June 15, 2016

The 2016 Festival of Learning: A journey through four days

The 2016 Festival of Learning focused on “Celebrating Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.”

Ivona Mladenovic (right), a senior lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences, attended B.C.’s inaugural Festival of Learning in Burnaby on June 6–9, 2016. The gathering brought together more than 400 participants for an event jointly hosted by six organizations connected to teaching and learning in higher education. This is her reflection on selected presentations from the Festival.

Selected presentations from Day 1

The Festival begins with delicious, and surprisingly fresh, pastries, but—there is no keynote session, nor a keynote speaker. I find this unusual.

My first session is very interesting. It is about “Gamification,” but I think it is more about an active learning approach with an attractive title. The session is delivered by presenters from BCIT, and I find it quite interesting, engaging, with a good idea for an activity that I could use in my teaching. I think students might even like it, at least based on the presenters’ experience and my own gut feeling. After all—anything that might help enhance learning in my students is definitely worth my attention. I ended up emailing one of the presenters and receiving their PowerPoint slides, which I plan to go back to again later.

The first session is followed by another one, which I might even consider the best I attended at the whole Festival. The presenter is from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and he is presenting very well-rounded research on smartphone usage in classrooms, of course for an educational purpose. The reason why I liked this session the most is because it had a real scientific approach to the problem investigated, namely, the effects that smartphones have on students’ engagement and performance, and even more because it was one of the rare studies that has at least some components of students’ learning in mind. Most of the other sessions did not necessarily consider students’ learning benefits, nor was this at least in the background of their presented research.

Selected presentations from Day 2

I begin the day in a wrongly selected workshop. The topic of the workshop is more for educational developers at the institutional level than for a faculty member like me. But I stay for the first part at least.

I move to other sessions, and one left an impression on me—a former high school teacher and now a district administrator from Cowichan is presenting about changes that are currently going on in K–12. I hear about many details, some of which I can't believe are even called a change, but I do not find a positive answer to the only question that I have: “Will high school students finally begin reading their textbooks?” Unfortunately, the answer is still “No, this is not within the focus of the new high school curriculum.” I am disappointed with the initiative, but still impressed by the amount of knowledge that this presenter brings with her. It is useful for me to hear about the environment from which most of my students come.

Selected presentations from Day 3

Day 3 for me begins with an excellent session held by our (SFU’s) own Cindy Xin from the Teaching and Learning Centre. I always learn a lot from her. She engages her audience; she gathers us into a circle; she makes you feel comfortable and welcomed; she speaks with a proper pace and tone. I enjoyed her presentation thoroughly. Not to mention that she leaves me with an impression that I could possibly do the same when I teach, and that pretty much any topic can be covered successfully if you only learn how to do it from Cindy. Her topic is “Effective Learning Spaces.”

This day continues with another highlight—an entertainer from Vancouver Island University. The topic is metacognition, and I find the presenter very passionate about it, knowledgeable, but for my taste, a little bit business-oriented. I do not have the feeling that I am sitting in an educational conference, but more that I am attending a TED Talk. Nevertheless, I collect valuable ideas and raise some thoughts about developing my own metacognitive skills. I even enter a note into my smartphone with an idea or two for my own teaching improvement.

The day finishes enjoyably with my colleagues from SFU. I enjoyed the session about classroom response systems, which the presenters shared with us elegantly from the beginning to the end, in spite of the fact that they had a distracting technical difficulty that, unfortunately, was not repaired during their short presentation time. I learned about two different classroom response systems in an engaging and useful way.

Thank you to all of today’s presenters!

Selected presentations from Day 4

The last day finally delivers two big truths in two separate presentations: (1) flexible learning is not all that flexible; (2) flipped classrooms are not that successful for first-year university students. I am happy to hear some research-based evidence about both of these ideas that I have been mulling over in my mind for quite some time. With some minor flaws, the presenters from UBC and the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), respectively, shared their research results, which I find well-rounded and quite elaborate—enough for me to feel better about myself regarding both topics. I am not that far away from correct conclusions based on my teaching experience, despite the whole frenzy about flexible learning and flipped classrooms. I am happy.

The day ends with a UFV presentation about teamwork, from which I finally cement the fact that even though I ask students to work in teams, I actually do not provide enough time to teach them team-working. I hear that most faculty members make the same mistake. But I also learn in this session ways to incorporate team-teaching into my courses when I want a team assignment to be done, and I am happy to take that home with me.

Final thoughts

The Festival is now over, and I kinda miss it. Overall, it was a little diluted, with some sessions and workshops being a little longer than needed; some sessions not worth being included in the first place; and some (but not enough) hallway marketing and goodies. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that SFU Document Solutions has an electronic white board. Go to their website to see how neat this device is.

The organization and food were mostly fine. I appreciated tons of fruits, gluten-free options, and generally keeping it on a lighter and healthier side. The (Wednesday-night) Carnival I did not attend, but saw some fabulous costumes. I am hopeful that it was a blast, although the day after I did not hear too much buzz about it …

I am looking forward to next year’s Festival of Learning! Thank you, organizers and presenters.

Note: The 2016 Festival of Learning was co-hosted by the following higher-education organizations/events:

  • British Columbia Teaching & Learning Council (BCTLC) 
  • BCcampus OpenEd Open Textbook Summit
  • Scholarly Teaching & Learning in Post-Secondary Education
  • Intensive: Scholarly Inquiry into Teaching & Learning Research Design
  • British Columbia Teaching & Learning Network
  • Educational Technology Users Group (ETUG)