Academic Toolbox Renewal Initiative

When you are thinking of using a new educational technology, do you ask
yourself, does the solution allow me (and my department) to take advantage
of international standards for interoperability and integration, or is it
a completely closed proprietary solution that can¹t connect to anything
else in our Toolbox?

When considering a new teaching tool, the tool should ideally let you
leverage international standards for the interoperability of teaching and
learning tools. Examples should include the Learning Tool Interoperability
(LTI) standard, the IMS Common Cartridge format, the Question and Test
Interoperability (QTI) standard, and the Sharable Content Object Reference
Model (SCORM), etc. In particular, software or solutions delivered through
a web browser should include something called an Application Programming
Interface (API), which would allow other University systems to interact
with the tool. Otherwise, you could end up using all kinds of tools that
don¹t work well together, and which detract from the teaching and learning

Also, many people at the University are particularly interested in
leveraging the benefits of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), and therefore,
the new tool should ideally be operating system-agnostic (i.e., work on
Windows, Apple and Linux computers at the very least), and where
applicable, they should work with all contemporary web browsers (Chrome,
Firefox, Safari, Explorer), and be designed for mobile access (either
through a responsive web interface or multiple-OS-specific apps).

For more on the Academic Toolbox Renewal Initiative, please visit

Group Work By Design – graduating my group work grump

By Kelly Gordon, Assistant to the Directors, CTSI

This past fall I became a student again. After 7 years of “real life”, I slid back into the murky world of choosing courses, writing papers, getting grades, and the one thing I was dreading above all others, doing group work.

Some context – during my undergraduate career I did not raise my hand once to participate in a class discussion. I maxed out the number of correspondence classes I could take while living on-campus (a means to avoid having to do work with anyone else). I avoided taking courses with mandatory tutorials. My reticence stemmed from real life experiences of awkwardly trying to assemble a group, uneven instances of work division and a general feeling of nervousness, anxiety and discomfort.

Even though I could recite the pedagogical benefits of group work, or “cooperative learning” (working at CTSI will do that), I planned to continue my NO group work policy in grad school. The real life positive points to group work remained the Polkaroo of instructional strategies – something I heard people talk about, but never saw manifest in real life.

Three weeks into my first course – I knew something was different. I found myself in a group, and I was excited about our work. My inner design nerd wanted to know why this time felt different and so I uncovered my “group work game changers”:

  1. Having time in class to work with the group! Not only did this give us, a group of busy adults, a chance to work together, but it also gave us time to get to know each other face-to-face.
  2. Learning from other groups through class status reports and check-ins.
  3. Dividing up an assignment already organized into parts. Built in assessment checkpoints, allowed our group to easily balance the division of work and stay on track!
  4. New tools– use of online collaboration tools to reshape how we work together.

It turns out there is design behind group work! Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation breaks down the design of successful group projects using the work of Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1991 to offer practical strategies to architect a group-project built on a foundation of best practices. They offer three main practices: creating interdependence, devoting time to team work skills and building in individual accountability to guide the design of a positive group assignment.

The University of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence takes the design of group assignments one step further and details roles and responsibilities beyond the initial design phase. They deconstruct a group assignment into five stages (preparing, designing, introducing, monitoring and closing the assignment). This framework is helpful as it allows the instructor (designer) to walk through their assignment (design) as the student (user) would experience it. I’m sure we can all recollect a start to a group project that began with an awkward moment of trying to form a group out of a class of strangers. Designing a group selection process is just one of the strategies offered in the Waterloo’s Centre’s phased approach to design.

Finally, while the work of the instructor/designer is essential in creating a positive group project experience, true excellence requires some responsibility and ownership on the student side as well. Charles, our wise beyond years student blogger wrote his own post about group work and spells out 6 practical tips to help you as an individual work better “ensemble”.

As I gear up for another year of course selection, I no longer have the urge to comb through the layers of a course syllabus, scouring the assessments for avoidable group projects. Now, I look for elements of design.  If you think about a course as a road trip, assessments are the planned pit stops on the way. And while a perfect group is never guaranteed, like a well curated playlist, the effort you put in at the start, allows for smooth cruising along the way.


What’s New for U of T Portal?

Now that the May upgrade is complete, we can all enjoy the enhanced features and new tools of the U of T’s Learning Portal. Highlights include My Grade Student View, Teaching Assistants and Graders Assigned as Delegated Graders, and Reconciling Grades. The Anonymous and Delegated Grading function in the Assignment tool allows greater flexibility in assigning roles and responsibilities to teaching assistants or graders. This is also a good opportunity to explore the new and improved Portfolio Tool.

You can read more about What’s New for U of T Portal on the portalinfo site.




Have you met this year’s award recipients?

We are pleased to announce the 2015 recipients for the Teaching Assistants’ Training Program Teaching Excellence Awards. This is the inaugural year for the CI award, honoring graduate student Course Instructors at the University of Toronto.


2015 TA Teaching Excellence Awards
Mario Badr (Electrical and Computer Engineering)
Kris (Sanghyun) Kim (Chemistry)
Darius Rackus (Chemistry)
Sean Smith (Philosophy)

More information about this award, including a complete list of shortlisted candidates, is available on the TA Teaching Excellence Award page.

You can read more about Mario Badr on U of T Engineering News.

2015 CI Teaching Excellence Awards
Letitia Henville (English, UTSC)

More information about this award, including a complete list of shortlisted candidates, is available on the CI Teaching Award page.

Academic Toolbox Renewal Spotlight

When you are thinking of using a new educational technology, do you ask
yourself, ­ “Does the tool (or company behind the tool), protect sensitive
information, such as student data or your intellectual property from being
put at risk and/or being used by others?”

When considering services and solutions for use with your students, it is
essential to understand the risk that such services and solutions may
present. Risk to you and/or the University through the use of information
services can occur for many reasons, including ­ threats to private or personally
identifiable and other sensitive information, or vulnerabilities in the
software, hardware, out-sourced or built-to-order components.

If you and your students need to log into the tool to use it, or if you
plan to upload content (or have your students upload content), it’s good
practice to use the Information Risk and Risk Management (IRRM) audit
processes to assess the viability of the solution before you use it. The
IRRM covers standards related to the protection of personally identifiable
information as per the Freedom of Information & Protection of Privacy Act,
information security practice, access control practices, business
continuity planning, capacity and scalability of architecture, and so on.

For more on the Academic Toolbox Renewal Initiative, please visit