Toward a pure aesthetic of teaching

Elisa Baniassad attempts to represent the "machinery" of abstraction in this painting. Photo: E. Baniassad.

Killam Teaching Prize winner Elisa Baniassad (MSc 98, PhD 03, ) has helped redesign three major computer science courses at UBC, and created free online classes on edX that reach thousands of learners. Her secret? Crystalizing ideas, and creating a sense of belonging for students.

How did you become interested in teaching and learning issues?

I started looking at software design and gradually started thinking more and more about how to communicate abstraction, how to convey ideas simply but richly. Not trivializing them, but percolating them so that students can appreciate the complexity of a topic but also see through the complexity. It’s a design problem in itself. You take a complicated idea and try to make it look as clean as possible. It’s almost an aesthetic pursuit.

So, if you had to distill your teaching philosophy into a sentence, what would it be?

Construct a bird’s eye view. You have to be able to see the shape of the whole concept and then dive in. It’s the first step to understanding.

How is teaching a massive open online course (MOOC) different from your classes?

The technology really shaped the class. We were using lightboards, which look great, but you can’t easily erase them. Normally I’m writing and erasing at a board. So I figured the process had to be additive. You’d build on a concept and end up with a picture at the end, and I had to come up with a single image for each topic. You also have to consider that with online learning people are going to rewind, they’re going to freeze frames.

What surprised you about designing a MOOC?

I knew I would use the videos in my class, and it definitely helps to deliver basic concepts prior to class, but the videos also had an unanticipated consequence, and that was that class can now be a deeper exploration of each concept, and can lead to more sophisticated discussions, rather than staying with the basic transmission of information. Students can explore the why as opposed to just the what.

What’s some of the research you conduct?

I’m interested in how students engage when working together. Students sometimes feel alienated from their groups, and it hurts their ability to provide rich input into the creative and development process. This in turn has a fundamental effect on what they are able to get out of practical aspects of courses. So I’m exploring a sense of belonging in groups, and looking at what it takes to feel entitled to equally contribute. Women, for example, may not feel they belong as much in computer science. We want students to walk around with a certain sense of confidence. It’s like going to play basketball and you arrive at the court. If you feel you belong there, that people are welcoming you, you’ll grab the ball and start playing. But if not, you may end up remaining on the sidelines. Looking into the anatomy of belonging and alienation can help ensure all students are heading out into the world with a sense of confidence and doing interesting work.

"You have to be able to see the shape of the whole concept and then dive in. It’s the first step to understanding."

Geoff Gilliard