Report on SFU’s experiences of teaching with technology

November 22, 2016 Tony Bates

Simon Fraser University (on a rare day when it wasn't raining)

Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus (on a rare day when it wasn’t raining)

I always enjoy going to a university or college and seeing how they are using learning technologies. I am always a little surprised and I am also usually intrigued by some unexpected application, and today’s DemoFest at Simon Fraser University was no exception.

About Simon Fraser University

SFU has just over 35,000 students with campuses in Burnaby, Vancouver downtown, and Surrey, all in the lower mainland of British Columbia, Canada.

For a long time it has had the largest distance education program in British Columbia, but the rapid development of fully online and blended learning in other BC and Canadian institutions means that other institutions are rapidly gaining ground. It is also the academic base for Linda Harasim, who is a Professor of Communications at SFU.

As with many Canadian universities, most of the DE programs are run out of the Centre for Online and Distance Learning in Continuing Studies at SFU. However, the university also has a large Teaching and Learning Centre, which provides a range of services including learning technology support to the faculty on campus.

The university recently adopted Canvas as its main LMS.

I was spending most of the day at SFU for two reasons:

  • to identify possible cases for Contact North’s ‘pockets of innovation’ project
  • to report on the survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions.

I will be giving more information on both these projects in separate blog posts coming shortly.

The DemoFest

DEMOfest 2016 is about how instructors are using ….technologies in ways that produce exciting and original educational experiences leading to student engagement and strong learning outcomes.

Making lectures interactive

Not surprisingly, several of the short, 10 minute presentations were focused on tools used in classroom teaching or lecturing. In particular, the tools are going mobile, in the form of apps that students can use on their mobile phones, tablets or laptops. I was particularly impressed with TopHat, which incorporates online quizzes and tests, attendance checks, and  discussion. REEF Polling is a similar development developed by iClicker, which is effectively a mobile app version of iClicker. Both provide students and instructors with an online record of their classroom activity on the app.

There was also a couple of sessions on lecture theatre technologies. As in other universities, lecturers can find a range of different interfaces for managing lecture theatre facilities. SFU has a project that will result in a common, simple interface that will be available throughout the different campuses of the universities, much to the relief of faculty and visiting speakers who at the moment have no idea what to expect when entering an unfamiliar lecture theatre or classroom.. There was also another session on the limits of lecture capture and how to use video to make learning more engaging.

Online learning development

However, I found nothing here (or anywhere else, for that matter) that has convinced me that there is a future in the large lecture class. Most of the technology enhancements, although improvements on the straight ‘talk’ lecture, are still just lipstick on a pig.

The online learning developments were much more interesting:

  • online proctoring: Proctorio. This was a demonstration of the ingenuity of students in cheating in online assessment and even greater ingenuity in preventing them from doing it. Proctorio is a powerful web-based automated proctoring system that basically takes control of whatever device the student is using to do an online assessment and records their entire online activity during the exam. Instructors/exam supervisors though have options as to exactly what features they can control, such as locked screens, blocking use of other urls, etc.. Students just sign in and take the exam at any time set by the instructor. Proctorio provides the instructor with a complete record of students’ online activity during the exam, including a rating of the ‘suspiciousness’ of the student’s online exam activity.
  • peer evaluation and team-based learning: SFU has a graduate diploma in business where students are required to work in teams, specifically to build team approaches to problem-solving and business solutions. Although the instructor assesses both the individual and group assignments, students evaluate each other on their contribution to the team activities. The demonstration also showed how peer assessment was handled within the Canvas LMS. It was a good example of best practices in peer-to-peer assessment.
  • Dialectical Map: an argument visualization tool developed at SFU. Joan Sharp, Professor of Biological Sciences, and her research colleague, Hui Niu, have developed a simple, interactive, web-based tool that facilitates the development of argumentation for science students. Somewhat to my surprise, research evidence shows that science students are often poor at argumentation, even in the upper years of an undergraduate program. This tool enables a question to be posed by an instructor at the tope of the map, such as ‘Should the BC government allow fracking for oil?’ or ‘Should the BC government stop the culling of wolves to protect caribou?’ The online map is split into two parts, ‘pro’ and ‘con’, with boxes for the rationale, and linked boxes for the evidence to support each rationale offered. Students type in their answers to the boxes (both pro and con) and have a box at the bottom to write their conclusion(s) from the argument. Students can rate the strength of each rationale. All the boxes in a map can be printed out, giving a detailed record of the arguments for and against, the evidence in support of the arguments and the student’s conclusion.  Hui Niu has done extensive research on the effectiveness of the tool, and has found that the use of the tool has substantially increased students’ performance on argument-based assignments/assessment.

General comments

I was very grateful for the invitation and enjoyed nearly all the presentations. The Teaching and Learning Centre, under the guidance of Lynda Williams, is encouraging research into learning technologies, particularly developing a support infrastructure for OERs and looking at ways to use big data for the analysis and support of learning. This practical, applied research is being done in collaboration with both faculty and graduate students from different departments.

Students and a professor of computer science worked with the IT division and Ancillary Services to develop a student app for the university called SFU Snap, as part of a computer science course. This not only provides details of the bus services to and from SFU at any time, but also provides students with an interactive map so they can find their classrooms. Anyone who has tried to find their way around SFU (built at multi-levels into a mountain) will understand how valuable such an app must be, not just to students but also to visitors.

So thank you, SFU, and Lynda and her team in particular.


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