By Jim Hynes
More than 670 educators from 16 countries gathered in Montreal June 19-22 to take part in the 32nd annual conference of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE). The event, which took place in the Centre Mont-Royal, just steps from McGill’s downtown campus, was co-hosted by McGill, Concordia University, the Université de Montréal and Champlain College Saint-Lambert. About 100 student volunteers helped the Conference run smoothly.
This year’s conference was held under the theme “Learning without boundaries? Apprentissage sans limites?”
“We chose this title and theme because we wanted to focus on learning as well as teaching and encourage the raising of questions as well as the reporting of experiences,” said Prof. Cynthia Weston, the 2012 Conference Chair and Director of McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services. “The theme invited participants to expand their customary boundaries, to consider learning in physical and virtual environments; to bridge diversity in language, culture, disciplines, and institutional types – research-intensive, teaching-focused, universities, colleges, CEGEPs, as well as units or programs within institutions concerned with student learning, like libraries, student services, service learning, and internships. We also hoped that it would give different groups within STLHE – faculty, the Educational Development Centre, 3M teaching fellows, new faculty, administrators and TAs – the opportunity to cross boundaries.”
With the value and quality of higher education as timely a topic as ever, at least in Quebec, you might be forgiven for thinking that recent events may have brought a new sense of urgency to the subject of teaching and learning in colleges and universities. But that’s not quite true, Weston said.
“I wouldn’t say there is any new urgency,” Weston said. “From my perspective McGill has been placing increased emphasis on teaching since 2005 and has emphasized the core nature of teaching and learning at the University in many ways, like the naming of a Deputy Provost of Student Life and Learning; the investment of resources in teaching related initiatives such as Teaching and Learning Services; teaching and learning spaces; the nexus between research and teaching; the use of clickers to enhance engagement in large classes; and the Law teaching network, to name a few.”
Not that the Conference didn’t provide opportunities to address teaching and learning in the context of recent student unrest over tuition hikes, or showcase student voices in a prominent way. Wednesday’s program featured a lunchtime “Open Discussion on Student Protest Issues” and the closing plenary on Friday, “Blind curves or open roads: Student leaders speak on the future of Canadian post-secondary education,” gave voice to 3M National Student Fellows, award winning student leaders who shared their views on the future of higher education. Two McGill students, Pascal Genest-Richard (Bioresource engineering) and Alex Pritz (McGill School of the Environment) were among the award winners.
Among the many sessions from the three-day program, Weston highlighted one entitled “Policies and practices universities to enhance teaching: perspectives from senior administrators, faculty, and educational developers,” which featured the Provosts of both McGill and Dalhousie universities and professors from their respective institutions presenting their thoughts about ways to enhance university teaching.
“I mention this session because teaching and learning are core to the mission, values and aspirations of McGill,” Weston said. “Our goal is to sustain and further McGill’s academic leadership in teaching and learning among the world’s premier universities.
“The presence of world-class researchers across disciplines is one of McGill’s great strengths and excellence in research is typically the most visible aspect of professors’ activities,” Weston said. “This does not, however, diminish the importance of leadership and excellence in supporting student learning. There is a widely held perception that between research and teaching, teaching is the lesser of the two equals. This needs to be addressed, not only through awards or honour lists, but through very public, expansive, concrete demonstrations from the University that teaching is important. This requires policies and practices that recognize, reward and support teaching as well as research.”