The word “open” has been getting mentioned in conjunction with teaching and learning a lot recently. In a letter to the UBC community sent out at the beginning of the fall term of last year, President Toope noted that the Provost had named a high-level task force to canvass opportunities for UBC to join the dramatic movement to open up the riches of the university curriculum. In September 2012, UBC announced an agreement with Coursera, a company based in the United States, to provide free, open, non-credit courses to a worldwide audience. In October, Vancouver hosted the 2012 Open Education Conference, and the Government of British Columbia announced an initiative to support the creation of free, online, open textbooks for the 40 most popular post-secondary courses. Later that month, Open UBC Week happened in coordination with Celebrate Learning Week. In addition, the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) recently helped launch the open.ubc.ca website, which acts as a living catalogue of open scholarship, research, and education initiatives at UBC. We recently sat down with Simon Bates, Senior Advisor, Teaching and Learning, and Academic Director of CTLT, and Michelle Lamberson, Managing Director of CTLT, to discuss the topic of open education.
Q: As the directors of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology, could you describe how you define “open” in terms of teaching and learning?
Michelle Lamberson (ML): I think when we are describing open, we are articulating the idea that something can be shared amongst a community of educators and learners. I think there is also the idea of a collaborative spirit.
Simon Bates (SB): I think, as well, with the idea of something that’s open being something that’s shareable, is the idea that it can be built upon and extended. It’s not fixed in a way where something is locked down or closed. I think that’s interesting because you can get the unintended consequences of things being developed further than you ever thought. Going far beyond the original use situations, following the example of moving from a closed space into a more open space, you can get that participation and collaboration to actually extend the classroom.
ML: When I think of open with specific respect to our learning environments, I think we recognize that we have circles of openness. As an instructor, I start to think about how I structure and do things in a way that allows me to be able to create environments within my course where students feel safe. I also want to be able to share the materials, ideas, and resources I create with others. At UBC, from a technology standpoint, we have spaces that range from being access controlled, like Connect, with only the registered student in the site, to areas where it is wide open and others can access, use, and contribute content, like with our blog and wiki platforms. I think we have a need for all of these environments. We also want to encourage interchange between the environments, so we’re looking at how to streamline movement between them.
Another interesting thing that seems to happen when “open” is in play is that it seems to encourage a spirit of experimentation and innovation – to encourage people to push boundaries. I’m constantly amazed at the number of ways UBC is engaged in open initiatives – open data, open access journals, or open source code – the efforts are substantial and meaningful. There is a whole community trying new things and contributing to new forms of scholarship, and we want to start thinking about how we link those efforts back to the teaching and learning space. These efforts represent discovery and encourage learning, and support the teaching and learning and research mission of the campus. I think the open.ubc.ca site represents the diversity in “open” approaches.
Q: Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, in which universities provide access to online courses aimed at a large number of students, have existed in different models for many years. Since Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig’s 2011 Artificial Intelligence course at Stanford, in which over 160,000 students enrolled, and the recent development of MOOC providers such as Coursera and Udacity, these open courses have garnered a lot of attention, excitement, and debate. UBC is offering four Coursera-based MOOCs this year, including a joint Game Theory course with Stanford that currently has over 130,000 students enrolled. How does teaching at such a scale and in an open context differ from teaching a traditional UBC distance course? How does an instructor engage or assess that many students?
SB: With great difficulty! It’s a real challenge, because you are talking about something that is 10-50 times bigger than our largest distance course. Content production, though expensive and time consuming, is relatively easy to do. Where I think there is much more uncertainty, is what does effective assessment look like, and assessment that is more than objective testing on multiple choice quizzes embedded into video lectures. How do you support the necessary level of interaction required for students to be able to make sense of the course, express their difficulties, and actually engage in the learning process which is, ultimately, a social engagement between people? I think what’s interesting, in the Coursera courses, is that you are seeing all these informal, often quite spontaneous, support groups and collections of people, whether they negotiated in an online space, or whether it’s a bunch of people who happen to be in the same geographical area who get together and meet up in a coffee shop or something. You are seeing this blend or mixture of pedagogies where students are managing to support each other and help each other’s learning.
ML: I think there is a key difference in terms of motivation that you have to think about with the design of MOOCs. It appears that those that are very keen in these courses are willing to do all kinds of things on their own. It’s the kind of spontaneous groups that are coming together, as Simon referred to, that are really important to look at and think about why they are doing this. Additionally, when we think about our learners, UBC has a known demographic and, as educators, we understand their context. This is a different environment, and it’s also another place where we are seeing lots of experimentation.
SB: Given the way that learners can be almost anyone, anywhere, with access to a network computer, a real challenge that you’ve got as an educator is finding out who are your learners. As Michelle said, we’re used to knowing who they are when our students come into first year courses at UBC. You know what courses they will have taken as preparation. If they are doing 200-level courses, we know what first year courses they will have taken, and some of them will have pre-requisites. For most of these Coursera courses, and certainly for all of the ones that UBC is offering, there are no pre-requisites. It struck me when I enrolled in one of the early Coursera courses. I was amazed that the course started without any kind of survey, and it didn’t try to capture information about who the group of 65,000 learners were, what their expectations were of the course, or what their background was in terms of prior study. I put myself in the position of the instructor and thought, how on Earth can you design your course if you have no idea who your group of students are going to be? How do you design the pace of it? What assumptions do you make? You must have some sort of picture as to who these students are, and I think that’s an interesting question for our involvement with the Coursera courses, and the same sort of question for everyone else, finding out who their students are.
ML: The other side of it that I find interesting relates to our image of ourselves as teachers, and how we navigate this new space. I’m talking about the idea that you have that many people in a course. For me, the level of responsibility for that educational experience just blows my mind. When I’m teaching, I rarely forget that I’m teaching and students are always on the back of my mind. So now you’ve got 100,000 people. I can’t even imagine that. To top it off, only “x” [where x is a small percentage] may finish. How does teaching in these types of environments impact your sense of effectiveness as a teacher? Will the experience of teaching in these environments encourage a teacher to think more of their role as a facilitator? How does one do that in that environment? It is an interesting environment. We are going to learn so much just with the four courses in the Coursera pilot. The courses are different subject areas. Students taking these courses will have different levels of engagement and motivation. What motivates someone to take a sustainability course? What motivates somebody to take a genetics course? There are all kinds of interesting questions…
Q: There has been a lot of debate about the impact of MOOCs on higher education and many articles have posited that, at the very least, MOOCs will drive a flipped classroom approach, where students will watch lectures at home and do their learning and engagement activities in the classroom. Could you talk about the pedagogical strategies behind the flipped classroom model?
SB: I think the basic idea behind the flipped classroom is well-established: expose students to information acquisition and content before coming to class, and spend class time making sense and building understanding. The intellectual struggle of understanding something, and really integrating it into your own knowledge, comes from engaging with the material. It doesn’t happen when you are first exposed to the material. The basic idea is that you present a lot of the content, a lot of the straight forward exposure to material, outside of class time. There’s a whole variety of ways that you can think about doing that. When you do have class time together, you can build on that foundation. You can take that the students have read or engaged with the material, and you can spend the time productively engaged in challenging or building their own understanding of it. In that way, if you apply that to the MOOCs, you could say that the MOOC videos are presenting the information. The understanding is going to take place in the interactions, Google Hangouts, and informal discussions, and through doing the assessments and participating in the course. MOOCs might accelerate the rate at which these things are discussed, but the current breed of MOOCs certainly didn’t invent the flipped classroom and I don’t think they can lay claim to that pedagogy as their own. Certainly, around UBC, there are currently dozens of instances of the flipped classroom model being actually put into practice, with hundreds if not thousands of undergraduate students experiencing that learning modality.
ML: Back in the early 2000s there were mixed mode experiments, and an English professor videotaped all his lectures and used the classroom time to discuss his lectures. It’s not a recent invention that is going on here, but there is a really strong wave coming through where people are starting to accept that these techniques can be really effective ways of engaging students in learning. I think it’s exciting that we have so much focus on it right now.
Q: The BC government’s initiative to develop 40 post-secondary open textbooks is the first of its kind in Canada. These online textbooks would be freely accessible, as well as modifiable for specific contexts. How do you see such open resources fitting into curriculum models here at UBC? What would be the benefit for instructors to adopt or create such instructional materials?
ML: I think what we want to think about with respect to the open textbooks is the opportunity to leverage what is out there already. Rather than rewrite the same content, we want to look at what is already out there, edit, repurpose, and refocus the materials – recontextualise it in a way that Canadians and British Columbians can use and understand. Textbooks are mainly from outside of Canada and it’s rare to have a Canadian textbook example. So this is a really nice opportunity to take some things, look at them, get good subject matter experts together, evaluate what exists, and then go after and fill in any gaps. Alongside of that, I think we need to be challenging the notion of what a textbook is and how it works with technology. For example, look at Apple’s iBooks, where you can take a DNA module and move it around on the screen and manipulate it. We want to think about how we can innovate on that as well, and how we can create textbooks that invite editing and collaboration.
Q: CTLT recently helped launch the open.ubc.ca website, which you previously mentioned. The goal of that website is to act as a living catalogue of open scholarship, research, and education initiatives at UBC. Besides Coursera, are there any other open initiatives or project that you are excited about?
ML: I’m excited about the possibilities for open code. UBC is a place where we have lots and lots of people developing really interesting things – small little applets, things used on mobile platforms, or things which are used inside of the Learning Management System – and it is really exciting. Additionally, if we can develop the UBC Wiki into a UBC media commons, where people can reuse materials, I think that will be fantastic. cIRcle is really good, because it provides a university repository which stores the things we want to keep long term. However, we also need the kind of thing where it’s a bit more ephemeral, a space that changes a lot, and the thing about the wiki environment is that you can see them change. It captures all the history, and that’s really cool.
For more information about UBC’s open education initiatives, visit http://open.ubc.ca
For more information about UBC’s Coursera initiative, visit http://open.ubc.ca/coursera
This article was published in the January 2013 CTLT Newsletter, Dialogues. Below is a list of the articles included in the issue:
- Open Education Interview (currently viewing)
- Massive Open Online Courses at UBC
- Teaching and Learning Spotlight
- What’s New at CTLT
- New Faculty and Staff Welcome Orientation
- Other Professional Development Opportunities
Find out more information about the CTLT Newsletter, Dialogues.