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Sometimes you need to build your own learning system

Hellenic Studies
André Gerolymatos (left) and Costa Dedegikas of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies developed and built a custom learning management system for Greek-language training.

By David Porter

For André Gerolymatos, a professor and director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies, the problem was straightforward — how do you build a system for Greek-language training that is engaging, productive and works on the mobile devices that today’s students consider everyday-carry equipment? In solving the problem, Gerolymatos and his colleagues in Hellenic Studies, illustrated the role of faculty and departments in spearheading innovation and flexibility at SFU.

“We were facing a serious challenge in offering Greek language in a university with a very small population of Greek speakers, in a city that has a very small Greek population to begin with,” says Gerolymatos.

To address the challenge, he worked with Costa Dedegikas, the centre’s technology manager and leader of a team of software engineers that recommended a modular approach to designing an online learning system that could host the language lessons. The design approach they took was future-oriented, allowing the learning system to be used with emerging technologies, with other languages, and in other kinds of courses.

After working with experts to obtain feedback on their Greek-language system, a funding partnership with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation enabled the team to take the learning system a step further, and this meant making a big decision, said Dedegikas:

“Go with an off-the-shelf learning management system (LMS) or build an innovative platform that pushed the boundaries of existing LMS environments.”

The Hellenic Studies team developed its own lab at SFU with a view to staying on the cutting edge and maintaining its modular approach to instruction. The team also included learner profiles and data analytics in the competency-based system, an environment that provides both students and instructors with a real-time picture of achievement.

Gerolymatos and Dedegikas have begun to work on improved technology through an SSHRC grant for a new mobile-enabled system that will contribute to language preservation and instruction for First Nations communities. The new system will also work for other courses and languages, and it is currently being used at SFU for mobile-enabled history courses that include archival video.

The critical design decision for the Hellenic Studies team was user engagement. Its systems had to work for the faculty and instructors who teach the courses, and they had to work for students and demonstrate that learning was happening. To ensure success, the team took an inclusive, iterative, design-based approach to implementing, testing and improving the system.

Gerolymatos and Dedegikas believe they have built an innovative niche technology that could also be used successfully by other departments at SFU and beyond.

The flexibility of studio physics


By Sherrie Atwood

It’s a Thursday afternoon and Dr. Daria Ahrensmeier’s studio physics lab is buzzing with activity. Her students, in groups seated at round tables, begin class with a low stakes iclicker quiz on electrical circuits. After each polling result the decibel level rises as students discuss why answers are either correct or incorrect. Rather than hurriedly moving on, Dr. Ahrensmeier, a theoretical physicist, is cool and calm: she smiles while those who got the correct answer gesticulate, draw diagrams, and talk it out with those who did not. In these conversations you can actually hear the students developing their own understanding of the process of electrical conduction. “

Studio physics is an idea imported many years ago from Dickinson College in the U.S. In the labs students integrate content from the online portion of the course—which Dr. Ahrensmeier describes as a visual representation of a book chapter—with practice: today students are looking at the optics of an oscilloscope which each group puts together by itself. This flexible approach offers a more custom fit for students. “With a lecture,” explains Dr. Ahrensmeier “you have 200 people sitting there and it’s impossible to make it run at a pace and with content that fits everybody’s needs. That just can’t happen.” In contrast, in the studio physics lab, Dr. Ahrensmeier and the TA circulate amongst the tables: “I think that’s where the flexibility comes in that we can answer specific student’s questions and the groups’ questions. “Flexibility has to be done the right way and that’s the tricky part. Students need to know what they have to do but there is flexibility in how fast and which order these tasks have to be completed.”

Is this format better than a single lecture? “A lot better,” according to Soroush Jafary. “I love the labs: I think they’re essential. I like doing things rather than just sitting there listening.” Adam, another student, agreed: “Students study in class rather than receiving information on what you are supposed to be studying. So, it’s a lot more work because you’re constantly writing, you’re constantly doing questions. You can’t fade out like you do in a lecture. Another student pointed out the experiential appeal of the lab: “You work in groups and do experiments and that’s also how you learn—which is really helpful in that you see real world applications of what you’re learning in the book.”

Task Force on Flexible Education publishes its interim report

TFFE interim report
The interim report of the Task Force on Flexible Education recommends the creation of four working groups to examine key themes identified by the research and community consultation process.

After an initial round of research and engagement with the SFU community, the Task Force on Flexible Education (TFFE) has published its interim report.

The report reviews the mandate and activities of the Task Force, summarizes the key themes identified during the initial research and community consultation process, and defines the term “flexible education” within the SFU context.

In addition, it recommends the creation of four working groups made up of faculty members, staff and students in fall 2014. The working groups will explore four themes:

• Vision and strategy for flexible education at SFU
• Learning models, delivery and support systems
• Learning experiences and learning spaces
• Program designs and business models

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The connection between flexibility and student well-being

Health Promotion team
SFU’s Health Promotion team partners with instructors to organize courses in ways that promote student well-being. From left: Tara Black (Associate Director); Crystal Hutchinson, Alisa Stanton, Rosie Dhaliwal (health promotion specialists).

When Tara Black hears “flexible education,” she thinks “student well-being.”

Black is the Associate Director of Health Promotion in SFU’s Health and Counselling Services unit. Her team takes a systemic approach to the creation of a healthy campus community by treating the university as an ecosystem and identifying factors that influence student well-being. Inevitably, classrooms enter the conversation.

“If you think of SFU as a setting, the classroom is such a core part of the student experience,” says Black. “Classrooms have a really profound impact on student well-being.”

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Why Health Sciences students loved this one-week course

Bruce Lanphear
Bruce Lanphear experimented with a one-week intensive course format. His students gave it rave reviews.

Does a credit course need to be 13 weeks long? Do alternative formats provide any benefits? Bruce Lanphear, a professor in Health Sciences, shed some light on these questions when he offered HSCI 483-3, an environmental health seminar, as a one-week intensive course during the spring 2013 semester break. Students praised the course (see the student comments below), and Lanphear, who co-taught the class with Glenys Webster, thinks he knows why: “If I had to single out the most important factor of success, it would be the format that resulted in the positive student feedback.”

“The condensed nature of the class allowed for a very high level of concentration and focus on one subject that allowed for more in depth learning. Unprecedented access to the profs for extra help, and the small class allowed for greater discussion and learning opportunities outside the classroom.” – Student

Lanphear previously taught the course in a traditional 13-week, three-hours-per-week format. He found that the change to a five-day format prompted his students to become more connected and collaborative: “When we have students eight hours a day for one whole week […], they are sitting next to the same people hour after hour. People become comfortable talking and dialoguing with each other, so the level of engagement is much greater.” Lanphear found that his own level of engagement rose as well because he was able to fully dedicate himself to the course within its short duration.

“This is an excellent format to offer to students and should be offered for other courses more often. It creates a community environment, allows one to concentrate on the material, connect with the professor and peers, and allows for things like field trips which enrich the experience. Also, the scheduling is fantastic – loved getting to fit in a class between semesters as my schedule is fairly busy and sometimes conflicts with the 14 week semester.” – Student

Remarkably, all 31 students finished the class with a perfect attendance record. Presumably the engaging nature of the course activities had something to do with that—for example, guest speakers were brought in, and students participated in field trips with follow-up activities that reinforced applications to real life—but as the student comments made clear, the course format itself was a big part of the appeal, especially for students juggling studies with work and other responsibilities.

“[The course] allows people to get 3 credits done in a way that probably fits better into the majority of students’ schedules – students who want to work full time, for instance, can take a week off, but not 4 hours a week off for 13 weeks.” – Student

Lanphear has the following words of advice for other faculty members interested in exploring intensive course formats:

  • Evaluate your current course format to determine its suitability for an intensive format: If a course consists mostly of lectures presented by a single instructor without other assistance, a one-week format could be daunting for the instructor and the students.
  • Enlist help from staff and faculty since the change in format can have implications for systems and operations. In the case of HSCI 483-3, it took two years to move the course forward.
  • Consider how you will deal with additional costs for field trips and other activities. Think about where you can obtain funding (research grants, funding from your Faculty and/or the Teaching and Learning Development Grants).

Related links

Modelling flexible learning

Dr. Nabyl Merbouh’s work in designing learning tools and replicas processed on a 3D printer.

Dr. Nabyl Merbouh’s work in designing learning tools and replicas processed on a 3D printer is a great example of the diversity of the term ‘flexible education.’ Along with research machinist Ken Van Wieren, Dr. Merbouh, a senior lecturer in chemistry, has provided an opportunity for thousands of math students across the province to physically hold equations and geometrical structures. “Math and chemistry students often have problems visualizing concepts,” Dr. Merbouh explains. Students studying anatomy can close their eyes, visualize their kneecap, and compare their intuitions to a 3D model that they can then take home. Passive learning is transformed into an embodied experience.

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“Relevance is the goal. Flexibility is the enabling strategy. Responsiveness is the practice.”