E-xcellence in Teaching Essay: Teaching with Affordable Technology to Increase Student Learning

16 May 2017 8:57 AM | Anonymous

Teaching with Affordable Technology to Increase Student Learning

Judith Pena-Shaff (Ithaca College)

 Amber Gilewski (Tompkins Cortland Community College)


Last year at the APA Convention in Orlando, we participated in a symposium about the use of Open Educational Resources (OER) to increase student learning. Judith had little familiarity with OER, while Amber had been using these resources in her classes for the past two years, on the recommendation of her Provost who was enthusiastic about them.  A few days later, the president of Judith’s institution began his all-faculty meeting cautioning about the threat that OER known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) posed to traditional institutions of higher education. As a current participant in an Introduction to Psychology class offered through Coursera, questions about the educational and learning values of these resources came to Judith’s mind. Will OER increase students’ learning? And if so, how? In this essay, we discuss the value of open educational resources to increase student learning opportunities, as well as their challenges and promises.

Open Educational Resources (OER) are “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others” (Atkins, Brown, & Hammond, 2007, p 4). Inspired by the Open Source Software (OSS) and the Open Access (OA) movements in the mid 90’s (Baraniuk, 2008; Wiley & Gurrell, 2009), OER are relatively new phenomena that aim to 1) provide free or at least affordable access to knowledge and digital educational and research resources; and 2) reduce the high cost of teaching materials. Philanthropically, it is hoped that OER will help to equalize worldwide access to knowledge, and provide everyone with the opportunity to share, re-use, and re-conceptualize knowledge (Atkins et al., 2007; Baraniuk, 2008). OER include, but are not limited to, learning resources such as full online courses, courseware (e.g., syllabi, lectures, quizzes, and homework assignments), learning objects, assessment tools, software (e.g. IHMC CmapTools program), learning management systems (e.g. Sakai), textbooks, encyclopedias (e.g. Wikipedia), simulations, and other resources or techniques used to support access to knowledge (Hylén, 2006; Downes,2007). Some well-known open education projects are Connexions, which started in 1999; Wikipedia, launched in 2001; a series of OER projects sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation ; MIT Open Courseware, which began in 2002; and more recently, platforms such as Coursera Udacity, and edX (a joint venture between Harvard and MIT), which offer MOOCs.

There are many reasons why psychology instructors might decide to adopt OER in their traditional face-to-face or distance learning classes. First, OER allow us to provide students with affordable access to information and knowledge. For example, Gilewski provided students with the option to use an OER textbook in her general psychology community college classes (Gilewski, 2012). They could either read the book online or print it for a small fee. She found, in contrast with previous semesters, that students spent less for their class materials, their grades improved, and there was a reduction in the number of course withdrawals. However, it is impossible to know if these results were caused by students’ access to affordable reading material.

Second, OER allows instructors the opportunity to customize their course materials, providing students with different types of learning aids that better fit the course objectives and benefit different types of learners. For example, Audley-Piotrowski and Magun-Jackson (2012) used a custom-designed DVD with different types of learning resources to increase student preparation and involvement in a Developmental Psychology course. Their study revealed that different types of learning aids engaged different types of students. Non-traditional students and students who defined themselves as independent learners benefited the most from the ancillary the course CD offered than more traditional and dependent learners.

In addition, OER can be used to combine different tools to help students develop shared knowledge through communities of practice. Draper (2012) explored how knowledge-building activities, such as individually and collaboratively creating concept maps, helped her students develop knowledge convergence. She used Moodle, a free course management system, an asynchronous online communication system for student collaboration, and IHMC CMap tools, a concept mapping software package that can be downloaded for free at http://cmap.ihmc.us/download/. Integrating these learning resources with instructional activities increased student engagement and participation and fostered the development of complex knowledge structures both in online and blended classroom environments.

So far, we have presented the inclusion of OER in somewhat traditional course environments. MOOCs, however, are a different species of OER. Although the first course using the name MOOC was offered in 2008, the term became a buzzword at the beginning of 2012, with the creation of Coursera, an online platform that offers entire college courses for free. This company, started by two Stanford professors, now has contracts with well-known universities that offer free courses, although not yet for credit, through its online platform. Judith’s experience taking an Introduction to Psychology class taught by University of Toronto professor Steve Joordens has been very positive so far, although not very challenging. The lectures are 15-minutes or less, and are geared to introduce a few basic psychology concepts and theories to a very diverse audience in terms of age, occupation, and geographical location. At the end of each lecture there are two multiple-choice items related to the lecture (not graded), links to free online videos (usually from YouTube), and additional readings. The online discussions are lively, and some participants have been promoted to the level of teaching assistants because of the feedback they often give to others. Other participants write lecture notes and share them with the class. Judith, as others, just watches the lectures. To obtain a certificate of completion a student must complete two multiple-choice exams with a grade of 70 or higher. These tests permit a review of the lecture and retest on the items, to allow the student to correct wrong responses (very like B. F. Skinner’s Programmed Instruction technique). In addition, a short, peer-reviewed argument paper can lead to a “certification of completion with distinction.”

From these examples we can see that OER offer instructors and students certain advantages. Students find them more affordable than commercial sources. Thus, if access to textbooks is an issue for our students, then OER become very appealing. OER also provide equal access to learning resources worldwide. For example, in the Coursera Introductory Psychology course, all participants have access to the videos and readings, no matter where they live or their levels of education. Many of the resources can be customized by instructors (e.g. editing the textbook, adding or simplifying information). They also give instructors the flexibility to combine different learning resources to better serve their students, to favor different pedagogical approaches (from memorization to knowledge construction), and to complement the textbook. They can be designed to follow a non-linear format. Instructors can link the course syllabus to the readings, videos, and Internet resources to help students gain a better understanding of the course content. All these factors sound very appealing.

For faculty interested in infusing more OER in their own courses, some resources may include, but are not limited to the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (http://oerconsortium.org), Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative (http://oli.cmu.edu), Saylor (www.saylor.org), and OpenStax College (http://openstaxcollege.org). Amber has been involved with the Kaleidoscope Project (http://www.project-kaleidoscope.org), a cross-institutional collaboration for using the best existing OER for the past few years. They are always looking for new adopters in this grant-funded work.

However, there are also challenges in adopting OER. For example, increased access does not necessarily mean enhanced or increased learning or motivation. Research shows that less than 30% of psychology students read their textbooks before class and less than 70% read them before an exam (Clump, Bauer, & Bradley, 2004). Of the 60,000 individuals who registered for the Coursera-based Introduction to Psychology class that Judith is observing, 12,000 (20%) were still actively participating at the time we wrote this essay (class announcement, June 4, 2013). This was before the first assessment took place. We wonder how many participants will actually complete all the course assignments and finish the course.

Also, research on students’ perceptions of textbooks’ pedagogical aids (Marek, Griggs, & Christopher, 1999) shows that students tend to prefer aids that directly relate to test preparation (such as chapter glossaries, boldface definitions, chapter summaries and self-tests) rather than aids that might lead to a deeper understanding of the course material. Therefore, it was not surprising that students in Audley-Piotrowski’s and Magun-Jackson’s (2012) case study focused only on the readings and concepts and not on the other resources, since the test focused mainly on the readings.

Issues also arise from our lack of familiarity with and concerns over the quality of OER resources. Of course, this is not much different than when we try to select textbooks in our area. The main difference is that we can always get some feedback from colleagues about textbooks. Since OER are not so well known, we are less likely to get feedback so we have to figure things out on our own. Also, we must find the OER while the textbooks usually come to our offices via publishers’ representatives.

A major challenge relates to the sustainability of OER in terms of funding (so far most OER funding has come from educational institutions’ or foundations’ grants), technical upkeep (e.g., What happens when a problem occurs? Who maintains the sites?), and content (updating the content, reliability of sources, and so on). Several models have been proposed, particularly for the sustainability of MOOCs, such as charging participants for certificates of completion, charging employers who might be given access to participants’ grades, and of course, sponsors.

While we have different, affordable learning technologies available today, some of the problems we face as instructors are still the same. For example, Hammer (2012) discussed students’ lack of metacognitive skills and learning strategies. Basically, many of our students do not know how to study or which learning strategies work best for them. We need to teach students these strategies directly, and help them become more conscious and purposeful in their learning. One way to do this could be by creating assignments that make them reflect on how they learn, regardless of the type of learning resources or environment where learning takes place.

Students also need to be active in learning. To encourage more active learning in her Introduction to Psychology classes, Amber has been involved with the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative, which provides a more interactive approach to learning the material. Students read material online, watch embedded videos, engage in “Learn-By-Doing” and “Did-I-Get-This?” activities that provide immediate, targeted feedback, before they go on to take graded Checkpoints after each module. She has seen a dramatic increase in her students’ success and interaction with course material, which she’ll present at a symposium at the APA’s 2013 Convention in Hawaii. 

In conclusion, OER provides affordable access to learning resources. Integrating OER and active learning strategies might help to foster complex knowledge structures. Our role is to guide our students so they use and take advantage of these resources.


Atkins, D.E., Brown, J.S., & Hammond, A.L. (2007). A review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement: Achievements, challenges, and opportunities (Report to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation). Retrieved June 2013 from:  http://www.hewlett.org/uploads/files/ReviewoftheOERMovement.pdf.

Audley-Piotrowski, S.R. & S. Magun-Jackson, S. (2012, August) Textbook alternatives and student learning in a lifespan development course. In A.M. Gilewski and D.C. Draper (chairs), Teaching with affordable technology to increase student learning: What works. Symposium presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Orlando, FL.

Baraniuk, R. G. (2008). Challenges and opportunities for the open education movement: A Connexions case study. In T. Iiyoshi & M. V. Kumar (Eds.), The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge (pp. 229-246). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Clump, M.A., Bauer, H. & Bradley, C. (2004). The extent to which psychology students read textbooks: A multiple class analysis of reading across the psychology curriculum, Journal of Instrumental Psychology, 31, 227-233.

Downes, S. (2007). Models for sustainable open educational resources. Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects, 3, 29-44. Retrieved June, 2013 from: http://www.ijklo.org/

Draper, D.C. (2012, August), Instructional strategies to promote knowledge convergence in online communities of practice.  In A.M. Gilewski and D.C. Draper (chairs), Teaching with affordable technology to increase student learning: What works. Symposium presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Orlando, FL.

Gilewski, A.M., (2012, August). Using open educational resources to improve student success in introduction to psychology courses. In A.M. Gilewski and D.C. Draper (chairs), Teaching with affordable technology to increase student learning: What works. Symposium presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Orlando, FL.

Hammer, E.Y (2012, August). Meta-studying: Teaching metacognitive strategies to enhance student success. Paper presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Orlando, FL.

Hylén, J. (2006, September). Open educational resources: Opportunities and challenges. Proceedings of Open Education 2006: Community, culture and context.  Utah State University (pp. 49-63). Retrieved June 10, 2013 from: http://library.oum.edu.my/oumlib/sites/default/files/file_attachments/odl-resources/386010/oer-opportunities.pdf.

Marek, P., Griggs, R. A., & Christopher, A. N. (1999). Pedagogical aids in textbooks: Do college students' perceptions justify their prevalence? Teaching of Psychology, 26(1), 11-19.

Wiley, D., & Gurrell, S. (2009). A decade of development. Open Learning, 24(1), 11-21.  doi:10.1080/02680510802627746.



Judith Pena-Shaff is an associate professor and chair of the psychology department at Ithaca College. She earned her Ph.D. in educational psychology from Cornell University in 2001. Dr. Pena-Shaff’s research interest is in instructional technology. Specifically, she is interested in the knowledge construction processes students use in computer-mediated learning environments with the purpose of creating a taxonomy to help instructors assess student learning.  In addition, Dr. Pena-Shaff is highly engaged in her community, often conducting evaluations of educational programs run by schools and local organizations.


Amber Gilewski is an assistant professor of psychology at Tompkins Cortland Community College in upstate NY. She is a Psychology Fellow on the Kaleidoscope Project, which is a Next Generation Learning Challenges grant-funded collaboration of colleges in the U.S. devoted to improving student success and retention in general education courses, through the use of OER. She earned her master’s degree in Clinical-Counseling Psychology from LaSalle University in 2002 and has been teaching at community colleges since 2004.


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