What does 21st-century learning look like?

Smarter use of technology, closing the gap between classroom lessons and real-life scenarios, and meeting the challenges of a more diverse student body are all part of the picture.

Adapt or fall behind.

That’s the reality facing many post-secondary institutions today as technological advances, changing approaches to work and increasingly diverse student populations continue to shift what’s expected from institutions of higher learning.

Yet as new frontiers emerge at Dalhousie and other universities, education’s powerful promise remains the same: when done well, it empowers. Whether it’s the fresh perspectives gained from new knowledge, the technical skills acquired through discipline and hard work, or the personal connections made through community, a university education has the power the change people’s lives for the better.

At the heart of it all are teachers, the linchpins in the system who help create those innovative learning opportunities that can elevate a student’s educational experience in meaningful ways and set them up for success in career and life. “One of Dalhousie’s main strengths is that we have caring teachers,” says Teri Balser, Dal’s provost and vice-president academic. “We are a research-focused university, and yet we are not one that has forgotten or dismissed our engagement with our students. That’s a really powerful thing.”

Campus as classroom

Tucked away in a corner of Dalhousie’s Agricultural Campus in Bible Hill, N.S., lies the bucolic Bicentennial Botanical Gardens. The alumni-funded space opened during Dal’s 200th anniversary celebrations, a charming addition to a campus already overflowing with plant collections, an alpine rock garden, a butterfly meadow, vegetable gardens, an apple orchard and more than 3,000 types of trees, plants and shrubs.

But the garden’s natural splendor serves as more than a reprieve from the buzz of daily life. It has quickly become one of the Faculty of Agriculture’s most treasured outdoor learning spaces, where students have helped design the 10-foot tall Barley Arch entrance and assisted in developing, building and managing its beautiful structured spaces as part of the Faculty’s Landscape Architecture program. “It’s pretty special for a student to build something on the campus and to be able to come back as an alumni and say, ‘Hey, I planted this’ or ‘I designed this or installed this.’ It gives them a real sense of belonging to that greater community,” says Tracey MacKenzie, a senior instructor in the Department of Plant, Food and Environmental Sciences at Dal.

MacKenzie, who teaches courses on urban forest management and environmental processes, says he sees the gardens, the campus and even the communities beyond as one big outdoor classroom. “When you’re teaching those subjects, the most obvious place to do your class is not in a classroom,” he says. “It’s outside, where the action actually takes place.” There, students can observe the natural landscape and how it interacts with the human-altered ecosystem around it. And they can build a sense of “stewardship to the campus, stewardship to our institution, and then, of course, stewardship of the land and the environment and making a positive contribution,” he says.

Other faculties and department at Dal also integrate the physical campus into curriculum, including Biology, which hosts a regular BioBlitz event where students catalogue all the species they can find on campus.

While undertaking her PhD in Philosophy at Dalhousie, Tiffany Gordon facilitated a creative writing workshop for female prisoners at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facilty on behalf of the advocacy group Books Beyond Bars. It’s this kind of community-engaged learning experience that the Faculty of Arts and Social Science hopes to foster through its experiential learning program. (Daniel Abriel photo)

Real-world scenarios

What’s it like to be in an emergency room with a person having an asthma attack? What’s the best way to fix a thoroughbred racehorse’s broken leg bone? Why are dental conditions different in some  northern communities in Canada than in southern ones? These scenarios may seem distinct from one another, but they share one commonality: all are situations students in their final year of the Medical Sciences program have encountered as part of their capstone course.

Capstone courses have been an integral part of the educational experience for students in the Faculties of Engineering and Management at Dal for years. As in those programs, the Medical Sciences capstone is meant to help integrate what students have learned throughout their undergraduate program and contextualize the material by exposing them to scenarios or problems they might actually encounter in work environments after they graduate, says Sarah Wells, who developed the course when she took over as assistant dean of Medical Sciences in 2016.

“It’s exposing students in the Medical Sciences program to all the different possible career paths that they may be considering and the applications of their degrees into those different areas,” says Dr. Wells.

Dr. Wells collaborates across various faculties at Dal to create vivid case studies. Students are exposed to five such studies during a term. The students hear from a clinician or expert with front-line experience, and then divide into teams to give presentations on approaches to each medical problem from the perspectives they’ve learned in core courses during their degree. Peer review is integral, with students reviewing each other’s presentations and submitting a rough draft of a term paper to two peers to simulate a blind peer review in a real medical journal. “It’s a lot of work and it’s very time intensive, but the students have loved it,” says Dr. Wells.

Co-op programs are only one way students can learn beyond the classroom.

Experience required

When people hear the phrases experiential learning or work-integrated learning, the arts, humanities and social sciences might not immediately spring to mind. But they’d be wrong to assume that, says Jenny Baechler, director of experiential learning and community engagement in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science (FASS) at Dal. Traditional offerings such as co-op programs—long a staple in computer science and engineering— are only one way students can learn beyond the classroom.

“There are community engaged project courses, practicum courses, in-class simulations, study-abroad programs and field courses, all developed by faculty members who believe in the value of experiential learning. And the Fountain School has a rich tapestry of experiential learning opportunities available to its students as well,” explains Dr. Baechler, who joined FASS from the Faculty of Management, where she spent years as coordinator of the Management Without Borders (MWB) course that connects grad students with community partner organizations to work on projects. Dr. Baechler says a course similar to MWB is under development for FASS students and will leverage core learnings around critical problem solving, skilled research and extraordinary writing and communications.

Another upcoming opportunity open to Dal undergrad students—including those in FASS—will be a new innovation and entrepreneurship minor designed specifically for non-management students. “We want to give them rich learning and new skills that can serve them well for whatever kind of workplace they go into,” says Dr. Baechler. “It’s not necessarily a cubicle or office space, right? The workplace is the stage, the workplace is the writer’s nook, the workplace is the museum, the workplace is a not-for-profit.” 

The power of language

English-language education at Dalhousie’s College of Continuing Education (CCE) has exploded over the past decade. What was once a pilot project in 2009 run by a single instructor has transformed into a 25-person unit, rich in academic expertise. Utilizing an extensive suite of programming and working with partners across the university, the ESL team is helping international students—who now make up 24 per cent of the student body—get support if they need it as they adapt to studying, working and communicating in English.

As the linguistic profile of the student body changes, so too do the demands faced by students and faculty alike in the classroom. “Working in a linguistically-
diverse classroom is a fundamental change to this university in the last 10 years. Professors across the university are now looking up in their lecture halls and seeing and hearing multiple languages,” says David Packer, director of English-as-a-second-language (ESL) programs at Dal.

In addition to offering many different courses for students and professionals at all levels of English-language learning, the team also offers training and professional development for educators teaching English or teaching in English. While some programs are similar to those offered at other universities—English for Academic Purposes (EAP), for example, can be found in most major Canadian universities now—there has also been a fair amount of innovation in ESL programming at Dal in recent years.

Dal has also launched a professional development certificate in English-medium instruction. The certificate caters to educational institutions abroad wishing to have their instructors offer courses in different subject areas in English to their own students. It’s one of only two such programs in Canada. And a new offering being prepared for this fall called the Academic Foundations for University program will provide a pathway to study in Canada for students from various Latin American countries. “They will come here for 11 months. In that time, they’ll basically do their Grade 12 through CCE’s University Prep program and meet the English-language requirements for university with our EAP program,” says Packer.

Dr. Matthew Numer uses the TopHat platform to allow students in large classes to vote on which questions they most want answered, enable peer-to-peer responses and share readings and discussion questions.

Towards a frictionless classroom

Matthew Numer had a popularity problem: the associate professor’s undergraduate course on human sexuality had grown from 300 students per year to 1,000 (500 per term). And while he was thrilled by students’ interest, he also faced a serious teaching challenge: how to keep students engaged in such a large class, especially when the subject matter meant most of them valued the discretion of a more private discussion.

Turning to technology seemed like a natural choice. But Dr. Numer felt traditional class-response tools such as physical clickers were too limited in functionality for the kind of interaction he was after. TopHat, whose founders met with Dr. Numer during a campus visit, proved to be a more versatile option, with its bring-your-own-device platform that works on smartphones, tablets and laptops alike. Dr. Numer initially adopted it as a way to poll the class and enable peer-to-peer responses and has since expanded his use to allow students to pose their own questions to him.

“I always have a discussion thread running in the background, so if they have questions, they can vote on the ones they most want answered, which is pretty cool in a class of 500. If we have 40 or 50 people all saying, ‘We need this question answered,’ I know I need to get to that topic,” he says. It’s a clear illustration of how technology can enable a teacher to make learning more student-centred, even in big classes.

Dr. Numer’s success in integrating TopHat into his classroom led the company to approach him about developing a textbook on the platform to go along with the course. Intrigued by the prospect of having an out-of-class learning experience for students that matched the interactivity of the in-class experience, he pursued it.

“It’s gone,” he says of the physical textbook he used to assign. Now, class readings are embedded directly into the app alongside explanatory videos, infographics and discussion questions they have to answer for credit. A chapter and discussion unlocks one week before Dr. Numer teaches on the topic and closes one week after, keeping students on pace in a way traditional texts fail to. “Initially, some people were like, ‘Well, what if I like to read?’ But once they did it, they understood that they were getting way more out of this type of textbook than anything else because it looks at the multiple ways in which students learn,” he says.