Academic Technologies office pursues educational innovation

What's next for technology-supported learning on campus and beyond?

By Sasha Roeder Mah

When Academic Technologies first launched about six years ago, its mandate was to create and implement a learning management system, an online way of organizing course material. That mandate has changed considerably, to reflect the needs and wishes of a tech-savvy and information-hungry world, both on campus and beyond. "Today, our job is to support all faculty and students within the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry with respect to their teaching and learning, as it relates to technology," says Lyn Sonnenberg, Director of Academic Technologies. "Our job is also to lead, in terms of innovation." Students come into this program as 'digital natives,' says Sonnenberg, and they expect cutting-edge help and the flexibility that comes with access to technology, such as vodcasts and podcasts, and even-hopefully in a year's time, she says-a tablet dissection table as an enhancement to human cadaver dissections.

To address the shift toward technology-supported learning, Sonnenberg says her office is working to promote systemic changes. First, they're identifying early-adopting faculty to train staff who may not be quick to independently embrace new technology, so more classes will offer options students expect. Second, while the university can certainly improve its own resources, the online world is already awash in valuable content for medical students. The trick, says Sonnenberg, is to make sure they know how to sift critically through biased and inaccurate information. "Currently, various programs are striving to develop critical thinking and analytical skills earlier in their programs." And finally, with the increased volume of information students are expected to absorb, Sonnenberg stresses, it's more important than ever for the administration to grant learners the freedom to pursue their education their way. "Traditionally we've said, 'if you're not physically present here, you're not learning,' and what we know about this generation of learners is that's not how they want to learn."

The building blocks

The office of Academic Technologies spent much of the last year building an educational technologies framework, meant to define the competencies and reach of the team. Central to the framework are seven capabilities, says Sonnenberg-education, design, development, collaboration, leadership, administration and expertise. What began as a homegrown project has grown into a nationwide initiative to define best ed-tech practices in all post-secondary institutions across Canada. In partnership with the University of Ottawa, the office has been leading targeted focus groups and compiling responses to national surveys to formalize the framework for all participants and define a national community of practice around those seven pillars.

Opening borders "We're leading the charge across the University of Alberta in open educational resources (OER) advocacy," says Sonnenberg. This practice puts research out in the open, usually online, legally accessible for free to everyone. Sonnenberg says today's academics are warming up to this concept, a major shift from the traditional focus on protecting intellectual property. Within the faculty, the School of Dentistry has embraced open educational resources, with pilot projects also underway from Hematology, Medical Laboratory Science and Dental Hygiene. Sonnenberg imagines one day having an open-education medical school, "where anyone in the community could listen to or be part of different lectures."

Serious fun

The design team at Academic Technologies may have the most fun, collaborating with faculty and external contributors on gamification that facilitates training in the classroom and beyond. With the help and input of various faculty members, designer Patrick von Hauff has developed clinical problem-solving card sets in the areas of obesity management, general dentistry, emergency medicine and hematology. "Students need to cultivate a comfort with uncertainty and the flexibility to respond to change and adapt strategy," he says, and these cards present complex clinical scenarios that encourage learners to think on their feet in a safe setting. The design team supplies professional resources, too. Thomas Jeffery is part of the team behind Retain, a multi-dimensional educational tool-board game, card game and digital simulator-that trains practitioners in neonatal resuscitation. Prompted by the needs of medical residents, Retain is now being used by students, nurses and other team members working in neonatal intensive care units. "You can use it on your own, in a group, on a break, in the middle of the night," says Jeffery, highlighting yet another way Academic Technologies is revolutionizing and personalizing learning.