(Written in 2007)
In Early 2005 The University Learning Centre Steering Committee recognized the need for a universal centre to collaborate the existing independent academic support programs across campus. Workshops were held in April 2005 and February 2006 to discuss ideas, followed by a Town Hall Discussion in March 2006. University Council approved the idea in September 2006 followed by PCIP approving the budget in 2006. The wheels were in motion.
The University Learning Centre is headed up by Dr. Jim Greer, acting director for The Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness. Collaborative efforts between various groups such as SESD, the Math Help Centre, The Writing Centre, the GMCTE and the Division of Media and Technology helped to realize the goal of Phase I opening in January 2007.
Like many other institutions of higher education in Canada, knowledge creation and dissemination are paramount priorities for the University of Saskatchewan. This University is, and must always be, a learning community – a place where knowledge is valued and learning is encouraged and supported.
The Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness (GMCTE) laid an important foundation by creating a central focal point within the University to serve the teaching needs of faculty. However, the learning needs of students have been attended to by an overabundance of programs with overlapping mandates and clienteles sponsored at the college, department, and program levels.
A central focus on learning, for both faculty and students, is now available through the new University Learning Centre (ULC). Yet, as we do this, we acknowledge the fine balance that must be struck between creating a central unit addressing cross-campus needs and providing a common resource that collaborates with, coordinates, and supports the diversity of learning-related initiatives in colleges, departments, and service units across the campus.
Research indicates that many students entering university in the first decade of the 21st century have different expectations than those of only a decade ago. For example, students entering in 2006/07 will have been accessing electronic information, manipulating images, and creating media since kindergarten. They are more diverse in experience, culture, and preparedness than students of two or three decades ago. Where faculty may be somewhat amazed at carrying around an entire music collection on an I-Pod, or one’s life works on a memory key, our students are often ill equipped, and equally amazed, when faced with the expectation to learn effectively from a three hour lecture supported by chalkboard notes. Complicating this is both the influx of young faculty with high technological expectations and the simultaneous loss of decades of experience as some of our best faculty instructors retire. The current situation is also complicated by the fact that these changes are occurring at a time when, increasingly, our ability to attract and retain high quality students and faculty is being challenged by demographic forces beyond our control.
In recognition of these challenges, universities in Canada and elsewhere are developing programs and initiatives which support and enhance the teaching and learning experience of students, in addition to maintaining and enhancing programs and initiatives directed at faculty and other instructional staff.
At other universities these programs are developed in collaboration with many groups, but a Library presence is usually a unifying feature. Perhaps this is because libraries historically represent a space for learning, a repository of learning resources, and a place to address student needs for intellectual socialization. Libraries, for their part, have also been anxious to participate in a wide variety of crucial learning initiatives partly because their roles are transforming but also because they are able to provide a central place or facility in which students can come together to study, learn, or work.
The University of Saskatchewan has a strong track record of independence in curricular design, program innovation, and instructional methodology and a broad array of pedagogical approaches are applied at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Each of these initiatives, at an individual and unit level, has substantial merit and the ability to create transformational experiences for students. By assembling talent in a centre where experts in instructional design and innovative approaches to teaching and learning reside, and by making this expertise more generally available to the university community, learning is enhanced by using existing resources more effectively.
Through the consultation process followed to date, we have learned that the ULC must become a place for learning – both for students and faculty. It is perceived as an essential tool to ensure a rich educational experience for our students by providing the necessary supports and skills to ensure that they are intellectually stimulated by the learning experience they obtain and equipped to become productive members of society. The ULC is also essential in ensuring that faculty and instructional staff acquire the necessary skills and supports to provide a high quality, stimulating, challenging, educational experience to our students; to learn about and apply new approaches to teaching and curricular design in their course and program offerings; and to exercise the opportunity to engage in research about teaching and learning.
The ULC is envisioned to be an academic support unit whose mandate is to champion the quality of the educational experience offered by the University and promote student and faculty success in a variety of teaching and learning environments. It will sponsor and encourage initiatives for both student and faculty learning. For students, this means access to programs and initiatives that are both remedial and formative to their educational experience, both within and beyond the classroom. For faculty and other instructional staff, this means access to resources, programs, and support initiatives which are informed by new and emerging practices in teaching and learning.
The ULC will provide facilities, resources, and opportunities for improving the teaching and learning environments and should itself be a resource for the entire University of Saskatchewan community. This will require focus on four broad goals:
- Providing specific programs and services to support learners and instructors;
- Promoting and sharing known methods for learner and instructor success in the university environment and beyond;
- Engaging in new research and development activities related to teaching and learning; and
- Applying emerging innovations to support learner and instructor success and anticipated learning outcomes.
These goals will be realized through activities that serve student learning and personal success; teaching-career development for faculty, sessional lecturers, graduate students, and instructional staff; support and resources for curriculum, program development and innovation; and access to learning resources.
Initially, the ULC will draw together existing programs and services which provide remedial support to students as well as develop a limited number of initiatives which provide opportunities to students to enhance their educational experience. Student success in university, retention in programs, and preparedness for post-university employment will be important goals of the ULC. Because faculty and instructor development in teaching and overall attention to instruction are equally important goals, the ULC will initially draw on the programs and initiatives currently sponsored by the GMCTE but, as it evolves, the ULC will undoubtedly build additional programs and services which address emerging needs of faculty and instructional staff. It is envisaged that every program or major activity of the ULC that has a face-to-face physical presence should also have a “virtual” presence. This includes online help-desks and online resource repositories to support students and instructors.
How the existing academic and service units across campus participate in the ULC’s endeavours is critical to the centre’s success. While incorporating some of their current activities directly in the ULC is desirable, the more important goals are cooperation and collaboration. For the centre to be truly successful, mechanisms need to be established to enable existing academic and service units to share the best in research, practice, and application. The ULC will need to work effectively with student organizations as well and student involvement in the ongoing development of the ULC is crucial to its success. The ULC must strive to achieve a strong level of cooperation and coordination with the USSU (University of Saskatchewan Students' Union), the GSA (Graduates Students' Association), and the various college and department student societies.
Given the challenge of integrating existing programs, developing new programs, and providing appropriate space to house these activities, the ULC will be developed in three phases. Phase One is planned for January 1, 2007 with successive activities implemented in two further phases. Building on both the Learning Commons currently existing in the Library and on the GMCTE, the ULC will be located in expanded physical space in the Main Library. Phase One of the ULC will be a composite of existing entities (such as the Learning Commons and the GMCTE) along with selected new initiatives. Phase Two will provide additional new programming as well as an increased profile and presence for the ULC. Phase Three is anticipated to provide further programming and innovation including an increased focus on research on teaching and learning.
1. Supporting Student Learning and Personal Development
The University Learning Centre for Student Success (ULCSS) will be the center ofthe University Learning Centre’s student initiatives. The ULCSS will act as a central coordinating body for all types of learner support programs and initiatives, work in cooperation with existing programs, and initiate new and complementary programs to ensure student success in university and beyond. In so doing, the ULCSS will become the home for a number of programs to support student learning, student retention, student leadership, and student transitions into and out of the University.
Initially, it is envisioned that many existing programs, services, and resources will be drawn together into the ULCSS. For example, the University Writing Centre and the Math Help Desk will move into the ULCSS in January 2007. In addition, the Learning Commons currently located in the Library and the various help desks currently operating in conjunction with it will be collaboratively integrated with the ULCSS. For other services, the ULCSS will act as an ‘umbrella’ providing opportunities for synergy and collaboration, supporting independent identities within broad University-wide goals. For example, the Aboriginal Student Centre (ASC) will retain its current presence and profile, yet it is anticipated that students would be encouraged to take advantage of the programs and services available at the ULCSS and individual programs offered by the ASC.
While the importance of effective communication in varied forms of literacy (verbal, written, mathematical, visual, and technological) is at the base of a sound education, the ULCSS will assist students to develop a variety of additional skills. Opportunities for skill development will be explored in as many of the following areas as can be managed:
- Study Skills: These are of first stage importance and require some physical space and access to workshop rooms. Services may include writing training, research training, making lecture notes, planning a presentation, citation, study techniques, time management, etc. There is a good deal of overlap between various services: communication and cooperation is crucial. Programs and initiatives in this area could be partially run through the peer learning initiative (described below) but the online resources currently available through SESD should be fully utilized.
- Information Literacy Skills: These are also of first stage importance and will require physical space for workshops. It is possible that initiatives in this area may be an offshoot of study skills, but it will clearly be important to work with the University Library which already have developed online resources. It is possible that curricular design might include a for credit or required course/program based on small assignments: web search, catalogue search, database search, bibliography construction, article analysis, website analysis, etc.
- Technology Skills: These are of second stage importance and may require dedicated physical space. There are a number of technology training opportunities available through ITS and they should continue to be run, but these logically deserve a home in the ULC with the opportunity to provide expanded programming in critical areas.
- Communication Skills: These are also of second stage importance and may also require a physical presence. This is a new service and should encompass written, electronic, and oral communications. It is likely that, programs in this area would be run predominantly on a workshop basis.
To support many of these activities, the ULC will initiate a new program of peer-mentoring/peer-tutoring in academic subjects. This will be a service learning initiative by students for students. Learners in this program will receive tutorial help in specific courses and skills. Mentors/tutors in this program will benefit by gaining experience, obtaining training, and eventually qualifying for a tutor certification credential. The ULC will work with academic units and student groups to establish this new program, anticipated to be piloted beginning in January 2007 and fully operational for the 2007/08 academic year.
This peer-mentoring/peer-tutoring program will be complemented and directed by a larger experiential and community service learning initiative aimed at supporting the community service learning strategy described in the Outreach and Engagement Foundational Document (OEFD) recently approved by University Council and Senate.
Community service learning initiatives provide an opportunity for students and communities to work together through mutually beneficial partnerships to achieve shared goals.
In addition, a direct and close inter-relationship between and among the activities and goals of the ULCSS is anticipated. For example, peer mentors undoubtedly will be involved in the writing centre and math help centre. Pilot projects will be encouraged, such as a pilot in electronic portfolio development for students and a new program in tutor training and certification with organized peer-mentor study groups.
To achieve its goals, the ULCSS will need to find ways to work in cooperation with the many existing support services including those reporting to the Associate Vice-President Student and Enrolment Services such as Disability Services, the International Students Office, the Aboriginal Student Centre, Student Employment Centre, etc as well as other offices such as ESL services, Library Services, which will continue to operate outside the ULC’s direct sphere of activity. The best way to coordinate activities between the ULCSS and these other areas in the short term is to ensure there is a coordination role at the Director level, as well as to gain awareness of their services and to provide a referral service (a portal) to the various campus services for students.
2. Supporting Teaching-Career Development for Faculty, Graduate Students, & Instructional Staff
The GMCTE was initiated to support faculty in these areas. Additional resources, expanding the mandate of the GMCTE, and pursuing broader goals enables those engaged in teaching at the University to have better access to resources and to develop a community of practice to ensure their continued professional development as teacher-scholars. Media consulting, technology training, collegial support, course development workshops and academic programming and design will support these developments. The ULC then will house the GMCTE with such an expanded mandate.
3. Supporting Curricular and Program Development and Innovation
A natural progression beyond instructional development is curricular development and program design and innovation. As colleges and departments reflect on new approaches to teaching, the ULC will serve as a centre for exchanging ideas on emerging teaching and learning strategies and encouraging and supporting problem based learning, active learning, setting learning outcomes and assisting with program and curricular revision. Continuing research in techniques, opportunities provided by new technologies, and changing student needs promise increasing latitude in curricular and programmatic approaches. Distributed options, group learning, and complementing core student achievements further push and pull the need for curricular reform. New directions such as problem-based learning, blended learning environments, outcomes-based program assessment, incorporating research into undergraduate curricula, and instruction based on communities of practice are just a few examples of innovations that need to be considered in our local context.
The mandate of the GMCTE will be expanded to provide a new consultancy initiative in innovative instructional design and curriculum/program development. This consultation service will be a key place for departments, colleges, and individual faculty members contemplating curricular or program re-design to discuss ideas, learn about new trends elsewhere, and generally obtain guidance and advice. This service would be undertaken by seconding selected faculty members into the ULC, some on a full time, and some on a part-time basis. Three faculty members, including the Director, will work full time in the GMCTE. They will need to have an academic home in some college for tenure and promotion purposes, but would be fully funded by and permanently seconded to the ULC. For the part-time secondments, colleges would be encouraged (paid) to provide some relief from normal duties to selected faculty members so that they can spend part of their time in the ULC to offer these consultancy services to other faculty and to departments or colleges. This consultancy would also take the form of providing advice, guidance, and greater academic credibility for activities undertaken by the GMCTE. It is envisaged that one or two faculty members per term with one or two course teaching reductions (or equivalent) would be seconded to assist with this activity in the GMCTE.
4. Facilitating Research and Scholarly Work
In order to lead us toward innovation in teaching and learning, it is important for the University to engage in more research related to teaching and learning in higher education. In this regard, the development of capacity for research in university teaching and learning will be encouraged by the ULC. There are pockets of activity across the institution where research in discipline-specific instruction occurs, and where more general research in higher education is conducted. The Centre for Distributed Learning is one example. Offering an umbrella for more general research activity on the subject of university teaching and learning is an important role of the ULC.
5. Supporting Access to Learning Resources
On-line resources in support of teaching and learning are not scarce; in fact there is a problem of resource overload facing learners and teachers. Locating quality resources appropriate to individual needs is a critical problem that needs to be solved. Help desks, both physical and virtual, provide a good means to combat the resource overload problem. We need to further consider best practices in learning management systems and how to make best use of existing opportunities such as PAWS course tools and WebCT. The notion of a “one-stop referral service” for locating useful resources is an appropriate model.
Efforts by the Library (and others) to develop a campus repository of learning objects, efforts by DMT to develop a repository of media artifacts, and efforts by the USSU to develop a repository of student-specific and course-specific resources are important steps in this area. The ULC will act as an advocate for such projects and as a knowledge-broker for linking expertise across the campus in areas related to building repositories of knowledge resources.