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Meet the Prof.: Gregory Light

 Gregory Light

Photo by Jarod Spohrer

“What do you want your students to learn, how are you going to get them there?”

We are back with Meet the Prof.! We have a special treat for you today; we are with Gregory Light, Director of the Searle Center For Advancing Learning and Teaching at Northwestern. I was honored to spend a warm afternoon with Greg and gain a deeper understanding about issues involved in choosing Canvas to facilitate higher learning. More importantly, Greg poses key questions in this interview about making the most of the opportunity to redesign a course.

Greg Light was asked by the Educational Technologies Advisory Committee at Northwestern to chair the LMS Review subcommittee, which was charged with recommending a learning management system for university adoption. He was asked to be chair of this subcommittee because of the role he plays at the Searle Center, which focuses on learning and teaching, for both instructors and students.

Tell me a little about yourself, how did you come to be here at Northwestern?

I did my first two degrees at University of Toronto in Math and Physics and the other in Philosophy. Left in the mid ’70s to go to Paris and taught theater, doing shows in France and Britain. I went to London after four years and continued working in theater in an avant garde style — we challenged the audience instead of just entertaining it. Somehow, this led me to the London Institute of Education, getting involved in faculty development programs. I wanted to do more than train instructors to transmit information better. This is where I began exploring deeper questions there and ended up doing my doctorate at the University of London in Student Learning and Higher Education.

I was at Rice University in Texas when my wife got an offer to work in Chicago and I moved along as well and got the position here at Northwestern as Associate Director of the Searle Center. A year later I became Director.

As co-chairman of the committee deciding which LMS Northwestern would continue use, what was different for you than for the faculty in general who were in the pilot?

For me the opportunity of looking at a new learning management system was exactly what I do. The idea was “Can we use this new system?” We are always asking the question “Will it improve learning?” Of course it cannot improve teaching overnight, but does the platform have the tools and capabilities to help faculty use it to improve student learning? Does it allow students a place where they can actually engage in the learning experience, within the course among themselves, without direct intervention from the teacher? These questions drew me into this project and I have enjoyed that part of it and others on the committee were also sympathetic to that view.

What do you want to see in a learning management system?

For me, it is important, in faculty development, to help faculty to develop a vocabulary and a conceptual framework for thinking about teaching and learning. They often don’t talk about certain things because they don’t have that vocabulary or framework. So when we do programs, we share these frameworks and let faculty kick around ideas and rethink their teaching in terms of that. Some of those frameworks are inherently built in to Canvas, I think they call them “Learning Outcomes.”

Things that I looked at most were:

Learning Outcomes: Thinking about learning outcomes should be the first thing a faculty member does. Often, though, we skip it, and instead go straight to building content. Teachers need to be asking (as they are building their course in Canvas), “What do I want my students to learn? How am I going to get them there?” Content is great, but how are you going to give it to them and assess that progress.
Rubrics: Very useful ways for faculty to assess subjective material which is a more representative way of assessing what students are learning better than multiple choice, where answers could have been a lucky guess and don’t show learning advancement.
SpeedGrader: This feature was very useful and very fast for me to generate comments and move through the assignment submissions.
Discussion Boards: I thought that was great, students engaged very well.
Groups: Worked very well.

What did you think about the dynamically generated syllabus feature in Canvas?

I have always written my syllabus down on paper then put it on Blackboard. With Canvas I could put things in and the syllabus was created for me, but when a student asked for a paper copy, Canvas was not really formatted for that, so I would sometimes give the student an altered version from last year. But, then after I told them that this online version is what we are using now, they seemed to accept it. In past years of teaching, I felt students didn’t really take to heart the purpose of the syllabus, as it wasn’t meaningful to them at the beginning of the semester and they weren’t doing these assignments at the moment. So, often they would forget and lose the printed document. The online (Canvas) version was more useful and I feel like there were fewer questions this year as they had the information easily online.

What would you like to see in the future of this transition?

I would like to see in the future that, in training, people are constantly talking about student learning. It starts with “what do you really want them to learn? How are the activities of each week going to build to that learning goal?” As faculty at Northwestern are rebuilding their courses, this is a great opportunity to focus on these questions. It will make for better teaching and learning?

Now that Canvas has been accepted, what is next?

There is a CanvasTransition Committee: Victoria (Getis) is going to c0-lead that and also Tom Collinger who is in Medill. Tom is a faculty member and associate dean and he was involved in setting up the LMS Review and actually is the one who brought me in as the co-chair. He is happy to be on that committee, he has a lot of energy and he is aware that learning is an important part of this process. So this committee  will handle this transition phase; training will be a major part of it and should be. Sometimes it will be hand-holding and sometimes it will be a little deeper with workshops and seminars showing innovative uses of Canvas.

Do you have any questions for me?

I have one question: how much are you willing to work with us?

That is a fantastic question! We have open labs in the library on Friday for instructors to drop in and we have virtual open labs twice a week. Also, we have one-hour consultation slots so that we  can work one on one with professors who would like advanced help on how to best to improve their course.


Training resources can be found here: