OER Fund(ed): complex concepts, simple English

Headshot of Georg Rieger

Georg Rieger

For international students who aren’t native English speakers, there’s so much more to learn than just their classwork. Earlier this year, Georg Rieger and colleagues from the Department of Physics & Astronomy along with Vantage College received an OER Implementation Grant for the proposal, Enhancement and Customization of an Open Physics Textbook for International Students, which aims to combine physics and language learning within one resource.

As the deadline for 2021 OER Implementation Grant applications approaches, Georg explains his vision for customized open educational resources, and the benefits they will provide to physics instructors and students alike.

Q: What motivated you to apply for an OER grant?

To my knowledge, there is no physics textbook or open educational resource that is geared towards international students in an English language learning environment. This project can fill the gap.

I was recognized as an OER champion for my previous work developing open learning materials for physics students, and this triggered a new idea: the development of a complete learning resource for international students.

The goal is to customize and edit an existing open Physics textbook in such a way that it will be a great learning resource for anyone, but especially for international students. The new project is a close collaboration between me, three instructors from the Vantage Academic English Program, and five students.

Q: How will students benefit from your project?

My colleagues from the Vantage Academic English Program, Alfredo Ferreira, Jodie Martin, and Neil Leveridge, will identify language use in the original textbook that is particularly difficult for international students. They will make suggestions, and develop a set of rules that will help me make the necessary changes on my own in future years. The final resource will look like an online or blended physics course, but it will be one in which complicated language does not get in the way of physics learning.

By creating the course content as an open resource, the project will eliminate all cost for students, with all materials available to them on day one.

More importantly, the materials are customized for the course. The students will see reading sections with embedded questions, lecture worksheets and homework problem sets prepared, all in weekly modules. The close proximity of reading, reading questions, and homework should help with the development of conceptual understanding. Students never need to look very far for relevant sections to review if questions arise.

We are hosting the course content in the edX Edge platform, which allows me to present the course materials in a logical sequence: reading first, then sense-making in class using the worksheets, then homework problem sets. It is clear what should be done each week, and in what order. No due dates are necessary, but of course there are marks for all the questions.

We will use fairly frequent tests (every three weeks) to keep the students on task, but the test days are the only important dates students need to remember. This should alleviate some common student worries and some administrative load as well.

Q: How does the use of open resources support your teaching and learning goals?

Through the possibility of customizing the materials. There are very good commercial textbooks and online homework resources available, but there is always a bit of a compromise to be made. Often times, textbooks are too comprehensive and cannot be covered in one course. We can try to customize by leaving out a textbook section, but this can lead to some incoherence.

More importantly, it is hard to integrate all external course resources. Even though we can now link to e-texts, homework databases, Piazza discussions, etc. through Canvas, the look and feel is different between these resources. This can lead to a situation in which students have to be able to use a multitude of online tools. By contrast, our resources on edX Edge will have a very integrated and coherent feel and will support exactly what I want the students to learn in my course.

Lastly, open resources are never static. I can add topics, correct or clarify problem questions and modify textbook sections, as needed.

Q: What have been your first steps towards your project?

The first step was to approach my colleagues in the Academic English Program and see if they would be interested in collaborating with me on this project.

The next step was formulating a proposal and applying for the OER funds. Once the funds were secured, I approached a few of my former graduate teaching assistants to see who would be interested in working on this project.

Alfredo Ferreira also suggested hiring a former Vantage student, Wucheng Zhang, as an Undergraduate student Research Assistant to help with the development of language-focused tasks that will be part of the Vantage-specific version of the course resource.

Q: What support has been useful in helping to develop the OER? Have students been involved with the development of the work in any way?

The Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology has offered drop-in workshops to help with the development of the OER proposal. I would certainly recommend this to anyone who is interested in developing an OER project. We also had some productive discussions with Vantage curriculum manager Brian Wilson.

Students are heavily involved in the realization of the project. Four graduate students from the Department of Physics & Astronomy, Shovon Biswas, Puranjay Gulati, Guy Leckenby and Jordan Wilson, are coding textbook problem questions and worksheet questions. The grad students often have to be creative, since many of the worksheet tasks cannot simply be transferred to a multiple-choice or numerical format. Coding into edX also offers additional possibilities, such as number randomization. And as mentioned, undergraduate student Wucheng Zhang is actively developing language-focused tasks around physics content.

Q: Why do you think that it is important for instructors to consider using or creating open educational resources?

I realized that open-educational resources have the potential to support students better than commercial resources.

For me, this potential is due to the customizability of the resources and the possibility for ongoing improvement. OER can fill gaps that commercial publishers have not pursued.

Georg Rieger is an Associate Professor of Teaching in Vantage College and in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. Georg and co-investigators received a 2020/2021 OER Implementation Grant for their project.

Applications for 2021/2022 OER Implementation Grants are now open. Learn more and apply at open.ubc.ca/oer-fund

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