Open Dialogues: How to do open courses

Gregor Kiczales, professor of computer science and Senior Advisor for Digital Learning Strategy, has been doing open since before it was called open. In 1981 Kiczales was working on a project in the Logo Lab at MIT, implementing an educational environment called Boxer. It had an open copyright. His supervisor was Hal Abelson who later founded Creative Commons.

“In education, open means learners won’t have to pay for the materials, and it means that instructors can build on each other’s work to create better and better learning,” said the computer science professor. “In Computer Science 110, we have hundreds of practice problems, we have past midterms, we have past exams, we put all that stuff on a shared site and it makes us look helpful, it makes us look organized. We are helpful, we are organized, and we are helping students learn.”

Despite these benefits some instructors are still concerned about having their course materials and assessments shared without their permission on sites like Course Hero.

“I don’t see any path to success in trying to keep students from copying resources. I remember at MIT during rush week some of the fraternities would show off their extensive filing system of old exams and problem sets from courses. The best [fraternities] had years’ worth of material,” Kiczales recalled. “So students have shared copies of course material always. It is just that in the past only some people had access to those materials. Now everyone does.”

His advice to instructors is to explicitly make all that material available on the course website. This will make them look helpful and it will level the playing field for students.

Merging open and on-campus classes

Kiczales’ popular course, Computer Science (CPSC) 110, has always used an open educational resources including an open textbook and, more recently, it incorporated a new form of open resources that the professor created for another course – an open access, non-credit Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

“We use the [MOOC] resources to support a particular approach to active learning. Usually before class students work through some design method on video. Class starts out with them working a problem that should be straightforward. Then we give them a problem that starts easy but runs into difficulties they (probably) can’t handle. We discuss improvements to the design technique to address that problem. Introducing the material at the time when it is needed improves learning,” he said.

The computer science MOOC originally launched in June 2013 with over 50,000 active students and is now offered on edX as a continuous enrollment, self-paced course. Kiczales blurred the lines between the two versions the course by adding UBC students directly to the edx course shell and having them use the same discussion boards.

Unfortunately, the idea didn’t work as well as he had hoped. “Various people insisted that we allow the UBC students to have a private UBC discussion forum in addition to the public forum, and the UBC students all migrated to the UBC only forum, which was a shame, because I still believe they would have learned a lot from interacting with the open professional community,” he added.

Different contexts, different learners

“Open access learners are in some ways much more diverse and in some way much less diverse than UBC students. They are much more diverse in that they have a much more diverse set of goals,” said Kiczales. Some of them really just want to survey the material, others really want to do it. These enthusiastic learners tend to be 25 to 30. They already have a university degree. Some of them already have a master’s degree. They tend to be in a job that they are not happy with and they tend to be far busier than undergraduate students. As a result, they are really focused.

With this group of learners in mind, the computer science professor is helping launch a MicroMasters Program – a new kind of credential from edX – on software development. According to him, the online learners feel want multiple courses in a focused area that advance their career and that are clearly of university quality. That’s what a MicroMasters Program is.

According to Kiczales, the new credential will bring many benefits to UBC.

“The first reason is a sense of responsibility to educate the province. By putting the MicroMasters in software development online, we make available to anyone UBC’s first three courses in software development. If you happen to live somewhere far from Vancouver or you happen to have a job that doesn’t allow you to take time off to come back to school, you can take these three courses, get started on a career and know whether it’s right for you.”

Other reasons include recruiting, revenue and branding. But even as institutions develops new courses and credentials, Kiczales urges UBC to look outward and stay open.

“We know that no university is a net exporter of textbooks. Every school is a net importer of textbooks and educational resources by a wide ratio. Every school will be a net importer of MOOC courses too because no school is good enough to have the very best course on every single topic. So we must look at what other institutions are doing and how we can use it and share what we produce. We can build on each other’s work to create better and better learning.”