Outstanding Academic Programming 2013-2018 Strategic Plan Mini Town Hall Questions and Answers

With budgets as tight as they are, and some of the new initiatives will take funds to realize, there seems to be only things added to the plate and nothing removed. The plan seems to point us to things we should be doing but it doesn’t tell us what we should stop doing.

The decisions on how to change need to come from the those most familiar with the circumstances in each of our Faculties. We cannot, from the centre, make those key decisions. Our role has been to point to a direction we need to head and provide the support to help us get there.

I don’t see anything in the strategic plan concerning student/faculty ratios. The original 6th decade plan had as one of its objectives to reduce the student/faculty ratio to 20:1. Surely that would be the way to go to achieve the highest boost in the quality of teaching and program delivery.

Budget realities preclude the kind of massive hiring needed that would significantly move the student: faculty ratio downward. If we aspire to move our ratio to 25:1, for example, we would need to hire 200 faculty members, roughly and also ignores space problems in providing office and labs, etc.

If we can’t massively hire, what can we do to generate a supportive environment for both faculty and students in dealing with large class sizes?

We have ongoing programming available through our Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) as well as consultation to assist instructors in dealing with challenges such as teaching effectively in large classes. Various learning technologies can assist here, such as clickers in the classroom and automated quizzing in LEARN. Many of CTE’s online tip sheets provide ideas about how to teach effectively in large classes.  

What does it mean to have our teaching at the “highest international standards”?

We have a sense of what this looks like through the work of CTE and planned work to address this issue. CTE staff actively search for best practice information from the research literature. Pedagogical research continues to emerge about various aspects of effective teaching and how students learn, which CTE and Centre for Extended Learning (CEL) staff incorporate into the resources and support that they provide.

The initiatives for course evaluations seem bold – other institutions have had concerns about online evaluations and their validity (e.g., where are students when completing them, do they take such evaluations seriously).

We have run online pilots regarding online evaluations in Math and Science in recent terms – they were unqualified successes. The Faculties made huge efforts to engage students and instructors in the initiatives and they responded well. It is important to note that students are driving this key initiative.

We are also looking a increasing the ease with which students can access course evaluation (aggregated statistical) data. It is uneven across the institution and not all Faculties make the data available. The temperature is right to make this change - to move a made-in-Waterloo solution, rather than something that potentially could be imposed on us down the road.

Regarding “educating grads uniquely prepared to deal with challenges of 21st century” – literacy (language skills) are mentioned but not numeracy – isn’t that a need as well?

Communication skills were focused on because that is was what we heard from co-op employers – and using co-op students as a proxy for all of our students – a reasonable conclusion is that we have to do a better job of preparing our students more generally. Numeracy probably is a need – but it wasn’t identified in the plan as something to be addressed at this point. It might be in the future.

Why aren’t the recommendations from the “Innovative teaching practices to promote deep learning” task force report part of this plan?

First, many of the recommendations from that task force report have already been implemented (Teaching Fellows, revised teaching conference and grants program). 

And second, our plan helps to move ideas from the task force report to the next level.  For example, our plan calls for more teaching support and increased participation of instructors in CTE’s various programs. Teaching Fellows are involved in and will be part of the execution of certain parts of the plan in their respective faculties. Better learning space is part of our plan and can help to encourage deep learning, as will experiential learning and enhanced use of technology.

Developing a teaching and learning charter will help to articulate the type of learning environment that we aim to create at Waterloo. And our plans to enhance further the marketing and communications about teaching and learning build directly from one of the task force report recommendations.

Why have we not embraced MOOCs? are we putting ourselves at a disadvantage?

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) do not offer the kind of quality online learning experience that Waterloo espouses.  Because MOOCs are built to serve thousands of learners, they rely primarily on machine-grading and incorporate almost no interaction between students and faculty.  Waterloo is a leader in online learning in our province and beyond, and we will continue to watch the evolution of the field and take advantage of new pedagogies and technologies that will most benefit our students.

To improve the quality of teaching on campus, what about insisting that all instructor must earn some kind of teaching credential as part of their employment responsibility? or a requirement for tenure?

We think there are better ways to encourage a culture that strives to put and recognizes teaching as a priority for this institution. In the last decade we have raised the awareness of the importance of high quality teaching in many ways -  the Teaching Fellows program, LITE grants, more Faculties awarding their own teaching awards, teaching stories are becoming more frequent.

As well, starting in 2011 there is the new faculty teaching-focused programming.  A quick synopsis of CTE's Teaching Orientation is: development of a Learning about Teaching Plan (which is a professional development plan re: teaching development) and running of 4 workshops:

  • CTE 642 Course Design Fundamentals
  • CTE 906 Classroom Dynamics and Engagement
  • CTE 910 Who Are Our Learners
  • CTE 912 Assessment for Learning

But that does not rule out looking into a qualification of some sort – the question of whether it is voluntary or mandatory is a key one and would certainly involve a thoughtful discussion among the various stakeholders.

Many faculty still view online teaching as being inferior to the face-to-face experience in a classroom. How do you plan to change that perception?

The fact is that well designed and supported online courses are not inferior to face-to-face classes, and we will continue to work within Faculties to demonstrate the possibilities as well as the ways in which CEL can partner with instructors to optimize the online learning experience.  This is not to say that fully online delivery is appropriate for all types of subject matter (nor all types of learners).  However, technology can frequently be used to enhance the learning experience for blended approaches to course delivery also.

Why does Waterloo want to grow online learning? Is this a strategy to save money or reduce faculty?

Waterloo’s online courses and programs are about providing flexibility and choice for our students and our faculty, as well as taking advantage of the benefits that technology can enable in improving the teaching and learning experience for particular scenarios.  Our online courses allow many students to create schedules that fit their life or learning style.  Fully online programs extend the university’s reach beyond geographic boundaries and facilitate degree completion for adult learners who are frequently working professionals.  And, by the way, online learning is not cheaper!

You haven't mentioned graduate student supervision as a priority for the first year. What are your plans for this area?

In the short term, we plan to pilot the incorporation of supervision and training into new faculty programming. As well, we will survey best practices in supervision and how it can be applied to UW. Eventually we hope to implement supervision and a training program for graduate student supervision and mentoring, open to all faculty.