Inquiry through Blended Learning

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Location: Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Sunday, October 24, 2010

COHERE Conference, Toronto, Ontario - October 2010

It sure seems like I have been doing a lot of traveling this fall. I had just returned from Saudi Arabia and less than a week later I was off to Toronto for the 4th Annual COHERE Blended Learning Conference at York University and a visit with Cathy and Peter (plus pictures). It sure was nice to be able to take a direct flight from Calgary to Toronto. I arrived around 6pm on Wednesday night and managed to have a nice dinner with the conference organizers at a student pub/restaurant on campus. I had a surprisingly good sleep and woke up on Thursday morning excited/nervous about my opening keynote session on Design and implementation in blended environments: Maintaining high levels of student learning while increasing flexibility. I haven't done a session in Canada for awhile and most of the people in the audience were friends and colleagues. Fortunately, from my perspective, the session went well and I had some positive feedback from some of the participants. And, of course I made sure to take a set of notes for the conference.

I attended a series of "best practices" sessions in the afternoon. Interesting to hear how people are using blogs and discussion forums - very intentionally in their blended learning courses. Late in the afternoon, I tested out my left knee with a couple of circuits around the York Campus. It's a large campus with Tennis Canada and Toronto Track & Field facilities located around the periphery. For dinner, I joined the group from the University of La Verne in Southern California. There were seven of them and it was great to follow-up with them after my one day workshop on their campus - just over a month ago. They sure seem focused on improving the quality of the student experience by increasing their pedagogical and technological knowledge.

On Friday morning, Alan Davis, the President of Empire State College in New York, provided a keynote address on a "presidential" perspective to blended learning. Alan is a former actor who has a tremendous stage presence. After his session, there was a panel presentation from institutional members of COHERE. Two key take-aways for me were the new eLearning plan that York University has developed (the level of detail - especially with regards to costing was amazing) and the online/blended learning strategy that Memorial University has developed (the entire K to 12, college, university, and government system uses Desire2Learn and Newfoundland's vision is to have citizens create a "cradle to grave" portfolio in the D2L system).

The conference ended at noon and I then spent the afternoon in COHERE's annual meeting (Mount Royal is a new member along with Memorial and the University of Regina). We discussed a number of issues and Ron Owston (York University), Jim Greer (U of Saskatchewan), and me, volunteered to coordinate a COHERE blended learning case study. The idea being that each member institution would put forward one blended learning course for us to study during the winter 2011 semester. We might also use a modified version of our Student Engagement and Interactive Technologies survey (combination of the CLASSE and ECAR survey).

Sister Catherine picked me up at York University around 4pm and we headed to her and Peter's home in eastern Toronto. We all felt that we needed some fresh air so we walked down to Queen Street East in the Beach area for a yummy Italian dinner. Impressively, we also walked back home after dinner, which required a bit more effort since it was all up hill.

On Saturday we went for a very nice bike trip through the ravines to the downtown area of Toronto. We had our traditional peameal bacon sandwich for breakfast at St. Lawrence Market and then walked over to the Air Canada Centre to a new sport clothing store to see if I could find a Canadian Team Soccer Jersey for Eric. Unfortunately, no such luck so we walked back along Front Street with a stop in the TD Centre to view a news photographer exhibition (very graphic images from war zones). We then picked up some meat for dinner at the Market and cycled back home along Dundas Street East (Toronto now has a number of designated bike lanes). Back home, we had lunch on the back porch (wonderful to feel the warmth of the autumn sun) and then drove back into the city so that Cathy could get some reference books from OISE (I didn't realize that we she was taking four courses at U of Toronto this fall). Peter and I then drove east to Scarborough so that I could pick up a soccer jersey for Eric at a specialty store (Alex received the giant US Open Tennis Ball that Peter and Charles had picked up in New York, in early September). I then took a last spin on my rented bike. I headed back to the Beach area, where I watched a huge crane lift cabin cruisers and large sail boats out of Lake Ontario for winter dry dockage. We had a wonderful dinner with Ann and Andrew and then all too soon it was time to fly back to Calgary.

King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Saudi Arabia - October 2010

Wow, talk about an "epic" travel adventure (with pictures). I recently had the opportunity to take a whirlwind trip to Saudi Arabia. My flight departed from Calgary on Saturday night over the Thanksgiving weekend and I landed at Heathrow Airport in London on Sunday morning. The trip was sponsored by the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) in Damman. They had purchased first class airline tickets for me so I had the opportunity to tryout the new Executive First Class sleeping units on Air Canada (I'll never complain about leg room again).

Unfortunately, my flight was late arriving in London and I had less than 90 minutes to make my Saudi Arabian Airlines connection to Damman. I always stress about airline connections but a concierge from Air Canada was waiting at the gate to personally escort me through airport security, the Saudi ticket counter and right to my departure gate - now that was "first class" service.

There is a nine hour time difference between Damman and Calgary and it was Sunday evening by the time I landed. A student who works in the public relations department from KFUPM was waiting to meet me in the arrivals area and we drove through the desert to Al-Khobar, a sister city of Damman, that is located on the Persian Gulf. We drove through the security gate of the Le Meridian Hotel and after having my bags X-rayed in the lobby, I checked into my room and went right to sleep.

I actually felt reasonably rested when I woke up on Monday and after a buffet breakfast of fresh fruit and croissants a driver met me at the hotel entrance to take me to KFUPM. This university was originally established in 1963 as a technical training institute for the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO). The institution sits on top of an anticline with a large limestone outcrop, somewhat similar to the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. KFUPM has built on this Greek metaphor by modeling the library after the Parthenon and constructing it on top of the limestone outcrop.

I arrived at KFUPM at about 8:45am and was informed that my keynote session on New Trends in eLearning would begin at 9:00am. Fortunately, I had my PowerPoint slides on my website, which I was able to quickly download. From my perspective, the session went reasonably well. All of the KFUPM faculty have completed their graduate studies at English speaking universities and all the courses at the university are taught in English - so we were able to engage in a critical discussion about the use of new technologies to support student learning in higher education.

After the session, I had lunch in the faculty cafeteria where I was able to continue the discussion with a group of faculty associated with the institution's teaching and learning centre. Dr. Mustafa, the Director of the eLearning Centre and I then had a chat after lunch. It was wonderful to discover that he is also a geologist and former Chair of the Earth Sciences Department. Later in the afternoon, the driver took me back to the hotel where I was able to have a swim before a buffet seafood dinner. I did a bit of email and school work in the evening but went to bed very early as I could tell the jet lag was beginning to catch up with me.

I had another buffet breakfast to begin the day on Tuesday and then the KFUPM driver shuttled me back to the university. This morning I facilitated a workshop on Blended Learning in Higher Education: Promises and Pitfalls in their new eLearning lab. This was the first time that they had used this lab and it took awhile to set-up the laptops and figure out the sound and projection system. It turn out the presentation podium's computer had Korean rather than English fonts - which made it a bit of a challenge for me to begin my PowerPoint slides. Again, I thought the session went reasonably well. All of the participants had some experience with a blended approach to teaching and they asked some very insightful questions. After the session, I had lunch with another group of faculty members in the cafeteria.

One of these faculty members was a geophysicist who completed his doctoral studies at Carleton University (and still maintains a house in Barrhaven - western Ottawa). He helped arrange a private tour of Saudi ARAMACO exhibition hall, which included a 3-D movie. It really is impressive how the Saudi's have taken control of their natural resources (unlike Alberta). Not only is ARMAMCO now 100% owned by the Saudis but they also own all of their own processing facilities, four super tankers, and now a large interest in a lot of American Gulf Coast refining facilities. The Ghawar oil field is still the largest conventional oil field in the world, and one-quarter of the world's daily oil production comes from Saudi Arabia. The Ghwar field is based on "vuggy" limestone (up to 35% porosity), a gentle anticline, which is capped by a layer of impermeable anhydrite.

After the tour, the driver took my back to the hotel for another swim and buffet dinner. I did some email in the evening and then went to bed early (really trying to pace myself on this trip with lots of sleep, fruit, and vegetables). I checked out in the morning and facilitated the blended learning workshop for a second time on Wednesday morning. This workshop was not as "fresh" as the one on Tuesday and the audience did not seem as engaged as well. One last trip to the faculty cafeteria for lunch and then a final chat with Dr. Mustafa. Sounds like he was generally impressed with my performance and would like me to return in March 2011 for a series of workshops on mobile learning.

I returned to the hotel to pick up my luggage and then another KFUPM student drove me out to the airport where I checked in and had dinner in the Saudi Arabian Airlines first class lounge. It was a LONG trip back to Calgary. The flight first headed south from Damman to the Riyadh and then north to London (a 9 hour journey). I arrived at Heathrow at 6:30am and headed for the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge for breakfast, a shower, and some email. The flight back to Calgary was pretty uneventful and I was a bit tired so I took the opportunity to watch the Avatar movie. I arrived in Calgary around 4:30pm and I was home just after 5pm. The weather was so nice (around 20C) that I decided to finish the trip with a cycle around the Glenmore Reservoir.