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Pilot project to help speed digital transformation of classes

Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning launches initiative to help instructors incorporate new technologies into their work
February 18, 2016

D'Arcy Norman, manager of the Technology Integration Group, and Leanne Wu, Technology Integration Specialist, are leading the new Learning Technology Coaches program at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

Anna Pletnyova, a PhD student who teaches French in the Faculty of Arts, is one of the coaches who will help fellow instructors incorporate more digital technologies into their teaching. Photo courtesy Anna Pletnyova

Anna Pletnyova, a PhD student who teaches French in the Faculty of Arts, is one of the coaches who will help fellow instructors incorporate more digital technologies into their teaching. Photo courtesy Anna Pletnyova

A two-year pilot project aims to help instructors fully realize the power of digital technologies that are transforming how students are taught at the University of Calgary.

The Learning Technologies Coaches project will provide one-on-one support to everyone from professors to teaching assistants, putting a human face on what can sometimes seem like an impersonal and frustrating transition process. Hired from among PhD and masters students, the coaches will be on call part time at the faculties that are their academic homes.

“It’s really about making personal contact with faculty members — someone who potentially they would recognize in the halls who would really understand the challenges of teaching for a particular discipline,” says Leanne Wu, technology integration specialist at the university’s Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning.

'It could be anything'

Although the institute is overseeing the pilot project, each of the university’s 13 faculties can “decide what learning technologies mean to them,” says D’Arcy Norman, manager of the Technology Integration Group at the institute’s Educational Development Unit. “It could actually be building new stuff to help try new activities in class. It could be anything.”

With thousands of instructors, including sessional staff, spread across faculties ranging from arts and science to social work, the pilot project faces a wide variety of situations, he says. Instructors are mostly involved with Desire2Learn (D2L), a campus-wide platform that creates a web interface for each course. It can provide everything from ways to post videos and submit assignments to setting up quizzes and starting online discussions with students.

But technologies can also range from Adobe Connect – which allows instructors to share their screens with students – to systems such as Top Hat that can collect live responses in class to instructors’ questions via students’ mobile devices. Faculties such as the Cumming School of Medicine have also created their own technologies to teach and evaluate students.

While things such as workshops and online tutorials are available for common situations, “before the pilot project, if you were colouring outside the lines, you were on your own,” says Norman. “It was up to you to maybe hire an assistant, or learn all these things on your own.” Smaller faculties with fewer resources face a particular disadvantage, he says.

Spread of ideas 'hit and miss' 

The pilot project is meant to partner with the university’s Information Technologies (IT) staff, allowing the department to focus on its excellent work keeping the university operational by prioritizing and fixing problems with select technologies, says Wu.

The pilot project’s coaches are partly meant to help bridge two different mindsets, says Anna Pletnyova, a coach who once helped train staff at IT companies in Ukraine. “An IT person is often someone who thinks something is easy, so when they start explaining it, it’s often white noise to other people because they don’t know the terminology, for one,” she says.

It is vital to get instructors excited about the possibilities opened up by digital technologies, says Pletnyova, a PhD student who teaches French in the Faculty of Arts. “It’s about being more open-minded.”

The pilot project could potentially help spread knowledge about new approaches, says Norman. “We found it was really hit and miss,” he says. “There were pockets of people doing really amazing stuff and there were others who were not engaged with it.”

About 18 coaches have been hired since the pilot project began in October, says Wu, adding it will wrap up in 2017. “We will be gathering data and evaluating it very carefully to see what’s working and what’s not,” says Norman.