Beyond walls: Teaching and learning in the open

By Marissa Ho posted on November 27th, 2012

Open UBC, formerly Open Access Week, is a multi-day event which encourages the community to share and be inspired by open scholarship initiatives. This year, it showcased a diverse selection of discussion forums, lectures, seminars, workshops, and symposia from UBC faculty, staff, and students, as well as from international guests. Open UBC is held in conjunction with the International Open Access Week, and this year it was hosted in concurrence with UBC’s annual Celebrate Learning Week. The session Beyond Walls: Teaching and Learning in the Open was run by instructors and Teaching Assistants (TAs) from different Faculties. All of their presentations highlighted the open approach to teaching and learning that they have, and all spanned beyond the traditional boundaries of a classroom.

Math exam resource wikiDavid Kohler, a PhD student in the Mathematics Department at UBC, has taught a variety of Calculus courses, but focused the presentation on his Math 110 Differential Calculus class with whom he launched his UBC Wiki project. The section of the course that David taught, which grouped together students who had been identified as struggling to pass and extended the course from one term to two, was a springboard for the idea to find a new way to engage students in math. David divided the students into small groups to collaboratively work on a Math 110 Wiki page, and immediately ran into his first hurdle: getting the students motivated to invest in the technology with which they were working. Using the UBC Wiki platform, the students were sent on a mission to answer 30 math problems and put their solutions to those problems up on the page. David found success as his students had started learning from their peers’ work, and instead of marking piles of paper solutions, there was the creation of a collaborative learning space that connected and engaged students. They were able to compile resources to put on their created pages, and if there weren’t the right tools, for example YouTube videos to aid the explanations, they made ones themselves. Part of the problem that constrained the students in this section of the class was the lack of understanding of math concepts taught in high school; however, David was not able to teach those pre-calculus concepts in a university class. Using the newly inspired Wiki page, David gave his students four weeks to build a resource for themselves, with nothing else provided by him to learn those concepts. Within the timeline of the project, there was a noticeable improvement in both page aesthetics, which included the use of pictures and diagrams, and mathematical skills. David also experimented with unconventional learning techniques such as math essays. Initially receiving bewildered responses, his students were able to create intriguing topics that had real-life applications; combining mathematical concepts such as calculus with themes related to food and health nutrition or the social sciences.

As President of the UBC Math Grad Committee, David and 20 graduate students created the Math Exam Resources Wiki. The goal of the project is to provide an open and free educational resource to undergraduate students taking math courses. This resource was created, in a way, as a response to the exam packages sold by the UBC Math Club. David mentioned that some of the solutions in the packages were incorrect, so students who had actually worked out the right answer would remain confused. Since the Exam Resource Wiki’s beginnings in March 2012, the graduate students, who have made a commitment to producing “high quality content,” have created 466 solutions (or 13 complete exams), spanning 13 different courses. The Math Exam Resources project presents the problems in an easily accessible way, laying out each question of an exam on its own page. Each question is shown with prompts and reminders, and there are multiple hints that are hidden until you click to reveal the text box. The same technique is applied to the solution that is presented in a step-by-step format. The greatest advantage to this system seems to be that it creates a process out of solving problems, effectively defining the difference between working out a solution and being given an answer. Due to its wiki design, learning becomes more interactive—with the “talk” pages feature— as well as error-proof because changes can be made immediately, and everyone has the ability to make them. David considers this project to be “what learning looks like when students are engaged with the material. It’s [about] finding something you value that you can create together.”

Bow River wikiStephen Hay, a PhD candidate and Teaching Assistant (TA) in UBC’s Department of History, was next to speak about his Wiki project experience. Instead of a conventional term paper for the 300-level History course for which Stephen was a TA, the professor decided to assign students the task of designing pages for Wikipedia. As a Wikipedia Campus Ambassador for the Wikipedia Education Program—a project where students in Brazil, Canada, India, and the United States contribute to Wikipedia as part of their course work—this North American Environmental History class was a perfect way for Stephen to share his knowledge and passion. The relationship between the Wikipedia Education Program and an educational institution is mutually beneficial. The Program provides services to educators who want to use Wikipedia in the classroom, and offers the expertise of the Wiki staff, Campus Ambassadors, and Online Ambassadors, who are all trained to support instructors and guide students through the writing and editing process. In return, Wikipedia is provided with quality pages that cite only scholarly sources. The implementation of the project was well thought-out by Professor Tina Loo, and much preparation went into organizing it before the class had even begun. A large list of potential topics was created, including those with lots of established scholarly literature available, but also topics that didn’t seem to have enough presence on Wikipedia. To avoid “data dumps”—students posting the entire article at the end with no time to edit—a timeline was devised so that material was gradually uploaded and edited, and all students had to create of breakdown of what they planned to produce.

Showing the audience many examples of the pages that were either created or supplemented by the students, Stephen spoke to the reliability of the pages by noting the footnotes and references sections that “rival those found in an undergraduate term paper.” One of the advantages of using the Wikipedia Education Program method is the diverse interaction that the students get to have with other Wikipedia editors from the larger community. Although this aspect was also the cause of a minor, manageable confrontation concerning the opinions of another Wikipedia member on one of the pages, Stephen used this as an example of how students could use this as an opportunity to engage with the public, take a stance, and be able to back their claims. The response to the project from students was overwhelmingly positive on the whole, the biggest concern not being inherent to the online work, but revolving around the difficulties of group-based projects. Considering himself a true Wikipedian, Stephen heralded the value of using the Wikipedia Education Program to help with classroom learning, and for “students to collaborate and construct knowledge with each other.” The work done on the Wiki pages have reached people far beyond the UBC community, truly capturing the spirit of open education.

Murder, Madness, and Mayhem wikiThe last presenter to share his educational project, Murder, Madness, and Mayhem, was Dr. Jon Beasley-Murray, an Assistant Professor in Latin American Studies at UBC. The development of this project, complete with reflections on the process itself, is documented on its own Wikipedia page. Within one semester, Dr. Beasley-Murray’s SPAN 312 class had three of their articles promoted to “featured article” status, eight to “good article” status, and one to “B-Class” status. Dr. Beasley-Murray spoke about the current academic climate of uncertainty and a fear of openness, citing the Access Copyright Supreme Court ruling as an example. Juxtaposed to this intimidation which attempts to enclose the resources available for learning, is what Dr. Beasley-Murray believes is a time of immense possibility. The Wikipedia project was a way in which students, and UBC as a whole, could contribute to the public. Dr. Beasley-Murray believes that the way in which knowledge is produced collaboratively is progressing, and the university needs to be part of that expansion. His personal slogan is “how can we be open at all times at any way possible,” and that is exactly what his efforts, and those of his students, were directed at with the Murder, Madness, and Mayhem project. Another incident that highlights Dr. Beasley-Murray’s personal philosophy occurred when he was offered to opportunity to use video-capture technology, which automatically publishes content that can be viewed live, or published as a hard copy for duplication. However, when Dr. Beasley-Murray was told that the webcasted lectures could be tracked to make sure only UBC students could view the content, he saw it as a breach of his core belief in an open education. “I didn’t want them to be video-captured, I wanted my lectures to be set free.”

A wrap-up period followed, and given the insightful projects and ideas that had been discussed, there were many thoughtful questions fielded to the panel of speakers. One audience member asked David if there was ever any resistance from grad students to contribute to the Wiki page because it is not academic or peer reviewed, and therefore not conventionally prestigious. This opened a lengthy dialogue to which all of the presenters provided commentary. Dr. Beasley-Murray noted that although the students are still being used as a source in whatever work they are quoted in, contributions to open resources still do not replace peer-review journals. David mentioned that official recognition may help grad students out, and proposed that maybe there should be other rewards for those who create open resources. Stephen seemed to challenge that notion saying that the motivation to contribute comes from the innovative approach to teaching itself. Making this kind of contribution, and being a part of an open resource project is already incentive, there just needs to be a way to make it a validated contribution that is recognized and valued, at least on a relatively similar level as an academic journal.