By Patrick Lyons, Director, Teaching and Learning, TLS

Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) is celebrating its 30th anniversary. To help recognize this milestone, we’re sharing stories of teaching and learning from our past. This is the first story in our series.

One of the earliest collaborators with Carleton’s first teaching and learning centre, the Teaching and Learning Resource Centre (TLRC), was Prof. Tim Patterson, a paleontologist in the Department of Earth Sciences. Tim was an early adopter of using technology in the classroom – using a primitive data projector (which consisted of an LCD screen that sat on top of an overhead projector) and authoring learning aids in hypercard in the early 1990s. In the TLRC’s early days, he helped advise and guide the department on the use of technology in teaching.

By 1996, Tim had integrated a website assignment into his teaching. Rather than produce a paper, students in the third-year evolutionary paleoecology class were given the option to produce a website on a theme related to paleoecology – fossilization, mass extinctions, specific extinct organisms, such as a dinosaurs, or even local Ottawa area paleontology sites.

It may be helpful to recall that in 1996, the world wide web was still a very new concept. Images had just begun to be viewable on a website. In 1996, the fastest home dial up connection was 33.6 kbit/s (for a sense of perspective a modern smart phone sends and receives data 1,500 times faster).

For students to undertake this assignment – it was … a commitment. Not only did they have to conduct research into their topic area to produce academic quality work, but they then had to format and create webpages by writing HTML in a text editor, source images (by scanning them or finding digital images), and then navigate copyright and permissions of these images. Finally, the individual webpages needed to be put together into a cohesive, navigable public website – where each student’s website was available to be seen and critiqued. Tim then took the initiative one step further and assembled each student website into one larger website which became the Hooper Virtual Paleontological Museum (the museum is still online).

In subsequent years, Tim chose to eliminate the term paper – students needed to complete the website assignment. I vividly recall hearing student opinions on the assignment and it was not positive (they used much more expressive and colourful language). Students dreaded this assignment, and I entered Tim’s course wishing along with my classmates that he would be on sabbatical…

I could not understand the point of it, nor conceive of how much time that I would need to put to it. Except, as I started the project – and learned how to author HTML, thought about website navigation, dove into the literature around the topic, found images (and optimized them), visited the Museum of Nature’s research facility and library  – I discovered a passion for my topic area (Pterosaurs), and became fascinated with building the website and learning all these skills, which I initially thought that I’d loath.

I came into Tim’s class thinking that it would be one of the worst experiences that I would ever have and instead it turned into one of my most important formative learning experiences.

This story isn’t about me – but rather about Prof. Tim Patterson and his approach to teaching. He challenged his students and pushed them outside of their comfort zone. In many ways Tim was a pioneer for many teaching and learning approaches that we know are important to student engagement and success:

  • A shift to authenticate assessments
  • Encouraging and incorporating skill development into course work
  • Showcasing student work – and not wasting it
  • Challenging learners (and being supportive)
  • Having high expectations – but creating pathways so that students can attain these

Tim, along with colleagues like Prof. Diane Dubrule (Department of Philosophy), Tim Pychyl (Department of Psychology) and Dean Karlen (Department of Physics) were among many early innovators and collaborators with Teaching and Learning Services – and in many ways helped build some of the foundations of our services, programs and activities that continue today.