Working with CTSI: from Work Study to Videographer

By Wes Adams, Videographer, CTSI

It’s been almost a year now since I started working at CTSI. I began this position a little under a year ago as work-study student with the role of video editor and assistant to the department’s talented Communications Coordinator, Kathleen Olmstead. Other than the exciting prospect of getting some hands-on experience in video production and editing and satisfying the lack of practical applications in my cinema studies program, I really had little idea what CTSI was. As a student of film (double major in cinema studies and political science), especially in a strictly theory-based program, I could not wait to sink my teeth into a project that involved actually planning and creating a visual work as cinema and filmmaking have been passions of mine from a very early age. Over the nine months, my duty in this role has evolved into much more than that, especially in terms of my understanding and appreciation for what CTSI does.

Having had experience as a production assistant, as well as filming and editing projects such as PSAs, promotional videos, and personal short films, I felt that this position would allow me to grow in terms of technical skill. On top of the technical experience I’ve gained, I also feel that the experience of collaborating on projects related to pedagogical practices and research has really opened my eyes to what goes on behind the scenes at the university. The amount of research and effort that goes into improving teaching practices within U of T is something that a small amount of undergrads get to experience or even comprehend. The benefit for a student to experience this backstage view is that it takes the impersonal aspects of an undergrad degree, at such a large institution as U of T, and makes tangible the intangible aspects of how courses are designed and why professors and TAs teach the way they do.

In a similar sense, my role of creating video content that highlights the behind-the-scenes aspects of teaching and learning at U of T makes this hidden process of teaching research and course design accessible to undergrads and faculty alike, which creates a more inclusive atmosphere. Apart from the valuable experience I’ve had applying both my passion for and knowledge in film and capabilities in editing, I’ve also gained a greater appreciation for the education I’m receiving.

What I find most appealing about this position is the ability to creatively fuse a practical medium I have great passion for with an academic field. It is the capability to use an artistic yet accessible medium in order to convey what is typically an inaccessible academic area. Of the many videos I’ve collaborated on with CTSI’s Communications Coordinator I have and continue to enjoy working on the TATP Shorts series, which are short videos featuring a TA elaborating on a teaching strategy, or ‘tip’, that they use in their classroom presented in a colourful, fast-paced, and quick-cutting format. I find that these videos have not only enlightened me in terms of the different pedagogical practices that can be implemented to improve learning, but also have allowed me to improve my own skills as a videographer in terms of attempting to create a work that intellectually stimulates, entertains, and informs. What I like most about this series is that it has given me an opportunity to be more creative in terms of stylistic features and structure while still adhering to coherent, formal features to articulately present the information. I thoroughly enjoy the freedom of creativity, but the necessity for concise and comprehensive information delivery creates a fun challenge.

These past nine months working at CTSI I feel has truly helped me develop stronger critical, academic, and, importantly, technical skills. Importantly, over these past nine months I have developed a greater sense of community at U of T, which appeared in my first year of study to be a somewhat daunting institution. I excitedly look forward to collaborating on future projects and can’t wait to continue to engage in more critical, artistic and creative endeavours with CTSI.

Grand Opening: CTSI, Robarts Library Reference Services and new student study areas

It started with a need for new student spaces. After conducting focus groups, surveys and consultations with students, we knew U of T students wanted study spaces with natural light, comfortable seating, access to computers and wireless networks, and conveniently located to other resources (e.g. books). Thanks to a generous donation by Russell and Katherine Morrison (who have already made significant contributions to St. George campus in the past decade – including Morrison Hall residence at University College), we now have a beautiful new space for study and collaboration for students – and for CTSI and Robarts Library Reference Services, too. On October 2nd, U of T Libraries and CTSI officially opened our newly renovated space that also includes study areas and a computer lab for students.

Mr. Russell Morrison

As the university has changed, Robarts Library has followed suit. Students’ needs change as the community diversifies, technologies evolve and academia grows to encompass more views, more areas of study and, quite simply, more students. These latest renovations reflect that need but as Cheryl Misak, Vice-President and Provost, said, “Of course, this new space is also about teaching.”

We now have two computer labs and the Blackburn Room for training, workshops and events (we included photos of these new spaces in a previous post). All of these rooms have been in full use since the end of August (when CTSI held their Back-to-School workshop series) and staff, instructors and students have all given them high marks. The spaces are flexible (easy to move furniture around to suit workshop needs) and technology is available and accessible (not to mention functional). On the CTSI side, we now have two new rooms for meetings and consultations and a collaboration space for staff to meet, schedule and plan upcoming events and projects.

The architect firm Gow Hastings – as well as everyone else involved in the design and coordination of these renovations – did a marvellous job listening to all our concerns, and our wish list, so that we can all – staff and students alike – enjoy a comfortable and welcoming work environment. And the sunlight, let’s not forget the sunlight! This new space also provides more opportunities for CTSI and Reference Services Librarians to cross paths. Not only is it nice to know your neighbours, we’ve already started a number of projects together simply because we run into each other in the hall and start a conversation. Let the collaborations continue!

The next step – hopefully not too far down the road – is the Robarts Common, a student centre scheduled to be built at the north-west end of the library. The hallway to the centre will extend right from our new space. According to Chief Librarian Larry Alford, “The new five-storey pavilion will become a new face of Robarts, opening up the west side of the building to the street, bring a flood of natural light to the lower floors and making the overall environment more inviting, accessible and productive for students.”

Phrase that describes your favourite learning space

Who supports your learning?This post also appears in the U of T Libraries’ Noteworthy magazine.

My Life is Average (Part 3): How Did I Choose?

by Tian-Yuan Zhao (Music & Electrical and Computer Engineering)

This year, CTSI has worked with students to explore their perspective on learning at UofT. This blog post is the third in a series showcasing a student’s view of UofT, continuing with why he chose his major.

Often times I’ve been asked, “Tian, why did you choose engineering?” and “Why did you choose to go to the University of Toronto”. There are many reasons:

  1. My father had recommended it to me
  2. I was very unsure as to what I wanted to do, but with much deliberation, I heeded his advice since I believed that it embodied both my technical and creative sides of my personality
  3. Economic stability after graduation
  4. I wanted to escape the harsh, cold and bitter winters of “Winnterpeg”, but in actuality, I wanted to escape what truly put the “plain” in the “Plains” of Winnipeg’s sleepiness to the vivacious global city of Toronto
  5. As parents want the best for their children, I want the best for my future, therefore knowing U of T Engineering is ranked number 1 in Canada, I knew I had to be here.

The thing is, I was very foolish, since I hadn’t given my career path much thought, I jumped into electrical/computer engineering without knowing what I was getting myself into. I soon found myself bitter because I hated programming, circuits and anything and everything to do with engineering altogether. I even began asking myself “why did I choose engineering?” I came into university with no plan and that was what bit me in the behind. It wasn’t even the course load that made me hate engineering, it was just material itself. I had no passion for it and that’s what made my first year so very difficult.

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Learning through Current Events: Huge, Immediate and Complicated

In many courses, finding opportunities to incorporate current events into teaching can be a way to engage students by enriching traditional material through application of concepts and approaches to current issues. For example, the “Occupy” phenomenon that began in Fall 2011 provided an opportunity for students to engage with current social, political and economic issues. Some engaged through a call to action: Erin at UpbeaT returned from attending Occupy Wall Street with a desire to keep talking about it, so she sought out a conversation with her Academic Don. She found,

“[i]t was rewarding to hear someone in an academic position at U of T talk candidly about something that feels so huge, so immediate and so complicated.” (Erin Kobayashi, “Occupy Your Academic Don”, October 20, 2011)

A packed crowd at Varsity Stadium.

For those more scientifically- than politically-minded, current events don’t get much more “huge and immediate” than the most recent astronomical event, the Transit of Venus on June 5th. The event was huge in numbers (with some 5,000 people gathered at Varsity Stadium) and collaboration (with the Dunlap Institute, the Department for Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Department of Alumni Relations and the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, and the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection (UTSIC) all involved). Immediacy was to be found in the rarity of the event ( the next transit of Venus won’t take place until 2117), and the addition of a live feed broadcast to the Varsity Stadium screen from UofT’s own 8 foot refracting telescope on the 16th floor of the McLennan Physical Labs building. The event was one-of-a-kind and truly a UofT experience.

Yes, that transimission is coming live from space via McLennan Physical Labs

The Transit of Venus provided organizers with a rich opportunity to engage students in the historical, cultural and scientific impact of the event itself, while broadening outreach to the general public. UTSIC, managed by a group of PhD students from the Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST), worked with the Department of Astronomy to host an exhibit on the scientific instruments used to observe transits in the 18th and 19th centuries.  1830 Bate Gregorian telescope that was available for viewing the transit on June 5. The Dunlap Institute also increased its outreach by distributing pamphlets in multiple language; an Arabic pamphlet increased awareness of the event for a local Islamic school, who hired buses to bring large groups to Varsity Stadium.

Bringing events like these into the conversation with students not only helps bring our teaching material to life, but gives students a memorable experience that serves as a point of reference for their learning that brings their readings and discussion into the present. How many physics instructors will be inspired by the recent discovery of the Higgs boson to strike new conversations with their classes this week about the origins of matter? (It doesn’t get much more “huge” and “complicated” than this one!)  It might seem hard to make room in a packed course syllabus to take time out for the current and unexpected, but when you find excitement in current events, your students will find it too.

“My Life is Average”: A Student’s Perspective

“My Life is Average”
by Tian-Yuan Zhao (Music & Electrical and Computer Engineering)

This year, CTSI has worked with students to explore their perspective on learning at UofT. This blog post is the first in a series showcasing a student’s view of UofT, beginning with what brought him to study at UofT.

There exists an internet meme called MLIA which stands for My Life is Average, but if you were to have ever met me, you would know that my life is far from average.

I was born in Lanzhou, Gansu, China (People’s Republic of) in the fifth day of the fifth month – 1992, moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada when I was 5 years old with my parents, grew up there for most my life – having a forgettable elementary experience, forsaken junior high experience and an unforgettable high school experience, then arriving in Toronto, Ontario, Canada at the age of 18. Which, by the way, I must point out that I went to the same high school as Marshall McLuhan, a famous alumnus of the University of Toronto – “Boundless Vision: Media Prophet ”. Anyway, I’m currently here at the U of T majoring in electrical/computer engineering and minoring in music history and culture. I have an intense and immense love for the arts, as I started playing piano when I was 8 years old, around the same time; I also took up drawing lessons, wrote a lot of fanfiction (fictional stories based on a fandom or more), sang in many choirs in high school, and performed at talent shows, etc. But, equally, I have a deep appreciation for the sciences and mathematics, as I’ve proven to be quite proficient in both. And finally, at around 8 years old, I converted to Christianity.

I chose to attend the University of Toronto for the following reasons: 1) it’s ranked number 1 for Applied Science and Engineering in all of Canada, 2) it’s within the top 20 for the same subject in all of the world, 3) I’ve grown rather tiresome of living in Winnipeg for 14 years of my life consecutively, which leads me to say 4) Toronto’s an alpha global city, which makes it an extremely dynamic place to explore yourself, 5) I wanted a change of pace, scenery and life, 6) I wanted an adventure, 7) living by myself would have been both a challenge and a thrill, 6) the close proximity of Toronto to other major cities in Canada makes it a very transportation friendly place to be, 9) the University of Toronto has Industrial Engineering, whereas the University of Manitoba doesn’t, and 10) the University of Toronto would have been a great launching pad for me to pursue a career outside of not only Winnipeg but Canada.

Ever since my journey here in Toronto began, I can say with all honesty that I don’t regret this choice at all. The strong emphasis on leadership, hyper international atmosphere, and sheer depth and breadth of what this city and university can offer is in simply… Boundless!

Office Hours and Talking to Professors

In conjunction with Student Life, CTSI has been working on a series of videos for students visiting instructors during office hours. On the Student Life side, these videos are a part of their Talking to Your Professors campaign that offers tips and strategies for students who feel shy or uncomfortable (or overwhelmed) about approaching faculty. This information is practical and covers a variety of methods of interaction, including before and after class, social media and email etiquette.

For CTSI, these videos figure into our work on Student-Faculty Interaction. Over the past year, we have highlighted instructors who have found innovative ways to engage with their undergraduate students in our Focus on Faculty profiles and provided resources on effective practices and supporting student faculty interaction. We decided to approach our first topic – office hours and talking to profs – from different angles, starting with some humour…

The video was written and directed by Tyler Blacquiere (who also acts as Christopher Strong), a fourth year U of T student who was working in our office on a work study contract.  We decided that a public service announcement spoof was a great approach to the video – and something that we hadn’t seen before – and Tyler ran with it (even demonstrating a great deal of dedication to the project by watching Sally Struthers commercials in search of material).  All of the faculty members who participated (Barbara Murck, Mark Kingwell, Keren Rice, Shafique Varani and Mike Reid, who jumped in at the last minute to help us out) were generous with their time and are on-camera naturals. We’re still considering whether or not we should release a blooper reel. A lot of very funny stuff was left on the ‘cutting room floor’. (That phrase has little meaning in the digital age but it captures what I mean.)

Our next step was to interview undergraduates and explore some real world scenarios regarding visiting instructors during office hours. We wanted to show positive and negative experiences that students have had with instructors and any advice that they might offer to fellow students. We have a number of these videos prepared and ready to launch but here’s just a taste to whet your appetite.



Focus on Faculty: Engaging Students with Extra Credit Projects

For many chemistry students, organic chemistry is a course that forms the basis of the rest of their program, and can be an intimidating and challenging subject. To Lana Mikhaylichenko and Effie Sauer, however, it is a subject filled with creative potential. So for them, finding ways for students to enjoy organic chemistry was about more than just fun: it was about turning around traditional course anxiety into true engagement with the subject.

When choosing the song assignment, some students create an original song, and others take a Pop song and adapt the lyrics. The major criterion to be satisfied is that the song must relate to a course topic: pi-bonding, nucleophilic reactions and resonance are popular topics to translate. There is now a large enough repository of songs produced that Sauer and Mikhaylichenko can play a different song video for each week of lecture. When students see the clips, “they light up”, says Sauer. “When they realize they’re watching their peers, it’s extra delight.” Word of mouth has travelled within the UTSC community and both Lecturers often hear second- and third-hand comments from students and faculty about the videos.

As a result of the improved engagement with the course material and their faculty, more students say that Organic Chemistry is a course they enjoy, which is what Sauer and Mikhaylichenko were hoping for. For them, the payoff has far exceeded expectations, resulting from a very small change in their curriculum. Mikhaylichenko puts it in terms of seeing teaching as a two-way process that should build relationships. “I didn’t change myself, just the way they see the learning.” Having previously worked with CHM B41, Sauer looks forward to teaching CHM B42 this summer because of the different topics to offer students. “I’ve been blown over,” she says. “I’ve learned that our students are awesome.”

Read more about the CHMB41/42 initiatives, and view more videos at CTSI’s Focus on Faculty.

NMC Horizon Report

by Ryan Green, Educational Technology Liaison, CTSI

The NMC Horizon Report: 2012 Higher Education Edition came out a few weeks ago, and I thought it would be a good idea to put together a quick run down of what it contains. The New Media Consortium and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative identify six technologies they see as having a potential impact on higher education over the next five years. They are divided into three categories based on how long it will be before they could be widely adopted: near-term horizon, mid-term horizon, and far-term horizon. The team behind the report state that it is not a predictive tool, and is meant to highlight emerging technologies with considerable potential for areas of education.

Key Trends
The Horizon report also identifies key trends that they considered to be the drivers of educational technology adoptions over the period of the report. The six ranked trends are:

  1. People expect to be able to work, learn, and study whenever and wherever they want to.
  2. The technologies we use are increasingly cloud-based as notions of IT support are decentralized.
  3. The world of work is increasingly collaborative, driving changes in the way student projects are structured.
  4. The abundance of resources and relationships easily accessible via the internet increasingly challenges us to revisit our roles as educators.
  5. Education paradigms are shifting to include online learning, hybrid learning and collaborative models.
  6. There is a new emphasis in the classroom on more challenge-based and active learning.

Near-Term Horizon – One year or less:

Mobile Apps
The Horizon report identifies two key factors about mobile apps. There are many to choose from and they are inexpensive (compared to desktop software), which allows individuals to economically customize their device (whether smartphone or tablet) to their own interests. Numerous apps are available to support students inside and outside of the classroom. They provide resources for collaborating with other students or to engage with class materials. Many institutions have, or are in the process of developing, their own apps, ranging from communicating breaking campus news and accessing library material to creating custom apps for individual courses or programs. Continue reading

Focus on Faculty: Field Trips

New Toronto condominiums, old New York City tenements and Robarts Library’s recycling bay: these are three things that seem like uncommon places for students to explore, but for Shauna Brail’s Urban Studies students, they are a part of their regular classroom.

INI 437 in New York City, Reading Week 2010 (Photo by S. Brail)

Brail, Director of Experiential Learning and Senior Lecturer at the Urban Studies Program in Innis College, began incorporating field trip events into her courses in 2006, first with INI 437Y, Experiential Learning in Toronto and the GTA, which typically enrols about 20 students.  She wanted to supplement the service component of the course (INI 437Y also includes an internship placement) by bringing her lectures outside the classroom and taking advantage of opportunities both near and far.  Her basic requirements for a field trip opportunity are that it be easily accessible to campus and that it can be completed in the 2 hour window of class time. On every trip, students are given tasks to complete that set up discussion about urban patterns the areas exemplify. Each area is specifically chosen to match one of the four themes in the course.

While it is certainly easier to travel with a small group, Brail firmly believes “you don’t need the 10-person seminar” to make trips work.  In her 100-person course, INI235, Introduction to Urban Studies, she offers a “treasure hunt” in their own backyard. Four-person teams complete tasks on campus to take qualitative and quantitative observations and learn basic research skills. They also learn about campus infrastructure by investigating the recycling processes in Robarts Library, or counting the number of coffee outlets and their locations.

INI 437 2010-2011 at 401 Richmond St, Toronto. (Photo: S. Brail)

Brail’s key piece of advice to fellow faculty wanting to offer field trips is to remain flexible, and establish an open dialogue with students during the course. When she returns to her class next year, she looks forward to the challenges of finding new field sites, because it keeps her thinking: “You have to see yourself as a scholar outside and inside of the class.”

Read more about Brail’s experiences with field trips on CTSI’s Focus on Faculty.

Is Student Engagement Related to Disappointment, or Just a Misunderstanding?

CTSI’s interest in student-faculty interaction stems from it’s significants as a benchmark of student engagement, in the NSSE, or National Survey of Student Engagement (affectionately known as “Nessie”). And, it’s not just for undergraduates. Two similar surveys also measure engagement from students before their first year of University (Before College Survey of Student Engagement, the BCSSE or “Bessie”), and Faculty perceptions of student engagement (Faculty Survey of Student Engagement, the FSSE or “Fessie”). But what do the different surveys suggest about student engagement?

This question was the focus of a recent publication from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), “Disappointment, Misunderstanding and Expectations: A Gap Analysis of NSSE, BCSSE and FSSE”,  by M. Mancuso, S. Desmarais, K. Parkinson, and B. Pettigrew, from the University of Guelph. They compared survey data from the BCSSE, NSSE and FSSE taken at the University of Guelph from 2005-2007, to figure out how much students were disappointed about their experience following their first year, and how strong the misperceptions might be between students and faculty about the student experience.

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