York College: Making Open Pedagogy Central to the OER Initiative
For Greet Van Belle, the Director of York College’s Center of Teaching, Learning and Educational Technologies, a lifelong passion for inquiry-based active learning started with an undergraduate learning experience of having to make sense of instructors orally presenting their knowledge, research findings, and insights without expressly intending to facilitate uptake by students, or providing students with a textbook. Students left the class with notes they then tried to make sense of—to “digest,” individually or in groups. Students did not share a textbook written by an instructor (or a publisher), but notes, a product of their understanding.
At York College, Van Belle founded the one-semester Active Teaching & Learning Institute (ATLI) in partnership with the Collaborative Learning Center, which provides tutorial services to undergraduates. This venture, according to her, ‘grew out of the understanding that good teaching is not just a question of telling instructors about certain principles of pedagogy like alignment, scaffolding, and assessment.’ ATLI offers faculty guidance in planning classes in general education, ‘with the goal of reexamining their teaching objectives and coming up with new strategies, technologies, and assessment instruments.’ There is also a backward design element: the faculty are asked to focus on the final result for their class and ask themselves how to work back from there by means of scaffolding the class material, i.e. what they need teach to the students at various points of the semester.
Although York faculty had used some openly licensed course materials, a full-scale program, complete with regular workshops, individual training and follow-up reflection assignments had to wait until York College received funding through the state grant. In 2019, CTLET Director Greet Van Belle redesigned the initiative as ‘Active Learning OER’ in line with the Center’s longtime educational focus and the first cohort of faculty members pledged to combine class conversion to OER/ZTC with open pedagogy creation. The culminating point of their classes was to be a major assignment of a type chosen by the instructor, arrived at by students through discussion and collaboration. The first batch of student assignments has been made public-facing on CUNY Academic Commons, MyOpenMath, an online course management and assessment system, and Wikipedia. The projects include a bibliography of resources on Africa and the Transatlantic slave trade, citations for a Wikipedia article in computer science (citations 1, 7 and 8) and an early version of a textbook of spoken English. An e-book of prompts for future active learning assignments, designed by a team of math and computer science professors and meant to be a work of open pedagogy added onto by students, rounded out this marquee year. We also ran a series of workshops introducing the potential of teaching and creating with open-source digital tools (Hypothesis, Voyant, Twine, StoryMapJS, and Timeline JS from Knight Lab), all adding to the ‘Swiss army knife' of teaching gadgets.
The faculty, most of them new to open resources, let alone the task of conceiving and executing an open pedagogy assignment, reported satisfaction from their students and themselves, despite the upheaval of the pandemic. While envisioning a continuation of this program, Greet Van Belle has reflected on the circumstances that led to its conception:
My background in linguistics has never left me because it gave me such a foundation of all learning. Everything became a puzzle, fun to figure out. You just need to observe things and be open to thinking outside the box. I feel that in my teaching that is something I have tried to connect with. The same kind of fun is involved in open pedagogy projects: they let students be in their zone, and that is what keeps them focused (Van Belle, 2021).