First, I write this with my Teaching Fellow hat on: I'm at the tail end of a Teaching Fellowship based on my work with Open Education Resources (OER). Direct involvement with the Teaching Centre is a big help -- more people should consider applying!

The pandemic and the need to switch to an alternative teaching model has really highlighted some of the benefits of working with OER, in particular, the flexibility and accessibility they offer. I don't have to worry about my students being able to access their course materials, wherever in the world they now happen to be.

Open resources include textbooks, but it's not just textbooks. Most of our large service courses in mathematics rely on an online homework server that I run. This server runs WeBWorK: an open-source, community-maintained online homework system. We've been able to secure capital funding from the Faculty of Arts & Science for the hardware, and the software is free. Students can access their homework from anywhere, free of charge, and all their data stays on campus.

WeBWorK is algorithmic, meaning that it generates different versions of each question for each student and can differentiate between answers that look different but are algebraically equivalent. Right now, that's not something that we can do on Moodle.

We had some support from the Teaching Centre for this as well. Their Open Access Learning Resource Fund let us hire several students to help us write problems for our question bank. It's not entirely necessary to have our own questions since there are thousands of community-contributed problems from all over the world. Still, it's nice to have consistent terminology, notation, etc.

Circling back to the topic of textbooks, I have a collection of open textbooks for most of our 1000 and 2000 level courses that students can access for free. Most of these are in PDF format, which has pros and cons. But I've also been involved with a newer authoring system called PreTeXt. Some of it looks a bit technical (you have to write using a specialized XML tagging system), but once you've got everything written, from a single set of source files, you can produce books in many formats, including PDF, HTML, and ePub.

I've used this to move all of our calculus books over to HTML. It's a big undertaking: I've been working with three others (all in the US) for a year, and we're just now getting to a completed first draft.

But HTML is a big plus as students can read it on their phones, and I can embed interactive content, like YouTube videos. We can even connect the book to our WeBWorK server, and run interactive homework questions right in the book.

That brings us to videos. I applied along with Todd Doucette in the Teaching Centre for a Teaching Development Fund that we used to build a lightboard. Now, this is a cool thing because it's also an open resource -- but this time it's open hardware! All the instructions to build the lightboard are online. We had to build the frame, source the glass, etc. But it's completely home-baked.

If the campus hadn't been completely locked down, we were planning to invite people to use it for remote teaching. Sadly, that didn't come to pass.

The good news is that I've been using it for over a year, and I've done somewhere between 400 and 500 videos on it. These are all up on YouTube. Once we hit pandemic status, I made all of this public, so suddenly, I have people all over the world watching. If it turns out that we're still teaching online in the Fall, I'll have all these videos ready to go for all of our incoming students who sign up to take calculus.

So having all of this in place made for a much smoother transition. There was no disruption in homework or material. The only thing we lost was the face-to-face meetings.

I've replaced the lecture with YouTube live streams. Since I already had so much on that platform, it made sense to stick with it. I can give a lecture by annotating slides on my tablet PC and streaming it to YouTube (as long as my WiFi holds up). YouTube automatically saves things for later, so students who can't watch live can watch at any time. And those who do watch live can rewatch the parts they didn't grasp the first time through.

Now, all of this so far falls under the OER umbrella, but I do rely on a couple of proprietary solutions.

One is a discussion forum, called Piazza. The Moodle forums are good, but it's hard for students to include mathematical content there. On Piazza, it's easier. And students can post anonymously (to their peers) if they're not confident. In my Math 1410 class (170 enrolled), we're averaging a 17 minute response time on questions. I polled my students, and they overwhelmingly prefer the forum option above setting up live Zoom meetings. I have a booking system set up for students who want Zoom -- so far there are no takers.

The other huge, huge help is Crowdmark. We ran a pilot with this service two years ago, and it was great. Everyone who used it liked it. But we couldn't figure out a way to pay for it. Fortunately, they're giving us access for free to the end of the semester.

I can deliver my assessments remotely now: Crowdmark is integrated with Moodle, so it pulls in my class list and emails them when an assignment or test is ready. They do their work on paper -- we still rely on pencil and paper in math due to all the specialized notation -- and then use their phones to scan and upload. We grade online, and when completed, I click one button to email students their feedback, and another button to enter the grades into Moodle.

Thanks to Crowdmark, I'm actually spending less time on assessment! I can easily connect my grad student TAs, and we can grade in parallel -- no trading papers back and forth. And I don't have to waste time sorting, grade entry, or returning work to students.

Overall, the only real changes I needed to make were streaming my tablet for lectures and bringing in Crowdmark to maintain continuity of assessment. The rest was already there.

Now, if only I could do something about the 300% increase in email volume.


Sean Fitzpatrick, Department of Mathematics & Computer Science |