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Moving to open education: Perspectives from Chris May

Date:17 May 2022
Author:Mira Buist-Zhuk and Martijn Blikmans
Dr Chris May
Dr Chris May

Chris May is an Associate Professor of Psychology at University College Groningen. We talked to him about how he redesigned his first-year Biopsychology course based on open educational practices, with open pedagogy taking a prominent place. Open pedagogy principles rely on open educational resources (OER) that are available in the public domain or under an open license, to allow students to become co-creators, rather than passive consumers, of their own educational material that is shared openly with the world.

Why did you decide to engage with open educational practices in your teaching?

I introduced my 2021 course Biopsychology with the following on Nestor:

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” (sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill)

Education remains disrupted due to the coronavirus. But we can work together to make this a positive disruption. As much as we would prefer to teach and learn together in a shared physical space this block, we must remain online. We are thereby afforded the opportunity to think outside the box (outside the classroom), to re-imagine the learning experience, and to create new learning content, processes, products, and environments.

With this motivation, I sought to use the pandemic as an opportunity to try things I otherwise couldn’t, or wouldn’t, try: namely, redesigning a course from scratch.

At the same time, I had already begun working on an open textbook with the University of Groningen Press: Interdisciplinary Explorations in Neuroscience: A Project-Based Course Guide.

It struck me that there may be a fruitful synergy between writing this text and developing a transformed version of my course. Students could engage in the same processes I was engaged in while writing the book. And maybe, I thought, the students’ work might inspire and shape the directions my text might take.

How did you go about implementing open educational practices in the classroom?

First, I imagined the end product of the course: an overarching website that linked together smaller websites developed by teams of 4 - 5 students. From there, I outlined the parameters, and gave examples for those parameters that would shape the smaller websites: It should be an accessible introduction, based on scholarly neuroscience articles, to an interdisciplinary topic, with active-learning exercises for readers. Lastly, I imagined some obstacles to success, such as cramming work or team disagreements, and developed structures (assignments throughout the length of the course and a final presentation) and tools (team agreement with clear roles for each student) to mitigate these risks. I included all this information in the syllabus to clearly convey to students how the course would embrace open educational practices. The end result was the "Signature Project", and the resulting webpages are OER in themselves, and can be seen here.

In addition to engaging in what is called open pedagogy with this Signature Project, I also incorporated additional OER into my class and teaching. For instance, I used open textbooks chapters from Openstax and Noba, and bundled them to create my own teaching resources that fit specifically with the intended learning outcomes of my course, and with the backgrounds and interests of my students.

In my efforts to implement open educational practices in my course, I drew on many resources provided by Mira Buist-Zhuk, OER specialist at the University of Groningen Library, including a webinar on OER and links to external guides and resources. Mira also provided me with valuable feedback on the framework that would be the Signature Project.

What challenges did you experience in the process of redesigning your course and implementing the changes into practice?

Students created their OER in groups. I made this choice for two reasons: 1) it would give students a reason to actively connect with a small number of other students during the movement-restricted pandemic period, and 2) it facilitated the creation by students of a more substantial product, with potentially greater appeal to outside readers.

Of course, group work carries risk. However, I found that the Team Agreement significantly mitigated those risks. Students hold each other accountable to a greater degree than I have seen in the absence of a Team Agreement. I would highly recommend using such an approach for group work on substantial projects.

Redesigning a course takes quite some work upfront. But by putting a lot of the redesign in writing, and providing clear guidance in the syllabus, the execution of the Signature Project went quite smoothly. It is readily recyclable for future courses and other projects such as the aforementioned open textbook.

How did students react, did you receive any feedback from them?

A comment from one student on the course evaluation nicely summarizes the kind of feedback I received: “I really enjoyed the Signature Project. The assignment was clear but still left a lot of room for creativity and own interpretation, and allowed you to go more in-depth on a topic of interest. The fact that what you created might actually be used or be of interest to someone else, made the whole project feel more valuable/useful.”

How can the university stimulate the use of open educational practices and OER?

The university can best stimulate the use of open educational resources and practices by teachers in three ways:

  1. By showcasing a diverse array of OER and ways to use them to stimulate teachers’ imagination and enthusiasm.
  2. By providing easy access to basic training materials, such as the materials mentioned here.
  3. By providing consultation services to help teachers with questions specific to their own cases.

In addition, the syllabus for the course is available to everyone through OER portals Edusources, OER Commons, and Merlot. Many thanks to the UG Library staff for posting these for me! In this way, both the course design and key course deliverable are widely accessible for re-use and can hopefully help other instructors create a more active learning environment for their students.

What would you recommend to fellow teachers interested in redesigning courses with OER?

Developing open educational resources can be a very creative endeavor, especially co-creating them with students. In some cases, an OER might replace a traditional text. In others, it may serve to augment traditional materials, as is the case for the open textbook I am currently writing.

As more OER are becoming available, it also becomes increasingly energizing to think about how to incorporate them into your own course. OER make it easy to pick and choose amongst the best resources you find for addressing particular topics in the course. The package of resources you find may well be more interesting and suitable for your course than what may be found in a traditional text.

Useful links:

Interested in learning more about OER? Join us on 16 June at the in-person workshop Redesign, enrich and transform your course with open educational resources

OER Libguide

Overview of places to find OER

Creative Commons and license picker tool (old, and beta new version)

SURFSharekit: upload materials to Edusources & openly share them with the world

Edusources, MERLOT, OER Commons: OER repositories 

Video Chris May recorded for the UG Best Practice in Teaching & Learning Award 2022

Recording of the Education Festival session about redesigning your course with OER



About the author

Mira Buist-Zhuk and Martijn Blikmans

Mira Buist-Zhuk and Martijn Blikmans are Academic Information Specialists at the University of Groningen Library.

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