Open Dialogues: How to make Teaching more student-centered

This is the first article of Open Dialogues, a series on open teaching and open education.

Rosie Redfield has been doing science in the open for a long time. For over two decades she has been putting her grant proposals online – which “is just about unheard of.” In 2007 Redfield started blogging about her research, writing about the day-to-day life in the lab. A few years ago, she took her commitment Open Science and began to employ open practices in her teaching.

Redfield is a Professor in the Department of Zoology at UBC, where she teaches Biology 345: Human Ecology. When she took over the course, she decided to incorporate some of the open practices she had been pushing through her research. Redfield re-structured the course, doing away with the mid-term and the final exam, and instead decided to focus on three projects centered on open practices and community impact.

She wanted to move away from the model where students do what she calls “fake work” towards a model where coursework has an impact beyond the classroom.

“We are often asking students to do work just to show us that they can do it. I wanted them to do something that had genuine value, and not just this makeup exercise they perform just to show [professors] they know how to do things.”

Wikipedia, YouTube and community practices

The first graded component of the course is a Wikipedia assignment.

“I’ve always thought that universities, especially university libraries, are treating Wikipedia very badly, telling students that they shouldn’t use Wikipedia, when we all use Wikipedia,” Redfield said.

As part of the project students are asked to create or improve a Wikipedia page about the local environment. They can choose any topic that has some relevance to Vancouver ecology. In the past students have worked on articles about the UBC Biomass Research and Demonstration Facility, Vancouver Community Gardens and the Richmond Nature Park, among others.

According to Redfield the most challenging aspect of the project for students is understanding how Wikipedia works – for example, providing references for your statements and remaining neutral in your writing. The technical structure of the platform has also proven to be a challenge for first-time users.

“Wikipedia is really easy if all you want to do is go in and fix a typo. But if you want to do anything beyond that, good luck with that,” she said. “There’s a whole set of technology involved in the editing, like history pages, edit pages, sandbox, and talk pages.”

In the second graded component of the course, students do five-minute talks on a topic of their own choosing related to humans and ecology. The talks are recorded and the final video is posted on YouTube for anyone who wants to see it.

“What I like best about it is how interesting the topics and the talks are in the classroom,” said Redfield. “Student presentations can be deadly, but these are really good. They pick something they actually care about and it’s usually stuff I don’t know anything about.”

The final assignment is perhaps the one with the greatest impact outside of the classroom. Students are asked to design and carry out a small community project for the class. In the past projects have included setting up battery recycling in a condo, establishing dog poop composting in a neighborhood and creating a book box.

Beyond the classroom

According to Redfield, a critical component to the success of the course is ensuring the assignments are useful to students even after the class is over.

This starts with giving students more agency to choose what topics they want to focus on and what types of projects they would like to develop, but that doesn’t happen in most classrooms. “There’s all kinds of issues that people consider when they are deciding what to teach and it’s often not whether it’s going to be useful to the students,” she added.

Redfield believes the way instructors look at education needs to change.

She says academia has convinced the world that credentials are the only thing that matters and that devalues some of what goes on inside the classroom in terms of teaching and learning. While Redfield notices some shift, we are a long way away from reaching the ideal model.

“Education is really conservative. As faculty, even when we are doing kind of radical stuff in our labs, we’re not doing radical stuff in our teaching.”

For her, the internet has been and will continue to be an ally through this change. It has made things more easily and readily available. She believes instructors owe it to students to teach in the open. “Open is all about our responsibility to the students, to do our best by the students,” she added.

Redfield cites her Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) titled Useful Genetics, the second course of its type to be offered by UBC, as an example of making education more equitable and accessible to a wider group of students.

The bottom line is, whether we are talking about a face-to-face or an online course, for Redfield, students and their needs should be the first thing on an instructor’s mind while planning a course.

“The basic idea I have been pushing is that in choosing what to teach—what facts, what concepts, what principles—our first criterion should be, ‘How will the students use this? How will they use this outside of the university? Is this of any use to them in their ordinary lives?'”