Bright spark Iain puts technology into teaching

City Lives – Bernie Ní Fhlatharta hears how Dr Iain MacLaren is upskilling NUIG lecturers

It’s hard to imagine college professors having to go back to school but effectively it is one man’s job in NUI Galway to ensure lecturers know how to make the best use of technology in their every day teaching.

Dr Iain MacLaren is the Director of CELT (Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching), based on the college campus and he works to foster a culture of excellence in teaching and learning.

Iain joined the college staff about a decade ago to set up CELT, and college teaching staff can now avail of regular classes where they learn about different ways of designing courses, assessing students and how technology can enhance the experience of learning. One example is video-conferencing. Multinational companies with offices around the world have been using this for years but now a college lecturer can use the facility to, for example, engage the services of a guest speaker based anywhere in the world.

Not only has the NUIG been one of the leading lights in this nationally but Iain himself is also at the cutting edge, exploring a wide range of new and emerging technologies and approaches, including MOOCs (massive open online courses), which are amongst the latest trends.

Iain, a native of Glasgow, started out his career as an astrophysicist but a keen interest in technology and how it could be used by teachers led him to getting the Galway post, a move he hasn’t regretted though he misses the Aer Arann service from Galway Airport to Edinburgh. At the time he applied for the job a decade ago, there was a direct route between Glasgow and Galway, which helped sway his decision.

His settling down in Galway was not difficult as he happens to be married to a Galway woman – Una FitzGerald – who had completely settled in Glasgow and had even learned Scots Gaelic.

Iain has a knowledge of Gaelic and now speaks a ‘cúpla focail’ of Gaeilge. In fact their two children started their education in Scotland in Gaelic and they were easily able to make the switch. They are now teenagers, 17 and 15 and attend Coláiste na Coiribe, the Irish language secondary school.

Una, from Dangan, took a temporary position in NUI Galway when the family moved over but is now on the full-time staff in bio-medical sciences. Her parents were, in fact, both lecturers in the college many years ago.

Iain is passionate about his work and loves how staff from the different faculties meet and mix through the CELT learning sessions. “College departments or schools are quite independent and in a college this size, there is very little opportunity to meet people from completely different subjects. The University is so diverse and that’s what’s fascinating about the place, yet it’s a shame that we often don’t realise what our colleagues are teaching or researching,” he says.

CELT runs courses for academics which include topics such as coping with teaching large classes, incorporating multi-media material into lectures and adapting to online learning. Most staff and all students use ‘Blackboard’ which is an online tool for supporting learning, allowing lecture notes to be posted online, discussions to take place and students to post their assessments there too.

Down the road there will probably be more collaborative live class sessions built into online courses. There are already many fully online programmes offered and the recent trend is to offer taster classes for free to anyone who is interested; with top US university Stanford and other prominent institutions setting the pace.

For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.