CFE 2015 Faculty Showcase at UNC: ‘Teaching Less in More Depth’

By Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the 5th annual Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE) Faculty Showcase at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This event is indispensible for those who want to gain a concise overview of emerging trends, proven approaches, best practices and innovative experiments in Carolina. CFE organizes the gathering to offer faculty an opportunity to learn more about specific instructional techniques or technology from their peers. For many attendees, showcase talks are the spark that ignites interest in considering changes for courses they teach. It also serves as a reminder for faculty to make use of the many instructional design and pedagogical consulting services the campus has to offer.

The day provided a chance to hear firsthand about the capabilities of the University’s Makerspaces, how teachers use Google Earth’s Liquid Galaxy display and Lightboard, which is currently being built on campus. What makes the showcase an exceptional learning opportunity for instructional designers is the mix of cutting edge technological innovation and low- or no-tech tips and tricks – be it gender neutral language, better writing assignments, role-play or reflective teaching practices and course evaluation. The showcase event closed with a presentation format I particularly enjoyed: Five-minute-long introductions to a variety of topics and projects with the explicit invitation, “Steal my idea!”

mary-huber 2The keynote speaker, Mary Taylor Huber, consultant at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, characterized the CFE event as the “greatest illustration possible” for the theme of her talk, “Building an Academic Commons Through SoTL.” Huber stated that the relationship between teaching and the institutional environment has changed noticeably over the past decade. Teaching is increasingly recognized as a valued academic activity in both general public debates and in the scientific communities. “Teaching is on a fast train,” explained Huber, and pointed out several catalysts for change: diversity, technology, new pedagogies (i.e., undergraduate research, service learning), authentic participation and educational research. Throughout the day, many examples of exceptional teaching brought these concepts to life. 

New Tools: Makerspaces, Liquid Galaxy, Lightboards

Rich Superfine, Danianne Mizzy and Vladimir Ghukasyan, in “Constructing Student Learning Using Makerspaces and Liquid Galaxy,” presented a variety of makerspace activities on campus.

VladimirGhukasyan 3Ghukasyan used the makerspace in a graduate course on microscopy principles and applications. The students’ task was to build a simple compound microscope with adjustable light source. “This stuff is like adult legos,” he explained. The materials available in the open source community allow everyone to build instrumentation. Why should students learn this? “If a scientist is focused on using one instrument, he is limited to the framework that this instrument provides,” Ghukasyan pointed out. Hence, Makerspace activities allow for reflection of deeper scientific principles.

Superfine described making as a way “to make the abstract real.” As an example, he described the course Physics 100, a large introductory class with 125 students, all non-science majors. Instead of assigning a paper or test, the students were tasked with assembling a radio from an inexpensive $3 kit. This lead to a deeper understanding of the concept of radio waves: “Wow, this thing works without a battery.”

Liquid Galaxy at UNC Davis Library

Liquid Galaxy at UNC Davis Library

The same idea was voiced by geography professor Ashley Ward. She described the new tools as an opportunity for “teaching less, in more depth.” Amanda Henley and Ashley Ward presented instructional applications for Liquid Galaxy, a surround-screen immersive digital display of Google Earth data. Ward used Liquid Galaxy in teaching Geography 121: People and Places in which students conducted case studies on Brazil. Students used the GIS Lab to create maps with KML, Google Earth data format. They then explored the statistics on different levels – state and municipalities. After mapping, they were able to virtually visit sites of interest, based on their data analysis. One student, for instance, discovered a disparity in life expectancy in a specific region and used Liquid Galaxy to gather qualitative data to further investigate the phenomenon.

How to use – and build – innovative displays was the focus of Chris Jones’s presentation. He introduced Lightboard, a glass surface for recording video lecture topics. It allows speakers to write on a board without turning their back to the audience and thus enhances the social presence of the teacher in lecture recordings. Since instructional videos have become a staple ingredient of flipped classrooms, this new opportunity received considerable interest among the audience. It also showed cross-departmental collaboration – parts of the lightboard are printed with Makerspace 3D printers.

Chris Jones, Faculty Lead for Implementing Lightboard at UNC (Image Source Twitter)

Chris Jones, Faculty Lead for Implementing Lightboard at UNC (Image Source Twitter)

Ongoing Challenges: Effective Feedback, Group Activities, Textbooks

The CFE showcase is not an ed-tech playground but a sounding board for instructional ideas. Other talks tackled ongoing pedagogical challenges such as providing effective feedback, implementing successful group activities and choosing textbooks.

Encouraging more and better writing with less grading was an excellent example. Especially in the humanities, instructors would like to assign more writing but struggle to find time to provide effective feedback. Flora Cassen gave a resonating account of a recent class in which she followed the peer feedback techniques outlined by George Gopen (2005). She was thrilled with the results: “Students gave each other very valuable feedback that I, in my role as their teacher, could never have voiced.”

desiree_griffinIn a session about ideas for successful group activities, Desiree Griffin shared her approach on how to enhance student accountability for completing assigned reading through a group exercise called Reading Roles. Students receive a role that they have to assume during small group discussions of an assigned article, for instance, discussion leader, passage master, creative connector, devil’s advocate. A reporter takes note during the discussion and prepares a summary of the discussion. She reminded the audience that it is important to allocate enough class time for group work: “My students regularly spend half and hour in the small group discussion – and still they are often not done when I want to wrap things up.”

Leigh HallDuring one of the brief “steal my idea” talks, Leigh Hall described in light-speed how to include elements of video games in an instructional setting (gamification). As Leigh pointed out, quests in video games are a journey toward something with optional and essential steps in which constrained choices allow for autonomy. “It is a good starting point to think about the assignments in your course as quests. But,” she warned, “you cannot simply switch the label, call each assignment a quest, and have gamification.” Instead, Leigh advised offering students choices to navigate the course and unplanned opportunities to earn points (pop-up quests). Learn more at her blog, “Confessions of a Bored Academic.”

Robin CunninghamAnother idea to steal is actually licensed for this exact purpose – Open Textbooks. Robin Cunningham described how he switched, in his class Introductory Statistics (STOR 155), from a commercial publisher to OpenIntro Statistics. Using the publisher’s source code (provided in LaTeX), instructors are able to tailor chapter flow, topics, graphics and the overall presentation to the course settings. New editions are optional, and the instructor remains in full control of the text. Cunningham also described hurdles for the adoption of open textbooks: Some students (and faculty) associate lower cost with lower value. In addition, cheaper grey-scale printouts make graphic elements much less appealing.

Further Information

Presentation slides and handouts for most of the Showcase sessions are available at

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