Made in Canada Answers to Teaching Technology

If your institution is anything like mine, privacy concerns surrounding student information is HUGE. As instructors, we are constantly urged to encrypt our hard drives, and be aware of what we put on flash drives or email servers. Breaches of privacy are a big problem these days. Up here in the Great White North, we have an additional worry when trying to protect the personal information of our students, which relates to the geographic location of the servers that run our technology. We are constantly being discouraged from using gmail to stay in touch with students, and every time a promising new technology comes along that we want to try with our classes, we are first asked where its servers live, and how much personal information they require. Names and student numbers are the big issue. On their own, either in isolation is less of a concern (though many, including me, would argue that student numbers should always be protected). Put them together, however, and you have the magic privacy breach combination.

So as instructors at Canadian universities, we face an interesting dilemma… how to use technology to its fullest when we must also protect the privacy of our students?

I faced this issue just this week, while trying to find a new platform for my discussion boards. Our current learning management system (which shall remain nameless) is not very well like by our student population (or the instructors, for that matter) and the result has been a severe drop in online participation. This past winter I could even pay them to post (in the form of participation marks). I constantly hover around 10% (or less) online participation, and marks seem to make no difference whatsoever. So its left me searching for a new way to generate online discussion, something that is considered to be essential to our (1200 person) second year cell biology course. Another promising discussion board platform was mentioned by a colleague, and it looked quite promising until a casual conversation with my department head  brought up the inevitable questions…

Sounds great, but where are the servers located? And how much information do they take about our students?

Rather inevitably, the answer to this question is usually the US (though the Genius Bar people around here told me rather unconvincingly that their iCloud servers were on a satellite, and thus not subject to any nation’s laws).  The result of this is that if I truly want to use the software, I must jump through several hoops to protect the privacy of of my students (up to and often not being able to require it, if I cannot find a way to adequately protect them by any other means). Alternately I can use the approved software promoted by my institution, because its safe, even if its buggy and clunky and generally painful to use.

It seems to me that in the day and age there is no reason to put up with bad software. There’s simply too many options out there. But in globalized internet age few people seem to be concerned about where that software runs. Canadians (and probably many other countries) need home grown (or at least home-hosted) solutions to their tech problems… but they need to work. Our students won’t use software that isn’t easy to use, and they shouldn’t have to.

I feel like there’s this great wealth of opportunity for Canadian software engineers. Universities are practically begging for well-designed (cheap) software that serves their purposes and protects the privacy of their students… I know I am. In the meantime I’d love to hear any thoughts on the issue?

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Springtime photos

every time I post a picture of spring here, anyone who’s in the rest of the country (and, as such, completely drowning in snow) gets quite upset. But its not my fault that this town manages its seasons in the proper timeframe. And I’m happy to see it here, as our winter was long and grey and tiresome.

So maybe, instead of being upset, you can take this as inspiration that spring is coming. Even if it doesn’t seem like it right now.

Springtime 2015

Springtime 2015

Springtime 2015

Springtime 2015

Springtime 2015

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Thoughts on using Twitter in your teaching

Have you ever had one thing that felt like a real revolution in your teaching? These kind of moments are rare, but when they happen, they really change how you think about things. That happened to me a couple of years ago. It started very innocently, when a student comment on an evaluation was simply, “You should use Twitter in your classroom”.

Really? I should? How would I do that? What would it change?… a whole flurry of questions flew through my head as a result of that one comment, and I spent almost a year thinking about it before I actually did anything. In the end I decided to try something low key. I offered my Twitter account as one of the ways to contact me, alongside my email address and my office room number.

You know what? That was enough. I didn’t really have a plan. I followed a few scientists and science journalists, I retweeted things I found cool or funny (especially science-related ones) I wished them luck on the midterm an final. I mostly looked at in on the bus on my way into work. Sometimes I wouldn’t look at it for days when things were busy. It took far less time than email or any other type of student communication, so the change felt minimal from my perspective. And with only 140 characters, student questions had to be concise and directed, which made them far easier to answer as I had to be concise as well.

But students LOVED it. Those who didn’t use Twitter didn’t really car, but those who did followed me. When I announced it in my class of 250, my phone lit up as I got 50 followers on the spot. They asked me content-related questions, they asked me when the exam was, they favourite tweets and retweets about cool microscopy that I had found. And they continuously told me that they love that I’m on Twitter, and how important it was to them, and that I was the greatest just because I’m on Twitter.

Before I give you the impression it is always a game changer, I’ve found that one of my classes loves it more than the other. My impression is that its related to class size, and how easy it is to connect with the instructor. You see I teach 2 classes. One is a giant, 1200+ person second year required course, where its easy to feel like you are part of the machine and your instructor will never know who you are. In this environment, Twitter gives the students a way in. They have a more personal connection with me, which helps me become a person to them. They feel like I know who they are… and I do. Every term I notice names of students that I interact with on Twitter, which helps me find them in the sea of faces in the classroom.

My other class is a much smaller (~120 person) course that is extremely interactive, with lots of flipped classroom elements that have the students discussing and working together. In this kind of atmosphere, its much easier to get to know students. So with the way that I use Twitter, its less important in this kind of environment. To make it important in this atmosphere, I would have to find new ways to use it in the classroom that would bring it forward. But to be honest, I’m still trying to figure out whether it would add value in this situation or not.

I can’t say if using Twitter is for everyone, all I can say is that it was one of the easiest changes I’ve made to my teaching in the last few years, and its had the greatest impact. And that might just make it worth considering.

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Rethinking blogging

I want to blog more. I like the reflection that comes with it. It helps me work through thoughts and sort out ideas (this also means that I’m more likely to want to blog when I struggle, but that’s a different story).

I want to connect this blog to my professional self, but I’m wary. I want to discuss things I’m working through in my teaching. There’s a lot of really science and teaching bloggers out there that have found the balance. Dr. Isis and Dr. Rubidium come to mind. I like how they’re not afraid of talking about what’s happening. But by connecting my blog to my professional self, I am connecting it to my students. And while I have no issue in theory with letting my students know what the world looks like from my point of view, it still makes me wary. I worry that discussing general frustrations in a public forum will lead to misunderstanding.

Here’s the thing. I like what I do. I like my students, I like my TAs, I like the different facets of trying to build meaningful course material so student can learn, and doing it in such a way that I’m developing meaningful mentorship for the TAs that I manage. But its not easy. And often its frustrating. I spend a lot of time repeating myself, and dealing with shenanigans on all sides. And sometimes I want to talk about it, to try and sort out ways to make things better for everyone. That doesn’t mean I want to release sensitive or personal identifying information about students, I know better than that (nor do I think its necessary). But I do want to talk about my class, or the issues I encounter managing all of these people.

I think I have something useful to contribute to the great Higher Ed debate that’s out there. And I want to contribute it. But that means public discussions of the things that are really happening. And things that are really happening are not always fun, or positive or even comfortable.

So The question I have is how to deal with it? Any thoughts?

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Birthday Tarts

I know I know. I keeping making promises that I don’t keep. My intentions are good, but then several months pass and I haven’t even logged in. This is unlikely to change. But at least I feel bad about it.

Anyway I’m here to tell you about the incredible dessert I attempted successfully, in honour of a 40th birthday party I hosted (and by hosted I mean we went down to the beach and had BBQ and stunning sunsets!). Its summer and that means that berry season is in full swing here in BC, so I wanted to make something that would take advantage of that. I knew he liked those custard filled fruit tarts that you can often get in bakeries and shops, so I wanted to see if I could replicate them at home (answer: yes! Easily!).


The tart crust came from Tenderflake (I would feel bad about buying the tart crusts, but they were given the endorsement by my great aunt, our official family pie maker many years ago. So I really don’t. And since I don’t really like pie crust its hard for me to assess quality). I baked them empty, which didn’t take very long but its important to keep an eye on them as they sometimes bubble (which just requires you to poke a hole in the bubble carefully with the point of a knife to let the air out).

The custard came from this blog post. I had a moment of concern as my custard was still runny at the end of the 6 minutes of microwaving, and the recipe didn’t really specify whether that was correct or not (hint: not correct). The custard should be more or less set by the end of the microwaving, so if it is still liquid like mine was, just keep putting it back for a minute at a time and then mixing it up with a whisk until its the proper custard consistency. Then you can spoon it into the pre-baked shells. The fruit went on top after everything had cooled in the fridge briefly (a dozen sat in the fridge and cooled while I worked on the other dozen.

I got this glaze to cover the fruit (both to preserve it and help hold the fruit on the tarts for its travel to the beach). To be honest I would have preferred a clear glaze, so it wouldn’t have been so obvious where the glaze had run, but it was what I found at the store and it worked just fine. I used a bush to paint/ dribble the glaze on instead of a spoon like it said, and it was starting to set seriously by the time I was done, so you have to be quick with it.

And basically that’s it. I was worried because I had to make them almost 24 hours in advance and transport them to several different locations before we got to the beach (it was a work day and we headed to the beach directly) but they still looked pretty fresh by the time we ate them, and by all accounts they were delicious!

Summer sunset

My evening ended with a beautiful beach sunset with some glorious summer tarts. Here’s hoping your summer is going just as nicely!

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March Photo Roundup

Hello Internet!

Did you miss me? I know I missed you. Its been a busy couple of months and though I’ve been gone I’ve definitely not forgotten about this little space. I have a couple of things banging around in my head to post that I’m working on, such as a financial post about how my year turned out (yeah I just sorted that out about a week ago. I told you that I was behind) and another one that hasn’t totally coalesced just yet. I’m thinking of a simple sewing project that would be for my niece’s birthday, but I have a while yet since her birthday is in July. There’s many other things afoot in my world that I’m not quite ready to reveal, but all will come in good time. For now I’d like to try and get back into the habit of filling this space on a more regular basis, so that’s what I’m going to focus on.

To start with, I’m going to offer up some pics from the past couple of months. I’ve been on a couple of adventures… New Year’s at Mount Bachelor in Oregon, Spring Break at Apex Mountain near Penticton, BC and a quick trip Back East to see the family. Its been a whirlwind of things lately but with the end of term looming I’m finally finding some space to breath, not to mention to look back on the last couple of months and realize how lucky I’ve been.

Morning comes to the last day of 2012. It's about time the year ended.


Mount Bachelor


Outdoor hockey

Rainbow flowers

Making her own lunch

Birthday Boy at the Fair

English Bay Sunset

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Black Tusk, Photographic Evidence.

I was looking through some photos, and noticed this…

Black Tusk from Whistler.
July 2012, and…

First ski day
December 2012.

How’s that for symmetry? I didn’t even know. But I do know that it took my breath away both times, for very different reasons.

Posted in Beautiful BC, The Great Outdoors | Tagged , , | 2 Comments