Q&A with CTL Director Dr. Deborah Breen
Digital learning initiatives are happening across the BU campus. This Q&A series highlights innovative ideas, collaborative thinking, cutting-edge perspectives and those leading the digital teaching and learning charge.
Boston University’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) partners with faculty, students, and administration to foster student learning and inspire effective teaching throughout the University. The CTL promotes pedagogy that is inclusive, centered on student learning, and proven to be effective and embraces the purposeful use of emerging technologies and digital innovations in the classroom and beyond.
In an effort to provide an overview of the CTL mission and 2020 goals, DL&I connected with Director Dr. Deborah (Deb) Breen who took on the leadership role in January 2020.
Dr. Breen, who brings a strong interdisciplinary background to the position, previously taught in the CAS Writing Program and rejoins the BU community after serving as Assistant Professor, Digital Humanities at Regis College in Weston. She possesses impressive undergraduate qualifications in humanities and applied science (specializing in paper conservation), an MA in Public History from Monash University, Australia, and a PhD in History from Duke University.
When describing the her new role and plans for the CTL, Dr. Breen says she and her team have an important list of priorities.
“Looking ahead, the work of the CTL will focus on supporting faculty and students, but also on institutional concerns such as diversity and inclusion; continued development of the BU Hub; large classes; training of graduate students; support for online classes, and the creation of a robust research agenda to explore innovative teaching and learning experiences,” she says.
In this one-on-one interview, Dr. Breen discusses her vision for the CTL, expands on key initiatives, and explores the power of collaboration, peer mentoring, and more.
DL&I: Tell us about your vision for Boston University’s Center for Teaching & Learning.
Breen: My vision for our Center for Teaching & Learning can be summed up in one word: partnerships. We are a small unit so it is not possible for us to provide services across all the dimensions of teaching and learning. So, we need to be creative – collaborating with faculty, students, staff, and university administration to tackle some of the pressing questions about the learning experience in higher education. My hope is, as a small CTL, that we will be agile in finding ways to partner with all of these folks: collaborating with faculty to create spaces to share their expertise, their concerns, and their goals for their students; partnering with students, too, to hear their voices about the kinds of learning experiences and environments that are working for them; and working with others to connect their expertise with ours to support the learning journey. This is a big-picture answer to your question. Let’s check back in a year to hear more about the details.
DL&I: What are some of the CTL’s key initiatives for 2020?
Breen: In many ways, it’s too early in my tenure as director to have key initiatives. Instead, it’s a year of investigation and imagination. I do have lots of questions, though, about what kinds of initiatives would be most effective in supporting teaching and learning at BU. A starting point is to ask what do we already do well? Two questions flow from there: how might expanded partnerships strengthen these programs and what kinds of online resources would complement our personal interactions? Other questions focus on how to support initiatives such as the Online MBA being developed by Questrom and DL&I, or what our support of the Hub will look like as that program transitions to its next phase. I’ll also be thinking about finding partners to integrate pedagogical research, possibly on large classes, into our programs. Finally, we will be reaching out to students. We’re planning to invite students to share ideas about their learning with us. Stay tuned for more information.
DL&I: You’ve been a teacher at BU and more recently at Regis College in Weston. What teaching approaches did you incorporate into your classes?
Breen: One of the things that motivates me as a teacher is helping students to think about their own learning processes and make connections between content knowledge, developing skills, and changing contexts. For example, how do students in a history class learn facts about the American Civil War, know how to find and assess sources from that period, and then connect those learning experiences to an understanding of contemporary America? Problem-based learning is one approach that helps students make these connections because they need to assess and apply what they know. It’s a happy convergence of hard and soft skills, of utilizing technology as needed, and of learning from and with each other as well as from the experts.
DL&I: During your time with BU, you served as an active member of the Teaching and Learning Technologies Governance Committee and as Co-chair of the Classroom Renovation Committee. How have these experiences prepared you for your current role?
Breen: Being on these committees gave me a sense of the many moving parts that sustain an institution like BU. They also helped me understand that decision-making is complex and often slow; nonetheless, successful initiatives come out of this process with the input, criticism, and enthusiasm of many, many people.
DL&I: Before entering academia, you were a Senior Paper Conservator at the State Library in Victoria, Australia. Tell us about this special interest.
Breen: As a Paper Conservator for almost fifteen years, I worked on hundreds of items produced by many different individuals and institutions. Some of this work was exciting, such as using photographic technologies to decipher inscriptions on the back of a watercolor from the goldrush period (1850s) in Australia; other experiences were confronting, such as conserving work produced by official war artists during Australia’s involvement in the First and Second World Wars. Working as a conservator brought home to me the importance of respecting the many facets of the human story while also recognizing that the material evidence we have in our cultural collections is, in both senses of the word, partial.
DL&I: Please describe a memorable teaching and learning moment and describe how it is shaping your vision for the CTL.
Breen: I’ve been fortunate to work with many gifted teachers who have encouraged me to experiment with approaches to teaching, including embracing technologies, even if I feel out of my depth at first. Observing students working together to produce knowledge is also very memorable. Being open to the possibilities of all kinds of learning experiences, whether as a teacher or student, informs my thinking for the role of the CTL.
About the CTL: The Center for Teaching & Learning collaborates with faculty and graduate students and offers individualized consultations, workshops, seminars, and institutes designed to promote critical reflection and experimentation in teaching and support core initiatives across the University. The Office of the Associate Provost for Digital Learning & Innovation was established in 2016 to strengthen Boston University’s position as a world-class higher education institution devoted to learning innovation. The CTL is a partner in this initiative.