Visiting Fellows

Q&A with Nick Baker

Nick Baker

How did you become an educational developer -- and why did you choose that path?

Quite by accident really. I was teaching ecology and got involved with our Teaching and Educational Development Institute (TEDI) on a number of projects aimed at enhancing student learning. That sparked an interest in education so I did some postgrad study in the area and TEDI offered me a three month secondment as an instructional designer for one of their staff who was on leave. I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn new skills and perhaps help some academics to improve their teaching. At the end of it, I was hooked and stayed on. Eventually an academic position came up that allowed me to do the two things I am most passionate about – teach ecology, and research and scholarship in higher education. I applied for that and the rest, as they say, is history.

I guess you could say what really drives me to do this work though is the recognition that there was little assistance available to me as a new teacher. I was thrust into teaching a large, complex and challenging class with absolutely no preparation or support. I want to ensure that this experience doesn't happen to other people. As teachers, we will make a difference to the lives of thousands of students over the course of our career. As academic developers, we hope we can make a difference to the lives of some of our teachers and thereby influence the learning and experience of far more students than we could ever have reached as teachers.

How does your research and experience as an ecologist affect your work as an educational developer, and vice versa?

As a broadly trained ecologist, I am able to look at complex problems and see the linkages between their components, which is essentially what ecology is about. As a scientist, I am looking for evidence that the work we do as academic developers has an impact, and am always striving to promote evidence-based practice in higher education. I'm also passionate about quality science teaching and so tend to focus a lot of my work on understanding the best ways to engage students in science. In ecology, that often means hands-on, experiential learning settings such as field trips, and authentic assessment that models real-world activities. My ecological research often involved understanding the behaviour of people and animals in an effort to get them to do something they were reluctant to do; in a lot of ways that's not so different to academic development where change of teaching practice can be a difficult thing to achieve.

What do you hope to accomplish during your visiting fellowship at the University of Windsor?

I hope to accomplish a number of things while visiting here. The Canadian higher education system is quite similar to our own in Australia so I am looking for parallels and practice that I can take home to my own institution, especially in the way that new faculty are supported in their transition to teaching and to the University. I'm also very interested in the support for TAs/GAs, peer mentoring in all its many forms, and the work that is done in distance education in science here at Windsor. The development of CLEW is also of interest as there is much debate in Australian universities about whether it is better to adapt and develop a system such as has been done here, or to buy an off-the-shelf product.

In return, I hope I can contribute something to the University of Windsor from my experience in Australia. I do a lot of work around supporting tutors, flexible learning, distance education, the transition to university and to graduate study, and quality in science education. The design and development of a variety of learning spaces is also a strong area of interest for me. With all the building work going on around campus at the moment, it seems an ideal time to be here to see how Windsor is engaging with this important topic. I hope that during my time here I can provoke discussion around my areas of interest and expertise through the workshops I'll be presenting over summer and the individual conversations I'll get to have with many people around campus. I'm really looking forward to the rest of the summer and have been incredibly impressed with the friendly collegiality I've experienced so far.

In your considered opinion, what are the most important skills or items of knowledge for new faculty to learn in order to maximize their potential as teachers?

This is a very good question, and one that I've been asked by new faculty themselves in the past...what are the two or three key things I need to know to survive the next few months? The very first thing I would suggest that is important is self reflection. As a new teacher, you often don't have a very good picture of how well you are going so seeking feedback informally from your class or colleagues, and then reflecting on that and what it means for your teaching practice is really important in your development.

Secondly, we all have a tendency to teach as we were taught, which is entirely natural. Our teachers are part of what inspired us to where we are now, and the way that they taught us is our experience of what it means to be an educator. What I would suggest is that new faculty should be comfortable in trying to find their own style, their own approach to teaching, and not be afraid to try new things (and sometimes fail!) You might start by taking some of the activities or approaches you thought were inspiring and helped you to learn when you were studying and building your classes on those foundations. Don't be too concerned though if that doesn't seem to work for your students, as they will inevitably have different approaches to learning to you.

The third thing I would say is that you need to get to know the people who can help you. It is not a failing on your part if your first teaching evaluation is negative. Teaching is an incredibly personal experience, it is part of who we are, and if you don't get a good review, especially after putting a great deal of effort into the program, it can feel like a personal failure or even attack. The important thing is to take away from the experience some ideas about how you might do things next time. Talk to your students if you want more feedback, ask an experienced colleague, or visit the Centre for Teaching and Learning. You are an expert in your discipline and as a new faculty member, should not be expected to be an expert in teaching yet. Remember that it does get better and there are few experiences that are more meaningful or powerful as a teacher than witnessing the moment that the light bulb goes on in your students, and then some way down the track, getting an email from them telling you that you made a difference to their lives. Teaching can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.

Could you describe some of the projects you've been involved with, that faculty at the University of Windsor might find interesting?

I have been involved in hundreds of eLearning projects over the years all with a focus on improving student learning. Some of these are very novel or interesting solutions to problems faced everyday like supporting distance learners to understand genetics by providing an online and CD-based resource, or the development of a virtual zoo where information about different rare and endangered Australian animals which we were researching could be stored in a way that it can be used for teaching in a variety of courses.

As well as these types of projects, I'm also involved in the design, development and evaluation of different formal and informal learning spaces, supporting tutors and sessional teaching staff through the development of learning circles and resources, and programs that enhance the transition to university. I'm currently working with a team to develop a web-based resource to support the transition phase (focussing on the first 6 weeks of semester). This will be a one-stop-shop for students and will incorporate large components of their own voice to tell the story of how to survive this major life change.

I'm also very interested in the use of field trips as learning environments for science students, and particularly intensive international field trips that have both a science and social learning aspect. I'm interested in the aspects of these learning environments that enhance learning for our students and ways to incorporate some of those learning experiences in other courses. I also do work on the best way to support distance learners and to try and ensure that they get the same quality of experience as their on-campus counterparts, which is particularly important and challenging in many of the science disciplines. Another project I'm currently working on is building self-efficacy in at-risk student groups in their first year through early assessment and feedback, and collaborative learning activities.

What book or article about teaching and learning should every faculty member and educational developer read?

Ramsden, P. 2003. Learning to Teach in Higher Education. Routledge, London.

Paul simplifies and makes accessible much of the language of teaching and learning that can exclude many non-education specialists. This book is about how to be a good teacher in higher education and the process of development that happens over time in your teaching.

Chickering and Gamson, 1987. Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education.

Recently, there has been some debate over whether learners are now so different that the seven principles are no longer relevant to them. I would argue that no matter how different we perceive our contemporary students as being from ourselves, the principles of Chickering and Gamson are still appropriate to our work.

Best, most interesting, most useful thing you ever learned from an educational developer?

Educational development is about linking faculty with the tools they need to be the best teachers they can possibly be. We are an information resource, we help faculty make sense of the literature, we are teachers, we are colleagues, we are collaborators. Educational development is not a career you choose…you are drawn to it by a passion for learning and teaching, and a desire to make a difference.

Favourite quote?

"Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn."
- Martin Heidegger

"A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops."
- Henry Brooks Adams.

"As music educators, it is our passion that connects us to our art, but it is our compassion that connects us to our students and allows us to nurture communities of learners. Of all the aspects of our profession, this is the easiest to teach, but the most difficult to learn. We teach compassion by simply living it."
- Adam Adler

"The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires."
- William Arthur Ward.

Anything else you'd like the University of Windsor to know about you?

I enjoy working and learning outside. I’m an active learner and so I tend to learn best by doing, but also use visual representations to promote my own deep learning. I’m very interested in the behavioural aspects of learning spaces and the types of activities you can promote through design characteristics of space. I’m trying to understand how different learning spaces – both physical and virtual – affect learning. This is often difficult to quantify, but is important so that new spaces can be designed using an evidence-based approach. I also have a strong interest in development of authentic assessment tasks, especially in the sciences, and am always looking for ways in which people approach assessing the learning of their students. I hope to discover some new ways while I’m in Canada.