Five courses in human geography – with a difference – are on offer this semester at the University of Northern British Columbia. After years of advocacy by UNBC president George Iwama and months of careful preparation, the five upper-level courses are part of a pilot project in block teaching that got under way when students returned to campus after the Christmas break.
The students take one course at a time that’s concentrated into a two-and-half-week period, followed by a break of a few days before starting the next block course. The first block course, the third-year Geography of International Development, was running from Jan. 3 to Jan. 23.
The block approach was pioneered in Canada by Quest University, a private, not-for-profit undergraduate university in Squamish, B.C. Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, considered a block plan in 2011, but decided against it.
At UNBC, the class meets every day for three hours, Monday through Friday. This makes it difficult for students to mix block courses with the traditional semester-long courses. “It’s all in or all out,” said Neil Hanlon, chair of the geography program and one of the professors teaching in the block program.
The pilot project needed a minimum of eight students but attracted a dozen. “There was a lot of interest but some students couldn’t clear a semester because they needed courses elsewhere that were only offered this semester,” said Dr. Hanlon. In the end, “we found a recruiting model that worked by pointing out that if a student wanted to do a minor in geography, it could be done in one semester.”
A drawback to the block program is that if a student gets sick for a few days, he or she could miss a third or the course or more. That’s where technology comes in, said Dr. Hanlon, with the use of mandatory Skype accounts and Dropbox file sharing, for example.
Those teaching the pilot courses say they are excited because material remains fresh and focused in students’ minds, while the format allows for more creativity and use of experiential forms of learning, group projects and more discussion in the classroom. Students find there’s no slacking off, but say the format leads to a deeper understanding of the material. Plus there appears to be greater classroom engagement with other students and the professor.
One of the enthusiastic students taking the first course, self-confessed procrastinator Jed Zimmerman, said it’s a better way for him to learn because “there is no time to wait to finish readings and assignments. In some ways there is a self-discipline built into this course.”
Fellow student Richan Greenlees added: “The depth at which we are learning about issues is so profound that it seeps into your understanding and transforms the way you think about certain things. … I will walk away remembering more and having a greater understanding of the topics covered within the block courses.”
Another student, Amy Voell, said she wishes there were more courses using the block approach. “I am able to focus more on the material of one course. And, by having a closer relationship with the professor and fellow students, I feel I’m able to get a better understanding of all the information.”
Dr. Hanlon said scheduling difficulties, including finding a dedicated room to hold the courses, were initially a problem, but he said he’s pleased that the university has been able to accommodate block teaching on campus. “Concentrated courses are already used in professional schools. We already use a type [of block course] when preparing students for field schools in Peru or Guatemala where they need classroom study before getting on a plane. And there may be ways we can use the block approach at some of the university’s regional sites or with certain cohorts of students.”