what faculty members are doing that is flying under the radar,” he said. “I don’t expect everyone to do these things, but I want everyone to have the opportunity to learn about them, regardless of academic discipline.

“These different approaches to assessment have the potential to be a real game-changer for post-secondary education.”

To join the community of practice, contact Maheux-Pelletier by email at gmp@yorku.ca.

Teaching in Focus helps faculty to get back in the groove

the word teach spelled out in scrabble blocks

By Elaine Smith

Rest, Renew, Revitalize was the theme of the annual Teaching in Focus (TiF) conference at York, and the May 11 and 12 event began as it meant to proceed: by showing faculty members how to take a break and re-energize themselves.

Professor Harvey Skinner’s keynote address had faculty members out of their chairs, doing some Qi Gong deep breathing and some standing exercises that were a way of relaxing the mind and giving the body the energy it needed to focus on the day’s activities. The 10-minute regimen is something that Skinner, a professor of psychology and global health and the founding dean of the Faculty of Health, has done to begin his classes and the difference it made was palpable.

Professor Harvey Skinner
Harvey Skinner

“I believe in interactive experiential learning,” said Skinner as he led the exercises. “Nature never hurries us, yet we’re always trying to rush. We need to be concerned about our overall wellness. We need to be at ease, energized and focused for learning, yet we’re being bombarded by all kinds of news that leaves students feeling depressed about the future.”

He works actively to offer an antidote to these depressed feelings, partly through the energizing regimen, partly through creating connections among the students. In addition to the regimen, Skinner does a quick Zoom poll of his students to see how they are feeling each day and builds in time at the start of his classes for students to meet – virtually or in person – in pairs so they can get to know each other. During his classes, he incorporates learning circles for group work that counts for 30 per cent of a student’s grade and he also requires them to create a personal plan for their health and development, appropriate in a psychology course.

Skinner offered tips for colleagues who wanted inject renewal and revitalization into their own classes, including:

  • Begin with yourself – you can’t heal others unless you have a way of rejuvenating yourself.
  • Break your online presentations into chunks of no more than 10 minutes and every 30 minutes, make time to stretch and stand.
  • Listen to your students; take the pulse of what they are thinking a feeling and make adjustments.
  • Take risks; step out of your comfort zone and be inspirational.

Skinner’s keynote kicked off a conference that was held virtually this year, organized by the Teaching Commons (TC) under the aegis of Professor Will Gage, associate vice-president, teaching and learning, who jokingly introduced the speaker as “my much older brother.”

Will Gage
Will Gage

Gage also welcomed the attendees, saying, “This conference is a wonderful opportunity to discuss innovations in teaching and learning at York University and elsewhere, including many of the lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic. It’s an excellent chance for us to share our stories, celebrate new ideas and look back at a challenging time.”

The virtual format allowed the TC to open the conference to others outside York University, and the event drew 114 attendees over the two days, 15 of them from other institutions such as Kings College London (U.K.), Carleton University in Ottawa and Bow Valley College in Alberta. Attendees could choose from among numerous concurrent sessions over the two-day period.

A number of sessions focused on restorative practices used in the classroom, including a talk by Jessica Vorstermans, an assistant professor of critical disability studies, titled “Centering Care and Access in a Large Undergraduate Course.” Vorstermans discussed the importance of building trust with the students, noting, “You can’t build access from a policing mindset.” Her suggestions for making the course more accessible to students included offering deadline flexibility by offering a seven-day extension automatically upon request, no questions asked; giving feedback in advance of a major assignment by reviewing the students’ outlines; and offering assessment in multiple formats so the students could choose something that suited their skills: infographics, podcasts, videos, etc.

Professor Jessica Vorstermans
Jessica Vorstermans

“You need to build classrooms that are sites of liberation, not control,” said Vorstermans.

Teaching in a Time of Exhaustion was another topic addressed by a variety of faculty members. For example, Ken McBey, a professor of human resources, gave a talk titled, “Team Teaching in Synchronous Online Courses,” a presentation he created with his colleague, Professor Len Karakowsky. Having taught online for years, the pair have discovered keys to team teaching success, including: compatibility among team members; a shared commitment to course success; support from the institution/Faculty; and a desire to ignite the students’ thirst for knowledge.

The third recurring topic was called Welcome to My Classroom, detailing a success approach used by a faculty member. Noah Lemish, an assistant professor of music, told attendees how he worked remotely with a virtual jazz ensemble, “radically reimagining” the course to involve the students in the production aspect of musical performance. The five members of the ensemble learned to record online and produce a combined sound using layered recording and tracking, techniques that have been used in the recording industry for decades. In addition to developing those skills, Lemish found other unexpected outcomes, such as growth in the students’ abilities to focus on details, listen critically and cultivate musicianship. He was so pleased that he plans to incorporate production into the course even when it is taught in person.

Susan Dion
Susan Dion

On the second day of the conference, attendees were invited to visit Kumospace, a virtual cafeteria, to expose themselves to new technology. Afterward, Faculty of Education Professor Susan Dion, associate vice-president, Indigenous initiatives, and her PhD students offered a closing keynote address that shared insights into the need for teaching spaces that are informal and adaptable and discussed ways to make spaces better for collaboration.

Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier, director of the Teaching Commons, said that, as always, participants came away inspired by the creativity and dedication of their colleagues and the ideas about reframing the teaching-learning relationship.

“The intent is to have participants leave TiF thinking about what they have learned that they can adapt to their own classrooms to make them inviting places that are so important to allow for conversations to happen,” said Maheux-Pelletier.

“This has been my favourite TiF conference ever,” she added. “The student focus brought a different tone to the event that was compassionate and heartwarming.”

Success of hyflex pilot is a collaborative effort

An image of a women using a laptop to video conference with another woman

Beginning in the Fall 2022 term, faculty members will be able to code their courses with “HYFX” to indicate hyflex mode, meaning that students can take the course either in person or remotely – or both, depending on the day’s demands on their schedules.

By Elaine Smith

The new remote or in-person option for students is the result of a pilot project in hyflex course delivery conducted during the 2021-22 academic year. Several York University faculty members taught their courses in classrooms that were newly equipped with varying levels of technology to allow students to learn either in person or remotely. The pilot offered an avenue for determining what this hybrid hyflex method of teaching might permit for both faculty and students.

Now, faculty members who are interested in teaching hyflex courses can request access to one of the classrooms equipped with the appropriate technology and students will be able to deliberately register for this option.

“Our hope is for students in hyflex courses to have an equitable experience whether they are learning in class or remotely,” said Peter Wolf, the educational advisor who has worked with Will Gage, York University’s associate vice-president of teaching and learning, to bring hyflex classes to York.

Making hyflex a reality didn’t happen overnight and has required collaboration among a number of groups, including the Office of the Associate Vice-President Teaching and Learning, Wolf, the Teaching Commons, University Information Technology, Learning Technology Services and the Office of the University Registrar.

Yelin Su, an educational developer with the Teaching Commons, became involved in hyflex learning when the pilot project got underway.

Yelin Su
Yelin Su

Su supported the pilot from a pedagogical angle, assisting faculty with best practices for hyflex teaching and consulting with them individually if they had questions about improving the course design to be more effective in a hyflex situation. There is also a newsletter for pilot project participants, the Hyflex Times, which provides background on the initiative, theory and new information about best practices – a joint effort by the Teaching Commons, Learning Technology Services and Wolf.

“Hyflex is trendy across North America, so we can learn from each other,” notes Su.

Robert Winkler, an instructional designer, began working with Wolf prior to the pilot’s launch to develop a tool to help faculty determine if hyflex teaching would be a good fit for their courses.

“It’s a brand new format, but it isn’t distinct from other teaching initiatives,” Winkler explains. “It’s pedagogy meeting technology and it’s illustrative of our Teaching Commons mission of combining leading technology with leading pedagogical practice, making them user friendly for all faculty and inviting everyone to try it.”

Robert Winkler
Robert Winkler

Su and Winkler also created a workshop series to introduce interested faculty to hyflex teaching and discuss different ways of doing it.

“We looked at theories and successes elsewhere, since there is a wide range of implementation,” says Winkler, “but in our pilot phase, we have tried to find out what will work here at York. Often, when we talk about implementing a new pedagogical procedure, we focus on what’s normative, but norms aren’t present yet. We are constructing the model.”

Now that hyflex is a teaching option, Su and Winkler are eager to learn from their colleagues’ real-world experience and help them solve any problems that arise.

“We’ll try to come to you with a fusion of pedagogy and technology to make your life easier,” says Winkler.

At UIT, Aladin Alaily, director of client support services together with his audio-visual team, have been busy equipping classrooms so hyflex teaching is possible, working with vendors and installing and testing the equipment. His classroom operations team has been leading demonstrations for faculty members who want to teach in one of the appropriate classrooms. There is also an instructional website.

There are currently three styles of classroom that accommodate some version of hyflex teaching: small seminar rooms that have a sound bar, a speaker, a microphone and a camera; standard rooms with a camera at the rear to physically track the faculty member and relay the images automatically while a ceiling microphone picks up student questions, as well as two screens at the podium, a wireless microphone for the teacher and a sound system; and, finally, a standard-plus room that adds two large reference monitors that make it unnecessary for the teacher to turn their back on the class.

A hyflex classroom at the Keele Campus
A hyflex classroom at the Keele Campus

“It’s a very exciting project and it becomes the footprint for standard rooms, so we’ll put that equipment into future builds so faculty can leverage the technology in any class,” says Alaily. “Hyflex and the need to teach remotely came fairly quickly, but we rose to the occasion and delivered what needed to be done.

“We have a standard set of equipment that we install for a hyflex classroom, but based on feedback, the pilot project and interactions during demonstrations, we’ll adapt to faculty needs.”

Alaily notes that hyflex gives students flexibility and options.

“We always had the ability to record lectures and transmit them through eClass, but now the technology allows for real-time broadcasts so students can choose to attend in person or remotely; it’s their choice.”

Frankie Billingsley, associate registrar and director, student records and scheduling, oversaw the unit that created the new course code for hyflex courses.

“Professors will have the opportunity to assign the HYFX code to any of their courses and we’re making sure on the back end that it is allowed only if the courses are taught in the specified hyflex rooms,” says Billingsley. “We want to avoid assigning the hyflex course code if it’s taught in a classroom without the proper technology. Our structure will allow, however, a professor who teaches in a hyflex-enabled classroom, to choose not to use the technology and, therefore, not to utilize the hyflex course code as a delivery method.”

This summer, Wolf will be evaluating the results of the pilot project to see what insights can be gleaned for the future.

Wolf and Gage are keenly interested in giving hyflex every chance for success.

“York is among the early adopters of this emerging delivery mode and we hope to learn more about it in a rigorous and scholarly way,” says Gage. “The pilot was set up so we could collect data and evidence in order to build expertise collaboratively and constructively. Over time, we hope to create the context wherein students in the classroom and students attending virtually can ‘feel’ like they’re together and can easily collaborate regardless of their location of learning.”

Nomination deadline approaching for President’s University-Wide Teaching Awards

image shows a class in the Curtis Lecture hall

The President’s University-Wide Teaching Awards honour those who, through innovation and commitment, have significantly enhanced the quality of learning for York students. The nomination deadline is Jan. 28.

Four awards are offered each year in the following categories:

  • Full-time tenured faculty with 10 or more years of full-time teaching experience
  • Full-time faculty (tenured/tenure-stream/CLA) with less than 10 years of teaching experience
  • Contract and adjunct faculty
  • Teaching assistants

The purpose of these awards is to provide significant recognition for excellence in teaching, to encourage its pursuit, to publicize such excellence when achieved across the University and in the wider community, and to promote informed discussion of teaching and its improvement. The awards demonstrate the value York University attaches to teaching. Recipients of the awards, selected by the Senate Committee on Awards, receive $3,000 less applicable deductions, have their names engraved on the University-Wide Teaching Award plaques in Vari Hall and are recognized at convocation ceremonies.

Nominators are encouraged to approach the Teaching Commons to explore ways to best highlight the teaching strengths and accomplishments of the nominee. Nominators may schedule a consultation – by phone or Zoom – with an educational developer at the Teaching Commons to discuss the preparation of a nomination package by sending a request to teaching@yorku.ca.   

Only online nominations for the 2022 Teaching Awards, submitted by 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 28, will be accepted.

The President’s University-Wide Teaching Awards criteria and nomination form are available on the Senate Committee on Awards webpage.