Innovative Practices Spotlight

CAE Innovative Practices Spotlight

The Center for Academic Excellence is recognizing a faculty member every month in the CAE Innovative Practices Spotlight to highlight his or her innovative classroom practices and outstanding contribution to Millersville University. 

Dr. Christopher Stieha is being recognized in March for his exceptional use of Open Textbooks in his Biology courses!

Please continue reading to learn more about his exciting experience and to learn ways to incorporate innovative practices into your classroom. 

1. What innovative practice did you incorporate into your classroom?

In my classes, I incorporate Open Educational Resources and Open Source Software into my lectures and activities.  These materials are free in two senses: free as in doesn’t cost a dime and free as in how I use them and modify them.  The free as in doesn’t cost a dime removes the bar on access to material and therefore increase participation and allows the students to retain the material or software beyond their time in my class or their time as a student.  The free in their use allows me to pick and choose what I use as well as allows me to modify the material to best fit my class and my teaching style (standing on the shoulder of giants and all that).  For example, in my introductory biology class for non-majors, I included information that linked the content in lecture to the OpenStax Biology textbook, an online textbook free in digital format.  In my biometry class, I use the free programming and statistical language R for performing statistical tests and making figures. 

2. When did you implement the new practice into your classroom?

I implemented this practice basically day one.  This is my fourth semester at Millersville University, and all of my classes are my first time teaching these classes.  Because of this newness, I get to make my classes what I want from the beginning and not have to go back and retrofit these ideas into already organized classes.  But these classes are still works in progress, where I plan to incorporate more open resources, such as Open-Access journal articles, or move from a standard textbook to more of a collection of open educational material as I collect these materials myself.   

3. Did the students willingly accept the use of the new practice? What were the reactions of the students?

The students do accept these practices.  My favorite email was a student emailing me to make sure that she was ordering the correct book because it was only 30 dollars.  My response was yes, that is the correct book and the online version is free.  Even students who buy the standard, physical textbook use open educational resources as supplementary material or read the open textbook on their phone or laptop when they don’t/can’t have their physical book with them.

4. How has the use of the new practice positively affected the classroom learning environment?

Most immediately, Open Educational Resources and Open Source Software has removed the cost of the materials.  A long-term advantage is that students will have access to this information and software beyond my class or even their time at Millersville University.  These textbooks will be available online and accessible even after the completion of the course, when their physical textbooks would have been sold.  For software, besides being able to apply their skills to other non-open software, students will be able to use their code and skills from the open software that we used in class.  For example, interpreting statistics is consistent no matter what software you use.  If the students work for someplace that has access to a license for statistical software, they can apply the skills and knowledge from my biometry class to this software package.  On the other hand, if they work for an organization that does not have the ability to purchase a license for statistical software, they can use the powerful and free R programming language and code from my classes to perform the analyses.

5. How has the use of the new practice affected student engagement in the classroom and the level of participation?

I think that the big effect on student engagement comes through the activities that I can organize for my students.  By using Open Educational Resources, I can quickly make activities that expand on content discussed in class.  For example, in my introductory biology class I give the students a hand out of animal and plant cells so that they can label the parts as we discuss them in class.  These high-quality diagrams of the cells are licensed in a way that allows me to modify them and use them as I see fit as long as I give attribution (thanks LadyOfHats!).  I could make this handout quickly because I didn’t have to draw these cells myself.

6. What challenges did you encounter when you were implementing the new practice?

The main challenge that I encounter is the same challenge that I encounter when using non-open educational material: finding material that supports my learning objectives for the students.  In both cases, the resources may not be exactly what I need or what works for me.  I modify and supplement the material, whether Open Educational Resources or traditional resources.  The Open Educational Resources then allow me to distribute the material so that others can build on the work that I have done, much like I built on the work of the original creators.

7. How did attending Camp IDEA or a CAE Professional Development session contribute to your learning and use of the innovative practice? 

Camp IDEA and CAE Professional Developmental sessions have given me the tools and skills to take these educational resources, modify them, and implement them into my classes, such as via quizzes in D2L or their use in effective pedagogy.  Also, through these sessions, I have met and interacted with many people with different frameworks for teaching and education which has allowed me to learn from the collective and expand beyond my experiences.