Sunday, 16 June 2013

Why and how: open education resources.

This is the fourth post in a series of posts reflecting on the teaching and learning in a recent course I've taught on SAS and R. This post will be quite different in nature to the previous posts which looked at students choices between SAS and/or R in their assessment:
Here I would like to talk about how I deliver teaching materials (notes, exercises, videos etc) to my students.

All of the teaching materials for the course can be found here: drvinceknight.github.io/MAT013/.

How they got there and why I think it's a great place for them to be will be what I hope to discuss...

A Virtual Learning Environment that was not as good as alternatives.

At +Cardiff University we have a VLE provided that is automatically available to all our students that all lecturers are encouraged to use. So when I started teaching I diligently started using the service but it had various aspects that did not fit well with my workflow (having to upload files on every change, clunky interface that actually seemed optimised for IE and various other things). It was also awkward (at the time, I believe that this has been addressed now) for students to use the environment on smart phones etc...

As an alternative, I setup a very simple website using google sites and would use +Dropbox's public links to link pdfs and other resources for my students. An example of such a delivery is these basic Game Theoretical materials. This gave me great control, I no longer had to mess around with uploading versions of files, every change I made was immediately online and also as the site was pretty simple (links and pdfs) it was easily accessible to students on all platforms (I could also include some YouTube videos).

An immediate consequence of this approach is that my materials are all publicly available online.

To anyone, our students or not. The first thing I did was check with +Paul Harper: the director of the MSc course that I was only teaching on at the time that this was ok. We chatted about it a bit and were both happy to carry on. My main train of thought was that there are far better resources already available online so mine might as well be. (I've subsequently checked with our School's director of learning and teaching and there's no internal regulations against it which is nice to know about +Cardiff University)

There is a huge amount of talk about open access in research (I won't go in to that here) but less so to some extent in teaching. I did find this interesting newspaper article that ponders as to "Why don't more academics use open educational resources?". This offers a good general discussion about open education resources.

I would feel very very humbled if anyone chose to actually use my resources. I'm at the early part of my career and am still learning so I don't think that will happen anytime soon but there is another more important benefit to having my teaching stuff online for everyone.

I always post about any new courses I'm working on, on G+ and am grateful to get a fair bit of feedback from other academics around the world. This in itself gives me a certain level of confidence in front of my students who know that what I'm teaching them is verifiable by anyone in the world. I've often changed a couple of things based on feedback by other academics and I think that's brilliant.

To some extent my teaching resources are not just reviewed by a couple of peers in my university but also by anyone online who might be interested in them.

(It would be great if research worked this way too)

Through G+ (I've posted about how awesome a tool G+ is as an academic personal development tool) I learnt about git and github. If you don't know about git watch this video by +ZoĆ« Blade is very helpful:


After a while I jumped in and starting using it. After a little longer while I found out that you can use github to host a website:


Using this I it is really easy to put together a very basic website that has all the teaching materials. The added benefit is that the materials are now all in a github repo which opens them up even more (using dbox, only the pdf files were in general in view) whereas now everything is (md, tex source files etc...) and theoretically if anyone wanted to they could pull etc...

I'm certainly not the first person to put teaching stuff up on github, (watching people like +Dana Ernst+Theron Hitchman and various others do it is what made me jump in).

The github repo for my R and SAS course can be found here and here are some other teaching things I have up on github (with the corresponding webpage if I've gotten around to setting it up):
To finish off here are the various reasons I have for putting my teaching stuff up on github:
  • Openness:
    • my students know that this is viewable by everyone which hopefully gives the resources a level of confidence;
    • people on G+ and elsewhere are able to point out improvements and fixes (if and when they have time);
  • Access: the sites are really simple (basic html with links) so they can be viewed on more or less anything;
  • Ease of use: I don't have to struggle to use whatever system is being used. If it's an option I kind of refuse to use stuff that makes me less efficient (an example of this is our email system: I use gmail). At the moment the system I like is github + git.
I wrote a blog post (which is the most read thing I've ever written - online or offline - I think) showing how to combine various things like tikz, makefiles, +Sage Mathematical Software System etc to automate the process of creating a course site so I'll put a link to that here.