Ron Sheese hasn’t always been so web-savvy in his classes – but that’s mainly because he started teaching long before the words “online” and “Internet” had entered the day-to-day vernacular of faculty members. About 10 years ago, when it became clear to him that the web presented a number of important opportunities, he took some tentative first steps, creating a very basic website.
“Somebody pointed out to me that you could use Microsoft Word to make a very simple site,” says Dr. Sheese, a professor of psychology at York University. Feeling that this was within his grasp, Dr. Sheese fashioned a Word document. “Somebody showed me how to upload it to a website, and I was in business.”
But Dr. Sheese didn’t stop there. He now uses websites and especially his blogs to coordinate his class, posting references, links, discussion questions and lecture and reading notes online, as well as creating MP3 audio recordings that students download. York is a commuter campus, and Dr. Sheese meets the related challenges by having his students collaborate on group projects through wikis. He is now considering the advantages of social networking and podcasts.
This didn’t all come together at once. It was a step-by-step process, and some of his stepping stones, Dr. Sheese notes, were university-based and national conferences. “They’re very good at stimulating the imagination about what’s possible.”
Many faculty members find themselves wanting to integrate more technology in their classes. They’re posting lecture notes online, maybe they’re using WebCT or Blackboard, and they want to do more.
Conferences are an excellent way to get a lot of information fast, and with a human touch, and to network with others who can help you along the way. But with a sea of options and limited time (and funds), you need to choose the right one.
We’ve spoken with experts from across the continent, and present here some of the very best conferences on integrating new technology into university teaching – and ways to get the most out of them.
Now in its second year, the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education resulted from a merger of the Canadian Association for Distance Education and the Association for Media and Technology in Education in Canada. Its 2009 conference will bring university faculty together with delegates from a number of other fields, including educational technology, health education, K-12 education, multimedia design and distance learning. Key reasons to attend, says Ray Whitley, CNIE’s president, include the presentations and commercial displays on learning technology and briefings on their effective deployment, plus the opportunity to bounce ideas off hundreds of colleagues.
Last year’s conference, held in Banff, Alberta, included workshops on managing a web-based course, on free and open-source software, and one called “iTunes U: the Campus that Never Sleeps.” Richard Pinet, director of the Centre for eLearning at the University of Ottawa (and a member of the conference’s volunteer organizing committee), attended last year and says, “It was very, very good. The place was packed, and there was a really good energy.”
Founded in 1997 by the California State University system, the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT) is an online community comprising some 65,000 faculty, staff and student members from around the world who share learning materials and pedagogy. At its core is a digital library that offers 22,000 tools, searchable by discipline (everything from chemistry demonstrations to animated tutorials on DNA to history assignments); some of them are peer reviewed.
The international conference is an outgrowth of the MERLOT online community, which includes a social networking tool and its digital repository. The conference goal is to facilitate online teaching and learning. “The MERLOT community is an opportunity for faculty to collaborate with regard to specific materials, and the conference is a larger opportunity for them to come together face-to-face and network,” notes Sorel Reisman, MERLOT’s managing director.
Those attending the conference span many disciplines and include a spectrum of experience, from novice to expert. This year’s conference will include hands-on workshops on using digital learning materials, talks on new technology tools for teaching and learning, and discussion on using MERLOT materials in the classroom.
Insider tip: If you’re already using a course management system like Blackboard, WebCT or Desire2Learn, you can get started right away; such systems allow you to seamlessly integrate the MERLOT search tool.
With 2,200 university and college institutional members (73 of them in Canada), Educause is a Colorado-based nonprofit membership association that seeks to support those who lead, manage and use information technology to benefit higher education. Featuring teaching and learning as one of its key focus areas, Educause offers many resources and organizes a broad array of events, from a general conference that drew more than 7,000 in 2008 to dozens of small regional workshops. The Educause Learning Intitiative Annual Meeting is the best one for faculty who want to use more technology in their teaching, says Educause president Diana Oblinger. The conference draws faculty members, librarians and people working in IT. “There is a lot of talk about pedagogy, technology, and how to bring the two together for the benefit of student success,” says Dr. Oblinger.
The 2009 conference (it took place in January in Orlando, Florida), focused on social learning, with topics on gaming in education, the use of digital media in the humanities and rethinking learning spaces. Julie Little, interim director of the Educause Learning Initiative, said one of the light-hearted activities was a conference-wide alternate reality game to give faculty members “an avenue to think about integrating games in their curriculum.”
Insider tip: After attending the conference, stay current with Educause’s massively popular “7 Things You Should Know About …” with briefs on different topics.
Worth a look
- While not expressly focused on integrating technology into teaching, the annual conference of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) is a good place to get your feet wet. This year’s conference (called “Between the Tides,” June 17-20) takes place at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Faculty can attend workshops and presentations on technology as part of the overall program, centred on improving teaching and learning in higher education.
- For the more tech-savvy, there are several international conferences on technology in higher education held annually by the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. This year, the organization’s World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, & Higher Education takes place in Vancouver, Oct. 26-30. It’s billed as an international forum for researchers, developers and practioners to learn about best practices in the fields of education, government, healthcare and business.
- Another excellent opportunity may be much closer than you think: many universities offer on-site teaching and technology days, mini-conferences and workshops for faculty, teaching assistants and graduate students. Also, stay on the lookout for regional conferences. In eastern Ontario, Carleton University, University of Ottawa, Queen’s University, Trent University, the Royal Military College of Canada and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology have formed the Eastern Ontario Symposium on Educational Technology (EOSET). The 2009 edition, “Connect, Learn and Grow,” will take place May 22, hosted by UOIT in Oshawa, Ontario. “We try to get three or four faculty members from every institution to present on what they’ve been working on or the challenges they’ve had, and how they have dealt with those challenges,” says Joy Mighty, director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen’s University. “There’s a spirit of sharing and collaboration.”
- This year, a promising West Coast option is Improving University Teaching’s 34th International Conference, to be held at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., July 14-17. Under the theme “Navigating Innovations in Teaching and Learning,” the conference aims to help faculty determine which technological trends will be lasting and useful (as opposed to those that are simply fads). A subtheme this year is “Teaching Well with Technology.”
Making the most of it: expert tips
Carving out the time and shaking loose the institutional funds to attend a conference can be estimable challenges, so when you’re able to attend one, you’ll want to get the most out of it. We’ve asked the experts for their tips on making sure your next teaching and technology conference is the best one yet.
“See what you can find out about the presenters. The advice I always give to students is: in university, always choose the course by the professor. No matter how interesting a course sounds, if you have a boring professor who you don’t connect with, it will be a waste. … The same thing goes for conferences. And don’t be afraid to walk out of a bad session. Sit in the back until you’re sure.”
Avi J. Cohen, professor of economics and dean’s adviser on technology enhanced learning initiatives, York University
“The first thing is to determine: Why are you going? … I would always advise people to have some personal objectives, which will help them to choose the most relevant sessions for their needs and to make the most out of those sessions. And go prepared with some questions to ask.”
Joy Mighty, director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen’s University and president of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education
“One of the best places to see what is happening is to stroll through the vendor sections. Ask what they’re doing and why they are doing it, get a sense of the products that they offer. Admittedly, then you open yourself up to sales-speak, but it’s a good way of gaining a sense of how people are trying to innovate, plus you get an opportunity to try out some of the technology.”
George Siemens, associate director of the Learning Technologies Centre at the University of Manitoba
“Pre-conference events tend to be very good for novices, who want to network and have time to sit down and do some hands-on stuff. … A conference may deal with a variety of issues, but the pre-conference may be on using WebCT to engage your students in a discussion forum, or how to use Second Life. These sessions tend to be more basic and hands-on.”
Richard Pinet, director of the Centre for eLearning at the University of Ottawa
“Don’t go in expecting that they will speak to your problems. They’re going to talk about what they do in their context, so you have to go in looking for ways to adapt this – what’s the general idea, and how could I use that in my context? If you can think more broadly, you’ll see more possibilities.”
Ron Sheese, professor of psychology, York University