oCUBE: SoTL and the Ontario Consortium of Undergraduate Biology Educators

Tamara Kelly1 and Fiona Rawle2

1Dept. of Biology, York University

2Dept. of Biology, University of Toronto Mississauga

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.

George Bernard Shaw

The above quote is one of the guiding principles of the Ontario Consortium of Undergraduate Biology Educators (oCUBE), a grass-roots community of practice. Formed in 2009, oCUBE is a community of individuals involved in Biology education at Ontario universities (and now colleges!) interested in sharing and promoting best practices with others who are passionate about teaching1. Support for SoTL is an important mission of oCUBE.

While we meet for one day each December (Biotwolooza), oCUBE’s annual (Un)Conference, held each May, is the cornerstone of our efforts to bring together a diverse group of biology educators keen on sharing best practices, and applying a scholarly approach, to higher biology education. As a group, oCUBE decided early on, that while our December meeting (Biotwolooza) would be held at a member university, the intensive three-day (Un)Conference would be hosted off campus to encourage our participants to “be in the moment.” The (Un)Conference provides a forum for highly targetted, timely, and low-cost professional development focussed on improvement in teaching and learning for all members. To keep costs low and encourage the participation of as many individuals as possible, particularly those representing groups with little access to professional development funding, all oCUBE events, including the (Un)Conference, have no registration fee. Participants must cover only lodging and food costs, and funding (via donations to oCUBE) is available to help offset these costs for members who are sessional instructors, post-docs, or graduate students. This financial structure allows for a broader representation and a diverse mix of views and perspectives on undergraduate education.

What happens if a group of witty people, all of whom are passionate about university biology education, get together for a couple of days in a lovely natural setting with no predetermined agenda? One of oCUBE’s current objectives is to arrange UnConferences to explore topics are most interested in at any given time. Think this sounds interesting? Then come join us!


The (Un)Conference model requires minimal overhead and provides a just-in time method allowing members of the oCUBE community to explore topics of mutual interest. Topics range from helping to define scholarly practices within a teaching context, to using limited laboratory resources more effectively, to how to promote creativity in our science courses (link these topics to: https://sites.google.com/site/ocubeorg/2015-unconference/unconference-2015-general-schedule). Although three sessions are planned in advance, the rest of the conference has no pre-determined agenda; thus, topics discussed are those of immediate interest to participants. On the first day, participants pitch ideas, and our agenda topics are decided via “dotmocracy” (http://dotmocracy.org/), which we’ve incorporated with Survey Monkey for efficiency. Sessions with both broader appeal and issues are slotted in as BIGS – Big Ideas Group Sessions, while sessions with narrower appeal may be offered concurrently as GIFTS (Great Ideas for Teaching Sessions). Although the (Un)Conference model (https://sites.google.com/site/ocubeorg/what-is-an-unconference) is less formal than a traditional conference it produces several end products, including the (Un)Conference proceedings. Ideas regarding SoTL research projects are often generated during these sessions, and there is continuous discourse surrounding ongoing and completed projects, as well as an exploration of the SoTL literature. During sessions notes are taken by “scribes” and these are compiled and made available on the oCUBE website (ocube.ca) to both members and non-members alike, allowing the impact of the meeting to extend beyond the initial participants. This helps to place our conversations into a larger context and provides valuable information within and beyond our community.

oCUBE practices a collaborative approach to improving teaching and learning of undergraduate biology and works on a model of diffuse authority. All members participate in making decisions, and the community itself functions through voluntary responsibility. While the (Un)Conference is a central gathering, mentorship and a supportive network are maintained through a variety of activities throughout the year. Monthly newsletters (https://sites.google.com/site/ocubeorg/ocube-buzz-newsletter), highlighting member achievements and experiences, upcoming conferences, and notable articles and resources, keep members connected throughout the year. To promote engagement with peer-reviewed literature in the area of biology education and SoTL, knowledge of evidence-based practices, and scholarly approaches to teaching and learning, we also have a monthly online journal club, wherein one member chooses a paper and facilitates a discussion via Skype. These lively discussions of teaching and learning with like-minded supportive peers provide a connection that can sustain members during the busy academic year, all while increasing our knowledge of the educational literature and best practices.

In Canada, higher education is publicly supported, and it makes sense to make the most of that money and use it as wisely as possible to improve education. This means building collaborations to share evidence-based ideas, teaching methods, and resources, as well as helping each other implement these ideas, and building on each other’s experiences. SoTL is a foundational element of this process, as it integral to the scholarly investigation of biology teaching and learning. The oCUBE community has prompted several instructors from different schools to collaborate on course materials, which they’ve shared with each other and the larger oCUBE group. This has resulted in a larger conversation about what we’re teaching, why we’re teaching it, and how we can improve our teaching and our students’ learning. oCUBE is a hub that brings together like-minded individuals who nonetheless bring a rich array of experiences and knowledge. Rather than each of us reinventing the wheel, we get to work with a diverse group of people all interested in the same goal and build an utterly amazing wheel.

  1. Kajiura, L. et al. Knowledge Mobilization across Boundaries with the Use of Novel Organizational Structures, Conferencing Strategies, and Technological Tools: The Ontario Consortium of Undergraduate Biology Educators (oCUBE) Model. 2014. Collect. Essays Learn. Teach. 7: 7.
  1. ocube.ca https://sites.google.com/site/ocubeorg/home


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