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Taking the T&L centre to the frontlines: SFU’s Stephanie Chu tells us how

If you build it, they may not come. Therefore, a secret to success for a Teaching and Learning, Centre, says Stephanie Chu, is to embed its work within multiple areas of a post-secondary institution, to be proactive and develop relationships, and provide complementary expertise.

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Chu is the Director of Simon Fraser University’s Teaching and Learning Centre, which falls directly under the purview of the vice-president, academic. Its 31 staff help faculties, programs and instructors fulfill their educational intentions by lending their expertise, primarily to credit-based programs, instructors and educational staff: librarians, health promotion, other partners across the university.

The evolution of a Teaching and Learning Centre

SFU’s Teaching and Learning Centre hasn’t always reported directly to the vice-president, academic (VPA). Chu explained that prior to 2010, the Centre gave general support in a more traditional model: holding workshops and presentations on the best ways to teach and promote learning and working on projects. That model didn’t work well, as noted by an external review, which the Centre (then called the Learning and Instructional Development Centre) went through in 2007.

After the review, a task force on teaching and learning was assembled. Between 2008-2010 the committee consulted widely with the University community to make recommendations on a vision and strategic plan for teaching and learning support systems- including a reorganization of the Centre’s mandate and model. The VPA accepted all recommendations and incorporated them into his academic plan. “For one, the community wanted more discipline-specific support, more connection to their actual work. They wanted us to work in localized environments and emphasized partnerships,” explained Chu.

“In September 2010 we became the Teaching and Learning Centre. It took two and a half years after to establish all positions,” said Chu. In the meantime, the Centre’s reporting line changed. “We were under the Dean of Lifelong Learning for a year. Before that we reported to the associate vice-president academic. By September 2011 we were moved under VPA – where we’re in a better place to support the entire University and participate in planning discussions.”

An integrative, collaborative approach

Now, each educational consultant is assigned to specific faculties – they have more discipline-specific knowledge, establish longer-term relationships, serve as a bridge between the Centre and the front-line of teaching and can leverage internal expertise. “We are a central unit that is decentralized somewhat,” as Chu explains it. “We collaborate with instructors, programs and other units to build a network around teaching and learning at the University. Our staff members encourage inquiry, experimentation and innovation. We’re not a policing unit; we’re not responsible for evaluating – that would jeopardize our relationship with people on the ground.”

Chu sees the Centre’s main role as contributing to the formation of and supporting institutional directions and the university’s academic plan while also assisting with curriculum and grassroots interests. Beyond SFU, teaching and learning centres (T&L Centres) have changed quite a bit in the last ten years in terms of where they’re positioned and their involvement in their institutions. “A growing trend is more integration,” said Chu. “T&L units on the periphery that are still offering the ‘drop-in workshop’ model tend not to survive. When budget cuts come around people don’t see the value in that approach. However, if we’re immersed at the program, faculty, and individual levels, our worth becomes more evident. Some leaders in this are in the United Kingdom and Australia, and we’re seeing it more across Canada.

Putting education first

Stephanie Chu is of the firm conviction that technology should support teaching and learning, not the other way around. “I think T&L Centres can not only partner with others, like information technology departments and government bodies, but also play a leadership role in educating and advocating on behalf of instructors, faculty and students in terms of decisions made at the provincial level. For example, 1) selected technologies made available to post-secondary institutions – they should be based on educational needs and goals, rather than IT decisions; and 2) representation from T&L Centres could better inform the government in decision-making, which may affect how people can teach, or how students learn.

Our approach is a multi-level approach – to be partners, to bring expertise to the table. It has been an important change in how we operate and how people perceive us. We don’t want to tell people how to teach. We acknowledge and appreciate the expertise people already have. That approach is working. And we’re starting to take it out across institutions, out to our B.C. counterparts and beyond.”

Stephanie Chu will be attending the BCcampus Leadership Summit on June 2, 2014 in Vancouver. We will be showcasing other T&L Centres in these pages over the coming weeks. If you would like your centre to be profiled, or if you’d like an invitation to the Leadership Summit, please get in touch with us.

Notable Quotes:

“We don’t want to tell people how to teach. We acknowledge and appreciate the expertise people already have. That approach is working. And we’re starting to take it out across institutions, out to our B.C. counterparts and beyond.”

“I think T&L Centres can not only partner with others, like information technology departments and government bodies, but also play a leadership role in educating and advocating on behalf of instructors, faculty and students in terms of decisions made at the provincial level.”

“It’s all about the student experience and working with instructors and partners’ ideas and goals.”

Further reading: