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Task Force on Flexible Education publishes its interim report

TFFE interim report
The interim report of the Task Force on Flexible Education recommends the creation of four working groups to examine key themes identified by the research and community consultation process.

After an initial round of research and engagement with the SFU community, the Task Force on Flexible Education (TFFE) has published its interim report.

The report reviews the mandate and activities of the Task Force, summarizes the key themes identified during the initial research and community consultation process, and defines the term “flexible education” within the SFU context.

In addition, it recommends the creation of four working groups made up of faculty members, staff and students in fall 2014. The working groups will explore four themes:

• Vision and strategy for flexible education at SFU
• Learning models, delivery and support systems
• Learning experiences and learning spaces
• Program designs and business models

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The connection between flexibility and student well-being

Health Promotion team
SFU’s Health Promotion team partners with instructors to organize courses in ways that promote student well-being. From left: Tara Black (Associate Director); Crystal Hutchinson, Alisa Stanton, Rosie Dhaliwal (health promotion specialists).

When Tara Black hears “flexible education,” she thinks “student well-being.”

Black is the Associate Director of Health Promotion in SFU’s Health and Counselling Services unit. Her team takes a systemic approach to the creation of a healthy campus community by treating the university as an ecosystem and identifying factors that influence student well-being. Inevitably, classrooms enter the conversation.

“If you think of SFU as a setting, the classroom is such a core part of the student experience,” says Black. “Classrooms have a really profound impact on student well-being.”

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Why Health Sciences students loved this one-week course

Bruce Lanphear
Bruce Lanphear experimented with a one-week intensive course format. His students gave it rave reviews.

Does a credit course need to be 13 weeks long? Do alternative formats provide any benefits? Bruce Lanphear, a professor in Health Sciences, shed some light on these questions when he offered HSCI 483-3, an environmental health seminar, as a one-week intensive course during the spring 2013 semester break. Students praised the course (see the student comments below), and Lanphear, who co-taught the class with Glenys Webster, thinks he knows why: “If I had to single out the most important factor of success, it would be the format that resulted in the positive student feedback.”

“The condensed nature of the class allowed for a very high level of concentration and focus on one subject that allowed for more in depth learning. Unprecedented access to the profs for extra help, and the small class allowed for greater discussion and learning opportunities outside the classroom.” – Student

Lanphear previously taught the course in a traditional 13-week, three-hours-per-week format. He found that the change to a five-day format prompted his students to become more connected and collaborative: “When we have students eight hours a day for one whole week […], they are sitting next to the same people hour after hour. People become comfortable talking and dialoguing with each other, so the level of engagement is much greater.” Lanphear found that his own level of engagement rose as well because he was able to fully dedicate himself to the course within its short duration.

“This is an excellent format to offer to students and should be offered for other courses more often. It creates a community environment, allows one to concentrate on the material, connect with the professor and peers, and allows for things like field trips which enrich the experience. Also, the scheduling is fantastic – loved getting to fit in a class between semesters as my schedule is fairly busy and sometimes conflicts with the 14 week semester.” – Student

Remarkably, all 31 students finished the class with a perfect attendance record. Presumably the engaging nature of the course activities had something to do with that—for example, guest speakers were brought in, and students participated in field trips with follow-up activities that reinforced applications to real life—but as the student comments made clear, the course format itself was a big part of the appeal, especially for students juggling studies with work and other responsibilities.

“[The course] allows people to get 3 credits done in a way that probably fits better into the majority of students’ schedules – students who want to work full time, for instance, can take a week off, but not 4 hours a week off for 13 weeks.” – Student

Lanphear has the following words of advice for other faculty members interested in exploring intensive course formats:

  • Evaluate your current course format to determine its suitability for an intensive format: If a course consists mostly of lectures presented by a single instructor without other assistance, a one-week format could be daunting for the instructor and the students.
  • Enlist help from staff and faculty since the change in format can have implications for systems and operations. In the case of HSCI 483-3, it took two years to move the course forward.
  • Consider how you will deal with additional costs for field trips and other activities. Think about where you can obtain funding (research grants, funding from your Faculty and/or the Teaching and Learning Development Grants).

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Modelling flexible learning

Dr. Nabyl Merbouh’s work in designing learning tools and replicas processed on a 3D printer.

Dr. Nabyl Merbouh’s work in designing learning tools and replicas processed on a 3D printer is a great example of the diversity of the term ‘flexible education.’ Along with research machinist Ken Van Wieren, Dr. Merbouh, a senior lecturer in chemistry, has provided an opportunity for thousands of math students across the province to physically hold equations and geometrical structures. “Math and chemistry students often have problems visualizing concepts,” Dr. Merbouh explains. Students studying anatomy can close their eyes, visualize their kneecap, and compare their intuitions to a 3D model that they can then take home. Passive learning is transformed into an embodied experience.

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Introduction to the Task Force on Flexible Education

Bill Krane, special advisor to the Vice-President, Academic, is chairing the TFFE. He believes it will have an enormous impact on the direction of teaching and learning at SFU.
Bill Krane, special advisor to the Vice-President, Academic, is chairing the TFFE. He believes it will have an enormous impact on the direction of teaching and learning at SFU.

“The TFFE will take a holistic view of SFU’s teaching and learning environment. ”

Almost 50 years ago Simon Fraser University, dubbed BC’s “instant university”, began offering a distinctive learning experience to its students. Underpinning its unique suite of initial programs was the trimester system, which allowed students to attend classes year round if they wished, or space their programs over a longer period than the four-year norm. This flexibility became a hallmark of the SFU educational experience and attracted many students who either wanted to study part-time or whose circumstances required them to combine work and study.

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Jamie Mulholland on flexible education

Jamie Mulholland
For Jamie Mulholland, a senior lecturer in mathematics, flexible education has meant experimenting with a flipped-classroom model that allows him to interact more meaningfully with his students.

Jamie Mulholland,  a senior lecturer in mathematics, and recipient of the 2011 Teaching Excellence Award, is renowned within the SFU community for his flipped calculus courses. Flipped classrooms are one example of flexible education—students watch lectures posted on Jamie’s YouTube Channel, while class time is spent solving math problems. Jamie began this initiative with the help of educational consultant Cindy Xin, and colleague Veselin Jungic. “We were all on it from day one so it’s equally as much their baby as it is mine,” says Jamie. To shore up the technical side he took the Ed Media Protégé Program and worked with Adam O. Thomas, a videographer from the Teaching +Learning Centre.

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