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The Humidex isn’t the only thing heating up this summer at Carleton—in this issue, we talk MOOCs, tech-savvy professors, and encouraged cell phone use (never thought you’d see the day, did you?). 

In this issue:

– CUOL Professor Profile

– Cell Phones in the Classroom

– TechCorner

– Social Media and Education

– Fall & Winter Course Offerings


CUOL Professor Profile – Dean Verger

Dean Verger

How does a professor make a not-so-tasty course easier to chew? Dean Verger, a PhD candidate studying cognitive psychology, employs his storytelling background and an interactive online methodology to keep his Intro to Statistics in Psychology students engaged.

“Nobody gets into psych because they want to study statistics,” says Verger. “It’s take-your-medicine-because-it’s-good-for-you type of education. We should make it as palatable, as easy to digest as possible.”

Using in-class clickers and “poll everywhere” software for his distance students following along through CUOL, Verger breaks up dense material with question-and-answer sessions. That way, he can immediately gauge how well his students are grasping concepts—no need to wait for sub-par exam results to spot a problem area.

“The shorter the feedback loop on information, the faster we can address the problem,” he says. “If I didn’t have these features, I wouldn’t be able to find out what’s happening with distance students.”

While Verger plans on making use of BigBlueButton, Carleton’s electronic whiteboard, to facilitate online one-on-one sessions, he says that there aren’t enough students taking advantage of these tools at their disposal. Be it because of time considerations, family or work, Verger says that three-quarters of distance students have yet to explore these features—less than half bothered to take a practice quiz Verger posted recently.

It’s about marketing this customizable education, he says. The bane of the online class used to be the lack of interaction—let’s face it, listening to a lecture alone in your bedroom without any other stimuli can be dry as dust. Now, distance students are not only able to watch lectures on their own time, but can schedule online meetings with chat, audio and video components, text in answers using “poll everywhere”, watch a professor solve equations in real time, and virtually replicate an in-class experience from anywhere in the world.

“To me, a course can either speed by or plod along,” he says. “They have the opportunity to style their learning instead of trying to slog through a textbook on their own.”

Nevertheless, Verger speculates it may just be too early in the summer semester for his online students to feel the curriculum’s crunch and reach out online. The potential for an intimate professor-student relationship that crosses international lines is at their fingertips—it’s just a matter of time when students will tap into the resources.

Verger, who recently told an adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick at this year’s Ottawa Fringe Festival, has a theatre and storytelling background that lends itself to teaching both an in-class audience and one tuning in online. He’s used to breaking the fourth wall with call-and-response techniques, which he calls “perfect for the classroom.”

“They seem to enjoy it—it gives them something to do,” he says. “In class, what I’m getting are smiles, laughter, and very few people leaving class.”

And if Verger’s success in engaging his in-class audience is any indication, it’s only a matter of time before his distance students follow suit.

-by Chelsey Burnside



Cell Phones in the Classroom

kim Hellemans
Kim Hellemans

Cell phone use in the classroom is often seen as something worthy of reprimand. It’s a distraction, a bad habit. But two professors at Carleton are actually encouraging students to use cell phones in class. Kim Hellemans and Bruce Tsuji talked about why and how they did it at the 2013 Canadian Network for Innovation in Education annual conference, which was held this year Carleton. CUOL talked to each professor and got summaries of their joint presentations.

Research has shown that after about 30 minutes, our attention span begins to wane. When that happens, we start getting twitchy; in the classroom setting, Kim Hellemans says students will start checking their phones and browsing Facebook. Kim took that knowledge and made a built-in phone checking & Internet time, which was still related to coursework.

It goes like this. Hellemans puts a question up on the projector, with multiple choice answers. Students then text their choice answer to In this way, students get a built-in mini break, and Hellemans gets anonymous feedback on how much her students are actually understanding.

If only 30 per cent of respondents got the answer correct, Hellemans begins an activity called peer assisted learning. Each student pairs up someone who had a different answer than them, and then state the case for why their own answer is right. In theory, the student with the right answer will be more confident and more able to explain their reasoning to the other student. Hellemans then reposes the question to see if a higher percentage of people got it right.

During the presentation to her peers, Hellemans showed some screenshots of data prior to and after peer assisted learning, to show that more students do in fact get it correct after the peer assisted learning.

“I think the future is online and more faculty should be open to using new techniques in their teaching,” Hellemans says. While she hasn’t organized any formal feedback of the texting system, students have informally admitted they appreciated the service, with some students even writing on her teacher evaluation that they’d like to be even more integrated.

While not every student in class texts in an answer, the majority do, says Hellemans.

She’s also been using it to engage her distance students. After the lecture, she’ll keep the poll open, so that by the time the distance students watch it, they can still send in their responses for certain comprehension questions.

Bruce Tsuji

Bruce Tsuji

Tsuji’s experience with integrating cellphone use in the classroom was constructed as more of an open discussion. Instead of using to ask questions of the students, he used it as a way for students to send

“I really scratched my head a bit over the eight months or so that I was using this system,” Tsuji says.

It turns out, says Tsuji, that the research into university student participation levels makes some pretty dismal conclusions. One paper concluded that 64 per cent of students would never ask or answer a single question in class, during their entire university career.

Teachers don’t really think about that too much because, as Tsuji says, they weren’t one of those 64 per cent. In big classes – Tsuji’s class peaked at about 750 students – he thinks that statistic would be even worse.

“We were the ones who did ask questions. Who overcame shyness and stuck our hand up.”

Tsuji struggled with what to do next. The whole point of the anonymous, open digital questioning system was to help shy students break out of their shells and actually answer questions while not becoming too uncomfortable. Should he let a few irreverent students ruin the opportunity for all? Eventually, he says he came upon “a dumb little YouTube video,” which would change his outlook on the situation.

The video was of a baseball game; it was the seventh inning stretch. People were rising from their seats in search of bathrooms and hotdog vendors, but one kid was dancing around, furiously trying to attract the jumbotron camera and broadcast his image to the stadium.

It made Tsuji think. “It seems to be a very human need to have ourselves out there in some way, shape or form. To have ourselves seen, or be heard.” He likened the boy at the baseball game to some of the students in class.

“People are just trying to get a few moments of, I don’t know, fame, notoriety, make themselves known for a brief period of time.”

If students in these ever-growing classrooms are faced with the prospect of living out their entire university careers without asking a single question, the texted questions may be a chance for students who might otherwise have never asked a question to make their voice heard.

However, Tsuji says that at the beginning of the semesters he will have to explain very clearly why he is allowing the occasional irrelevant message to slide up on the big screen.

“Maybe in my class it will be an off-colour remark texted in, but maybe next time in another class they’ll ask a real live serious question. If I can get a few of those students in the habit of interacting with their instructors and with the other students, well maybe that’s not such a bad thing.”

-by Sabrina Doyle





Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs)

What if you had access to an Ivy League education, online and for free?

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the thinking behind massive open online courses (commonly known as MOOCs). In a nutshell, it’s education adapted to suit an over-informed world: low-cost and high-quality learning at the fingertips of the masses. With crème de la crème institutions like Harvard, Yale and UC Berkeley hopping on the MOOC bandwagon, top-tier education in everything from astronomy to modern poetry can be made available around the globe, as well as used by teachers to supplement lectures and students to elevate their learning experience. And for those whose 8 a.m. Friday morning classes are trumped by Thirsty Thursdays, the MOOC advantage would allow students to take the course on their own time.

Yes, there is the undeniable glitchiness that comes hand-in-broadband with video-based online courses—system crashes, login failures, and Skype calls that sound like they’ve been transmitted through a broken blender. However, judging by the rate MOOCs have progressed since their inception, these technical difficulties will be short-lived.

The success of MOOC providers like Udacity, edX and Coursera (which now enlists 70,000 new users per week) has piqued the interest of Canadian universities—Carleton being no exception. While they still have some hurdles to overcome (How do you monetize an education rooted in openness and accessibility to everyone? Without a real-time classroom setting, how do we ensure questions are answered and students don’t fall behind? When will they be recognized as credit courses?), it’s widely speculated that blended curriculums with MOOC content are in our foreseeable future.

So, how does a professor ensure these “massive” courses don’t veer into one-size-fits-all territory? With their emphasis on student engagement and reaching those genuinely interested in a given subject, the hope is that an online community of like-minded students is formed through each MOOC. Professors and teachers aids will gain profile for their teaching styles—like Coursera’s calculus lessons taught using animations hand-drawn by University of Pennsylvania professor Robert Ghrist (during which it’s not uncommon to see a zombie arm or two). By adapting the traditional classroom setting to make room for online supplementation, like they’ve done at Harvard with MOOC mentors, open web-based learning could be the future of higher education—it’s all about finding that fine balance.

-by Chelsey Burnside



Social Media and Education


From Twitter to TED Talks, Facebook to Flickr, social media and online education go hand in hand.

For most university students, a time pre-Facebook feels prehistoric. They’ve grown up online, and most know the heavyweight players in the social media game—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, etc.—inside-out and backwards. Used in tandem with Carleton’s online initiatives like Video on Demand and BigBlueButton, these platforms do double-duty as both a teaching and a marketing tool: for instance, sharing a clip and link to a Video on Demand lecture, or posting notices of BBB group mentoring sessions in a course’s Facebook group.

Social media is all about building relationships and starting conversations, and especially for an online class, engagement is key. Here’s a quick introduction on how and why to use social media in conjunction with courses.

Sparking a conversation

Social media gives students who are uncomfortable putting a hand up to speak in a 300-person lecture hall (and there a lot of them) a chance to interact from behind a keyboard, and in-class debates can be replicated online using Facebook groups or Twitter hashtags. While chat, audio and video functions and BigBlueButton are great tools, sometimes reaching students on platforms they’ve been familiar with for as long as they can remember can be a more effective means of engagement— bringing the conversation onto their turf rather than making them come to yours.

Cost-effective hosting

Most social media is free to use, with no expiry date and no “mailbox storage exceeded”. Setting up a YouTube account with different playlists for each course is a simple way to organize and host material, allowing the students to go back through videos shown in class on their own time. A Facebook group is an ultra-simple way to share articles and relevant job postings, send out due-date reminder blasts, start conversations and answer questions without clogging up students’ inboxes with mass emails.

Quality over quantity

As is often the case with companies eager to hop on the social media bandwagon, it’s easy to spread yourself too thinly between platforms—there’s no need to be everywhere at once. A quick in- class poll (“Who here is on Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn? Which would you say you check most frequently?”) can gauge where your audience is concentrated and where you should be focusing your attention.

Practicing good practice

Especially when relied on for breaking news, micro-blogging sites like Twitter have been criticized for their inaccuracies. There’s no universal ombudsman ensuring incorrect statements are retracted—not so kosher when it comes to hunting for essay-writing material. While it’s a rare student who doesn’t know the difference between the legitimacy of a peer-reviewed journal and an off-the-cuff tweet, good research practices to verify statements or weed out misinformation should be reinforced. Like Wikipedia, social media tools should be used as jumping off points to prompt questions and deeper digging. Monitor your social media platforms for any wrong or misleading comments and set groups to “private” so that you can approve each member.

-by Chelsey Burnside


CUOL Newsletter


-Chelsey Burnside

-Sabrina Doyle


-Maria Brocklehurst | Patrick Lyons | Nestor Querido | Jeff Cohen

All photos courtesy of CUOL