Flexible learning showcase spotlights first round of course transformations

By Heather McCabe posted on November 7th, 2013

New Showcase Graphic

From left to right: Martina Wiltschko, Jim Richardson, Shona Ellis, Simon Bates, Matt Yedlin, and Claudia Krebs.

At a recent UBC Celebrate Learning Week event, the Flexible Learning Showcase, UBC faculty members talked about how they are developing courses that were supported through the first round of funding through the Flexible Learning Initiative. The projects range from developing completely new courses, to introducing student-generated content and flipped classroom approaches.

Political Science and Engineering

The course Living with Nuclear Weapons? Arms Control and Verification Technologies (Political Science 369T) is a completely new course which will be offered beginning in January 2014. The course will introduce students to the science, history, and politics of nuclear weapons and nuclear arms control, with special emphasis on the scientific methodologies and verification practices associated with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

The course came about when Matt Yedlin, an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering, was invited to give a talk at a conference organized by the CTBTO in Vienna in June 2012. The conference gathered academics from 13 different countries, and representatives from international organizations, to discuss education related to the CTBT in the twenty-first century.

“Our focus in this Train the Trainers conference was to educate the next generation, so I took that up, came home.” Yedlin said.

Yedlin connected with Allen Sens, professor of teaching in political science, and they have developed and will teach the course together. The course will use a flipped classroom model to help cover math and science background and practice, as well as readings on the historical and political aspects of the topic. They will also use team-based learning to help promote discussion and “enhanced interdisciplinarity.”

Living with Nuclear Weapons has support from UBC as well as international support from the CTBTO, which works closely with the United Nations, and the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology Seismographs in Schools Program. Yedlin is currently setting up a seismometer that will be used in the course. He noted that seismometers in Ireland that are part of the Seismographs in Schools project were sensitive enough to record the 4.9 magnitude nuclear test in North Korea in February 2013.

“Our concern is educating the next generation in the dangers of nuclear weapons and the importance of arms control, and let me tell you, peripherally, that we are in the most critical time in terms of nuclear balance and danger since the Cuban missile crisis, and that has to do with India and Pakistan,” Yedlin said.


In Energy and Waves (Physics 101), the transformation focuses on students producing content, specifically learning objects based on pre-reading assignments for the course. The first-year course is geared principally towards non-majors in physics and reaches about 2,000 students per year. It has been run using a flipped classroom modality in the last few years, and was also one of the courses that went through a transformation in cooperation with the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI).

“The problem that came to our attention is not all the students are doing the pre-reading,” said Simon Bates, Senior Advisor for Teaching and Learning, Academic Director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology, and Professor of Teaching in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, who is one of the instructors of the course. “So the basic question we tried to address is is there a way that we can engage more of the class more deeply with the reading without completely blowing up the course structure and trying to put it all back together again.”

Each week, on a rotating basis, a group of students will be asked to create an original learning object on an aspect of the material or a topic from the course that they’ve had difficulty understanding. Once they’ve identified that concept or problem, the instructors will provide online tutorial support and “scaffolding” that will help them come up with an idea of how to solve that particular problem, or how to understand a certain part of the course content.

The students will then create an original learning object based on their experience of struggling with part of the material. “Some of the things that we’re thinking hard about at the moment are how we scaffold this process for students because essentially we’re asking them to do something that’s very challenging,” Bates said. “We’re asking them to identify something they don’t know and move beyond that point to understanding that topic.”

Students can create any type of learning object they choose, for example multiple choice questions, worked answer problems, exam questions, screen casts, videos, or concept maps. “It’s pretty much open to the students to decide which type of medium and which type of approach engages them the most,” Bates said.

Students will be able to apply a Creative Commons license to their objects, and then instructors will be able to use the artifacts in that week’s lectures or tutorials, as a collection of resources that students can access online, and even on exams and midterms.

This project will be initiated in the three sections of Physics 101 which will run in January 2014. “If it works and if it’s successful, the benefits that we can see associated with this are really deep engagement with the subject material for that week. These students are really going to have to struggle with some difficult concepts and challenging material to get to that point of understanding and being able to produce these materials,” Bates said. Another benefit he mentioned is “what we have seen with experience with PeerWise is this really does build a collaborative community of learners. Students really, really appreciate seeing the product of their hard work being used, or being reused, for the benefit of other students as well.”

Neuroanatomy Lab

Claudia Krebs, a senior instructor in the Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences, spoke about how she and her team are flipping a neuroanatomy lab which is part of the Brain and Behaviour block in the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Dentistry.

Krebs said that the motivation for flipping the lab came from observations that many students are overwhelmed by the amount of information presented during the lab sessions. “What we find is that there is a decisive cognitive overload in the labs.”

To flip the labs, Krebs and her team are creating an open access repository of information online where students can go to watch videos and complete interactive modules before the labs. The lab sessions will focus on task-oriented activities and will feature a number of clinical cases.

“All of that will hopefully lead to a better understanding of neuroanatomy and above all, a better application of that knowledge to a clinical context,” said Krebs.


In biology, faculty members are transforming two of the three foundational courses in the program, Biology of the Cell (Biology 112) and Genetics, Evolution and Ecology (Biology 121), using a flipped classroom or blended approach. Pilots have launched this fall and will continue in January, and the delivery of the fully transformed courses will occur next fall. However, many of the faculty members involved with these courses have already flipped their classrooms.

With these courses, we “really want to excite students about biology and make them want to take more courses,” said Shona Ellis, professor of teaching and associate head of biology, who is coordinating the project. Approximately 2,000 students take each course every year.

The two courses are taught by multiple professors, so one of the areas that the project teams are focusing on is developing learning activities that faculty members can adopt and adapt to their teaching. And by having different activities on hand to choose from, instructors will be able to customize the activities they use depending on their area of expertise.

Alongside the project, Ellis and other biology faculty are building a “digital depot” with resources for all of the courses in the biology program. “What we want to do is develop online resources for all of biology, where faculty members and students can go back and see how certain concepts and topics were addressed in other courses and even have some tools to help them do some self-assessment.”


The project in the Faculty of Dentistry focuses on student-generated assessment questions using PeerWise, a platform that helps students create their own multiple choice questions drawing from class material.

Jim Richardson, a clinical associate professor in the Faculty of Dentistry, spoke about the benefits of student-generated assessment questions. “It turns out that time spent assessing learning actually leads to deeper learning than time spent studying, which is kind of unusual. We think about assessment as a means of measuring learning rather than enhancing it.”

Richardson pointed to an article by Henry Roediger III, The Critical Role of Retrieval Practice in Long-Term Retention. “[Roediger] also found that feedback enhances the benefits of this testing and that’s one of the things that PeerWise offers that helps our students quite significantly.”

Richardson has been working with a team to pilot PeerWise in an integrated clinical care Dentistry course, Dentistry III (Dentistry 430) this fall, and so far, he said, students have been very receptive to it. The team will also pilot PeerWise in Dentistry IV (Dentistry 440) in January 2014.


Martina Wiltschko, associate professor in linguistics, talked about transforming her course, Introduction to Language and Linguistics (Linguisitics 100), where she is introducing a flipped classroom approach. The changes to the course include the addition of student-generated content and peer instruction in the classroom.

Wiltschko developed the videos for the course herself. She also worked with UBC Studios to produce one of the major videos. The videos include animations and visualizations of complex concepts that her students have struggled with in the past. She said that several students have found the videos to be helpful.

For the final project in the course, Wiltschko asks students to create their own video, poster, or some type of content that she can use when teaching the course in the future. “I explain to them your materials are going to be used next year, and when you explain to somebody what this concept is all about, that’s the best way for you to learn. And it’s working beautifully for those who are engaged,” Wiltschko said.

In addition to Linguistics 100, the Department of Linguistics is transforming courses throughout their program. In this round of redesigns, faculty members are also implementing flipped classroom approaches in Linguistic Theory and Analysis I (Linguistics 200) and Studies in Phonology (Linguistics 311). The instructors for these courses are also developing their own content to replace readings from textbooks. As with Linguistics 100, parts of this project are currently being piloted, and the completely transformed courses will be delivered next fall.

In terms of the impact of these changes, Bates spoke about the efficacy of implementing a flipped classroom approach – one of the themes that runs through these projects – on student engagement. “Irrespective of the pedagogy or the effect on grades, just go and walk into any of these classrooms where it’s implemented successfully and use whatever metric you like to measure engagement. It could be the decibel level, productive decibel level, in the room during discussions, whatever measure you want to evidence engagement. It’s just incontrovertible what this does for student engagement compared with a passive and traditional lecture experience.”

For more information about the first round of flexible learning projects, please visit the projects section of the flexible learning website. A video of the event can be seen here.