The Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) was pleased to host the 10th Annual Learning Conference on October 28th in the Golden Jubilee Room at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre. This year’s theme, “Exploring the Dimensions of an Exceptional Learning Environment,” carried on the conference’s tradition of addressing UBC’s continuous commitment to excellence in teaching and learning. First started in 2001, this collective discourse encourages campus community members to explore ways to achieve excellence in teaching and learning by participating in a dialogue-orientated experience. As the University launched its new strategic plan—Place and Promise: The UBC Plan—in December 2009, this year’s sessions and panels highlighted some of the strategic commitments that have since been implemented in the Place and Promise plan.
The conference opened with speeches by Larry Grant, Michelle Lamberson, and Anna Kindler. Larry Grant, a Musqueam First Nations Elder and an Adjunct Professor in the UBC First Nations Languages Program, formally greeted all the conference attendees in his own native language. Then, he spoke briefly about the ties and history of his people in relation to UBC lands and introduced the conference’s theme for 2010. Michelle Lamberson, the Managing Director of CTLT, shared more details about the learning conference schedule itself, stating that during the day, speakers and panellists would be present to discuss the issues of learning spaces, intercultural understanding in the classroom, sustainability, and Aboriginal engagement. Anna Kindler, Vice Provost and Associate Vice President Academic Affairs, expressed to conference participants the University’s commitment to working with faculties, departments, academic units and individuals to refine and achieve the goals in the new plan.
Learning Spaces Panel Discussion
After the opening speeches, the Learning Spaces Panel Discussion began, with Gary Poole as its moderator. Six speakers from different academic fields and organizations within the University participated in the panel discussion and each spoke for about five minutes, sharing their personal experiences and answering questions related to the theme of learning spaces.
Simon Neame, Assistant Director of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, spoke about libraries as learning spaces. Academic libraries originated as spaces where students can conduct research and study, but these areas are evolving and expanding with the development of technology. The Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, for example, not only provides students with places to study, but it also allows students to receive tutoring and IT help in a central location at the Chapman Learning Commons. The Centre also supports the Learning Commons website, an online space where students can access study tips and information about student involvement at UBC.
Andrew Rushmore, Academic Coordinator of the UBC Farm, spoke next, taking a different approach to the topic of learning spaces. He is closely involved with the Land and Food Systems Program at UBC, and presented the UBC Farm as an outdoor space that is central to faculty research, teaching, and community engagement, as well as an area that offers students the opportunity for hands-on work and community service learning. Furthermore, the area allows for interdisciplinary work, blending together diverse fields of study such as sustainability, nutrition, health, agriculture, and community development.
The panel discussion continued with David Vogt, Director of Digital Learning Projects in the Faculty of Education, expressing his views about the challenge of designing studying spaces for students. He said that due to some universities’ reluctance to introduce new technology and explore different teaching methods, there is a stereotype that universities are not innovative. He wants to break this stereotype by using more creativity and technology to design learning spaces. He is also interested in building physical spaces and digital spaces (such as blogs) that inspire students to take more initiative in their studies and to learn independently.
Next, Judy Brown, a senior instructor in the Department of English who also teaches online courses, spoke in depth about teaching in virtual and physical learning spaces. She recalled the early days where instructors lectured in classrooms with chalkboards, minimal technology, and limited space for students with disabilities or special needs. Now, English lectures are held in lecture halls and classrooms that allow students to actively participate in group work and discussion circles. Students can also better interact with their peers outside the classroom through virtual spaces such as WebCT Vista.
Jodi Scott, Manager of Formal Learning with Classroom Services, has worked to create and design physical spaces for students. She mentioned many factors that are taken into consideration during the space creation and design process, such as student seating capacity, lecturing space, and group study areas. There is also the issue of adapting classrooms to suit different subjects and teaching styles. For instance, more spaces for whiteboards and projectors may be necessary for math and science classes, while interactive spaces would work better in Buchanan, where many Faculty of Arts courses are held. Jodi then displayed some images of new classrooms to show how different factors contribute to space design.
Last but not least, Alexander Dauth, an experienced teaching assistant, shared his ideas about how to use learning spaces to increase student retention of course materials. He referenced scientific research that suggests students can learn better when change occurs in their learning environments. It is currently uncertain whether the improved learning efficiency is caused by general changes or by a specific type of change. Nevertheless, Alexander is inspired by the experimental results which considered easy, low-cost ways to modify learning spaces and thereby stimulate learning.
Developing Intercultural Understanding: Engaging Students in Difficult Dialogues
The second morning session revolved around how instructors can deal with difficult classroom discussions and help students overcome their assumptions about other cultures, as well as how to foster a safe and inclusive learning environment. The interactive session, consisting of audience participation, discussions, and performances by the Living Lab troupe, encouraged attendees to consider ways to transform difficult moments into opportunities for teaching students to think critically and deepen their understanding of multicultural issues.
The session started with actors portraying a fictional scenario, where a teacher and three students are discussing the themes in A Thousand Splendid Suns, a novel by Khaled Hosseini. One of the students suggests domestic violence as a theme in the novel. When the instructor asks the student to support his idea, another student mentions the veil worn by Afghan women and states that domestic violence is simply part of their culture. The student’s claim about Afghanistan is a culturally charged statement, which presents a challenge to the instructor, who would want to steer away from cultural generalizations during a class discussion. After watching the scene, the audience was asked to reflect on it, and to participate by going on stage and sharing ideas on how instructors can respond to the student’s statement.
Several attendees volunteered their opinions and provided different ways to approach the same situation. One participant asked the student to explain her claim about women wearing veils and to take ownership of her comment. Another participant asked the student whether she had any personal experience with domestic violence, which allowed the student to see that she lacked actual knowledge about her claims. A third participant tried to shift the focus away from the student’s generalization by asking students to focus on the content in the book. Each of these approaches stirred discussions and comments, allowing attendees to compare and examine various ways to deal with difficult dialogues taking place in the classroom.
With that, the morning sessions came to an end. The discussions, however, carried on into the afternoon through lively sessions and dialogues about campus sustainability, Aboriginal engagement, and a report on World Café sessions which explored the question “What makes a great learning environment?” You can read more about the afternoon sessions here: http://ctlt.ubc.ca/2010/11/29/10th-annual-ubc-learning-conference-%E2%80%93-afternoon-sessions.
A video recording of some of the Learning Conference sessions can be found here: http://ctlt.ubc.ca/2010/11/04/2010-learning-conference-videos