Open Educational Resources: A Call to Action — Dina Meunier

open signOn February 8th, Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani from Kwantlen Polytechnic University in B.C. presented a strong case for the use of open textbooks in higher education to an interested audience at the University of Waterloo1. Open textbooks, he argues, such as those provided through OpenStax College or BC Campus OpenEd, benefit students, professors and institutions.

What are open textbooks? Open textbooks are “licensed under an open copyright license [such as a Creative Commons license] and made available online to be freely used by students, teachers and members of the public.”2 How do open textbooks differ from electronic versions of traditional textbooks? Some textbook publishers provide students with an online or digital version of a traditional hard copy textbook, but access to this electronic version is not free and it is under a limited license, that is, students loose access to the digital textbook after a period of time, for example, 6 months after purchase. Open textbooks, due to the nature of being openly available also promote lifelong learning, says Jhangiani.

There is no denying that traditional textbooks are expensive. Textbook costs have increased by 82% in the last decade, according to Jhangiani and these costs contribute to crippling student debt.  In Canada, the average student graduates with a debt of over $28,000 and three years after graduation, only about one-third of graduates are debt free, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Jhangiani argues that professors can mitigate this unfortunate situation simply by deciding to use an open textbook or a series of open educational resources to replace their traditional text.

Another advantage of open textbooks, for both students and instructors, lies in their flexibility. Open textbooks, Jhangiani explains, “aren’t just free, they’re free with permissions.” These permissions include the ability not only to retain, reuse and redistribute the resource, but to potentially remix and redistribute it based the instructor’s pedagogical goals for the course.

Universities also benefit from the use of open textbooks. There is a direct relationship, Jhargiani says, between textbook costs and student success and retention. Research shows that students enrolled in courses using OERs, had lower withdrawal rates, had better grades and enrolled in more courses in the current and subsequent semesters3.

So why aren’t more instructors using open textbooks?  Lack of awareness about where to find open textbooks and uncertainty around their quality are two of the main reasons.4 But the quality issue is an issue of perception.  Jhangiani states that quality has improved dramatically in the last 5 years and recent research shows that 75% of faculty who have an opinion about OERs, rate them as equivalent or better than the traditional textbook.5

Want to learn more about open educational resources? March 7 to 11th is Open Education Week so there is no better time to start than right now.

  • Check out how the Faculty of Mathematics is leading the way in Waterloo’s own open courseware initiative: math.uwaterloo and courseware.cemc.uwaterloo;
  • Explore the possibility of incorporating an open textbook in your upcoming course this spring or fall;
  • Are you interested in creating your own set of open educational resources to replace a costly textbook in your large enrollment course? Contact the Centre for Extended Learning (, we may be able to help you!


1To view “Open Educational Practices by Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani,” Centre for Teaching Excellence, (published to YouTube on Feb 12 2016) go to

2Open Textbook FAQ. BCCampus OpenEd.

3 Fischer, L., Hilton, J., Robinson T. J., & Wiley, D. (2015). A multi-institutional study of the impact of open textbook adoption on the learning outcomes of post-secondary students. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 27(3), 159-172. doi:10.1007/s12528-015-9101-x

4 Green, K. (N.D.). Going Digital: Faculty Perspectives on Digital and OER course materials. Retrieved from The Campus Computing Project.

5 Allen, I.E., & Seaman, J. (Oct 2014). Opening the Curriculum: Open Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2014, Babson Research. Retrieved from

The author of this post, Dina Meunier, is Associate Director of Online Learning at Waterloo’s Centre for Extended Learning

Piazza – part 2 – web-based discussion forums for university courses — Paul Kates


Back in January 2012 I wrote about Piazza, the free online Q&A site used by instructors for teaching. Since then, Piazza has grown even more popular with STEM subjects. Piazza reports that over 1000 schools and 300,000 students have participated in online discussions using their system. Continue reading Piazza – part 2 – web-based discussion forums for university courses — Paul Kates

Speaking and Visibility: How Google Docs Can Create Co-Presence in Non-Arts Classrooms — Sara Humphreys

Be visibleI work in the Faculty of Math at the University of Waterloo. I was hired as part of a massive project to rethink communications for both native speakers of English and non-native speakers of English. This initiative came about after university administrators learned that scores for the standardized test measuring English competency (the English Language Proficiency Exam or ELPE) were so low that students were unable to do the work required of them in their courses – this, of course, was disastrous for the students, who pay exorbitant tuition as international students.

While some faculties are still using the ELPE, based on this information, the Faculty of Math dumped the ELPE and partnered with both UW’s and St. Jerome’s English departments to shift from simply using a standardized test to measure language skills to actually supplying support for the high percentage of international student that comprise students the Faculty of Math (over 80%).w

I teach a course called ENGL119 Communications in Math & Computer Science, in which approx. 80 -90% of the students I teach are international students, on average, and of that 80%-90%, maybe 20% are female. While I am very glad to see the changes made by the Faculty of Math, I find there is still a gap in the support systems offered non-native-English speakers, namely for specific marginalized populations within the  Faculty of Math.

My focus is on providing supportive, safe environments for female multilingual student: these students face tremendous systemic racism and sexism, even if they do not realize it (and most do not – when we have discussed this issue in class, these women tend to blame themselves – stating, for example, that they need to simply work harder).


Here we need to turn to Mary Louise Pratt’s idea of co-presence. When these female students are silenced or self-silence (for self-protection), the university loses the voices of these talented students. Their co-presence (active, vocal presence) in the contact zone of the university – the space where cultures of different geographies, histories, languages and cultures intersect – is required to imagine news ways of learning and being. Just to give you an example of these student voices, the following excerpts are by female multilingual students, who were working in an online collaborative environment designed by WordPress and Desire 2 Learn – here, students could interact with each others’ personal pages (this is representative student work – I find most math students are community-minded):

From a personal statement on how math should be taught:

“We should be entitled to the freedom to express and share our personal understandings and experiences in certain disciplines. While this is usually inherent in the arts disciplines, personal understandings and experiences also play an indispensable part in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines to reach out to the general public. We feel connected if we share similar emotions or experiences, and the desire to connect motivates us to learn proactively. Last but not least, we should be entitled to the freedom to diminish the barriers between different disciplines and connect them in varying ways. Blurring the borders between different fields helps us to understand them from diverse perspectives. More importantly, connections between different disciplines bring people interested in these areas together and encourage them to explore themselves from an interdisciplinary perspective.”

From a biography statement:

“Coming from a low-income area in Pakistan, I was determined to change the conservative mindset that prevails in my hometown where the women are considered homemakers and denied equal opportunities. Therefore, I taught in Mathematics in a government school in my hometown. I emphasized the importance of education and women empowerment to the few girls attending the school. This is one of the main reasons I wanted to study abroad at a prestigious university like the University of Waterloo, so that I could set an example for the rest of the girls back home and encourage them to strive for the best.  I also want to further develop my knowledge and thrive to achieve academic success so that I could go back home and make a difference.”

Amazing – right? These women deserve support, encouragement and safe spaces free from the threat of stereotypes (or worse), in which they can thrive.

According to a study conducted by Emily Shaffer, when women had no role models or little in the way of support networks, they equated themselves with the stereotype that women have a hard time succeeding in Math, science or tech fields. The hypothesis when Shaffer started her study of female math students was that these women would try to defy the gender stereotypes they faced; however, what Shaffer discovered is that without a strong support system of peers offering examples of counter-stereotypic behaviours, the women conformed to stereotype and their math scores declined.

Annique Smeding found that when women in STEM disciplines are given support and their counter-stereotype behaviour is supported, they redefine what comprises STEM practice. For example, these female math students who resist stereotypes defined emotionality as  a positive aspect of their STEM practice – a direct contrast to the edict of rationality as the ultimate term of STEM disciplines

Social science studies tell us generally that women in STEM need support networks and I argue that multilingual female STEM students need those networks and strong role models because  they are doubly or even triply oppressed under multiple stereotype threats and are often racialized to boot.

This is where social media comes in.

Elizabeth Koh explains that “[u]sing online collaboration applications, two design elements…. affect learning outcomes – sociability and visibility”; the affordances of Google docs (commenting function, choice to add a photo and other identity markers) can increase agency and confidence. Don’t take my word for it, Popov et al showed that  online collaboration encourages “more equal participation for non-native speaking students… than face-to-face discussion.” Online collaboration enhances inter-cultural awareness, including the sharing of experiences, background knowledge, and decision-making strategies.

The above quantitative social science analysis are useful but in order to culturally situate and find solutions, we need cultural critique: social media can offer the third space, as Homi Bhahba calls it, in which identities are fluid because they and the spaces they are in are always in an act of becoming – they are always in a state of being made. Within this space, new ways of interacting and understanding each other can be imagined and embraced. The third or interstitial space invites respectful, non-violent conflict – this is a space of negotiation. I can’t think of a better description of the Google docsspace in which students join with me to comment and interact. Students can remain anonymous or take on their own identities. Female students (actually all students) who normally do not say a word in class are talkative in this space, sharing ideas, and even countering my own interventions.

Watch Your Essentialism

Helen Kennedy, in her essay in that really excellent essay collection edited by Julie Rak and Anna Polette Identity Technologies, explains that we need to take heed of Stuart Hall’s warning concerning “the essentialist model of human subjectivity,” but we also need to understand that “the tropes of identity and community endure.” After all, visibility is not necessarily a good thing: as Foucault tells us, visibility is a trap. The online presence must not be about surveillance and control. And so, as Kennedy explains,  we must not simply understand identity static and quantitative  but fluid cultural performance and  practice that is in continuous formation. Whether online identities are fragmented or not, (keeping in mind Sherry Turkle’s famous analysis of online identity formation) people will continuously try to connect across political, social and cultural barriers and to me, marginalized students, in particular,  can use the intersectional capabilities of social media spaces to empower themselves through visibility and agency.

What Do I Do?

The way it works is that you need to get a Google account, then open a Google doc and create content you and your students can edit or that your students can build. Hit “share” (top right of screen in Drive) and choose “get shareable link” so that your students can use docs without having to open a Google account (most of them have one, though). The idea is to interact with students and encourage them to interact with each other in a safe space online. This space is, in part, made safe by reminding students they need to follow the ethics of the university and also the presence of an encouraging teacher (I try). When I saw how powerfully female multilingual speakers were interacting on Docs, I knew that they saw this as a safe space and told me so in an online survey. Now I will expand my use of Drive and Docs to provide resources for female students while also creating an inclusive environment for all my students.


  • Koh, Elizabeth, and John Lim. “Using online collaboration applications for group assignments: The interplay between design and human characteristics.” Computers & Education 59.2 (2012): 481-496.
  • Popov, Vitaliy et al. “Perceptions and experiences of, and outcomes for, university students in culturally diversified dyads in a computer-supported collaborative learning environment.” Computers in Human Behavior 32 (2014): 186-200.
  • Shaffer, Emily S, David M Marx, and Radmila Prislin. “Mind the gap: Framing of women’s success and representation in STEM affects women’s math performance under threat.” Sex roles 68.7-8 (2013): 454-463.
  • Smeding, Annique. “Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM): An investigation of their implicit gender stereotypes and stereotypes’ connectedness to math performance.” Sex roles 67.11-12 (2012): 617-629.

Dr. Sara Humphreys is the editor and project leader of Digital Communitas, where this post was originally published (it has been republished here with her permission). She has been published in anthologies and leading journals in the fields of game studies, rhetorical theory, literary theory, and American literature. Dr. Humphreys hopes this site will evolve into a new form of research dissemination and collaborative thought about connections between and amongst academic publics, digital tools, media and spaces.

Image courtesy of Light Brigading.

Please engage with students after the beep — Josh Neufeld

When teaching a large second-year “Fundamentals of Microbiology” course with 800+ students each fall, connecting with individual students is an important, yet challenging, goal. In addition to in-class student engagement, email helps me make connections with students outside of class, assisting them with particularly difficult course concepts. That said, with hundreds of student emails received every term, typing responses can become time consuming and burdensome. This year, I discovered a simple technique that saved me a lot of time, provided increased student engagement on a personal level, and surprised students pleasantly. The technique? Voice mail.

In September 2014, when a long student email with five different questions arrived one day, I decided to pick up my phone to respond instead of typing. Because the University of Waterloo has a service that allows employees to have voice mails forwarded to our email accounts as a .wav file attachment, I simply dialed my own phone extension and left a message: “Hello Isabel…”. After answering her questions in under three minutes, the time limit of our answering service, an email arrived with my audio file.

I replied to Isabel and attached the file, simply stating “Hello Isabel, Please see attached. Let me know if you have additional questions. JDN”.

By replying to the email verbally through voice mail, I was able to answer all five of her questions with detail beyond what I would have written in an email. Isabel heard me talking to her, using her name, and responding in a friendly and helpful tone. A surprising additional benefit was efficiency for me: this process took approximately five minutes, from reading her questions to sending the voice mail reply.

Isabel’s response to this new form of communication? “It was actually a brilliant idea! At first, I was kind of worried it would be difficult to answer all those questions via an email; just cause you have to type it out and sometimes it makes less sense than in an actual conversation. However, when I received the audio message, it was clear and I think it’s easier to understand.”

From then on, when an email required thoughtful responses, when general student questions were best answered with a suggestion to review a podcast or videocast for more detail (i.e., we covered that topic in class), when questions moved beyond the scope of course material and required more in depth responses, when I needed to decline requests for exam accommodations, when students asked for career advice, voice mails have made my life easier in every case, saved me time, and left the recipient thrilled with the personal touch.

Student feedback on the voicemails has been 100% positive since I first used this technique in September. Feedback was sufficiently enthusiastic that I began using voice mails for responding to emails from colleagues and graduate students when I don’t have time to type a response, or when the tone of the conversation is important to convey correctly.

Drawbacks? One downside is poor email searchability. For me, this has been a minor issue; I’ve not yet needed to search for any of the dozens (hundreds?) of voice emails sent since September. File size is another drawback. A three-minute audio file (e.g., .wav, mp3, m4a) can range between 300 kb and 3 mb, depending on the method used to generate the file. These days though, emails with attachments are common. Voice mails certainly don’t exceed the size of a photo or journal article. It may also worry some to have voice audio files circulating on the internet. That said, sending an email to a student is similar in that ideas are out there for posting or sharing anyway.

And how will I will carry this practice forward in 2015? Now that I am overseas on a sabbatical, calling my University of Waterloo extension is no longer feasible. Instead, I’ve discovered an excellent alternative. Creating audio recordings with Vocaroo is effortless. Vocaroo is a website that can be used instantly, without membership or software installed. An advantage to Vocaroo is that audio files can be downloaded directly or, alternatively, a short url link is provided that can be sent to a recipient instead of an email attachment. It is even possible to upload an audio file to Vocaroo in order to share a link that allows the recipient to listen instantly. In this way, I uploaded an example audio recording sent to one of my 2014 students (“Jennifer”) who sent a six-question email, providing an example of how the approach can be used to respond to students. Additionally, here is a link to a video for educators explaining the features and functionality of Vocaroo in a step-by-step manner.

In summary, voice mails help increase student engagement outside of class and provide a personal touch for instructors wanting students to know that they are more than a number in their class. In the process, leaving a message after the beep saves a lot of time. I hope this simple practice helps you and your students as much as it did me and my Fundamentals of Microbiology class.

Note: to set up your university voice mail so that messages are emailed to you as .wav files, send a request to . 


Josh Neufeld (Twitter: @JoshDNeufeld) is an Associate Professor in Waterloo’s Department of Biology, studying the microbiology of terrestrial, aquatic, and host-associated environments. Josh teaches a large second-year introductory microbiology course as well as smaller upper year courses in biogeochemistry and microbial ecology.

Telephone keypad image courtesy of Raindog808

Oh SMARTBoard, where art thou? Part 2- Eric Van Halteren

Sherlock HolmesAs you may recall, I wrote an article on September 25 titled ‘Oh SMART Board, where art thou? Part 1’ In the article, I discussed my experience with SMART Boards and an elementary and middle school level, and wanted to determine how SMART Boards were used in a post-secondary setting. However, I was not able to find one before writing the first entry. In this entry, I will recount my quest to find a SMART Board.

Oh SMART Board, where art thou? This question has been on my mind for the last several months and has driven me to explore more of Waterloo campus than most curious first year students. I don’t consider myself a detective by any means, but as I searched high and low for SMART Boards I couldn’t help but visualize myself akin to Sherlock Holmes, deerstalker perched on my head and pipe in hand. The purpose of my search was simple: to understand how interactive boards can be used in a post-secondary setting. However, the rarity of SMART Boards on campus made this question quite the challenge to answer.

After writing my first blog entry, I was informed of and was able to locate two SMART Boards on campus. One was located in a basement classroom in the east wing of Renison University College (REN), and the other was located in a conference room in Engineering Building 5 (E5). I cannot begin to describe how jubilant I was when I finally laid eyes on these beautiful pieces of technological ingenuity. Both boards were a newer model than what I was accustomed to, with an upgraded projector layout and reduction in the number of physical devices needed to interact with the board. The board in REN was situated at the front of a medium sized classroom that could accommodate ~60 students, while the board in E5 was placed more in the corner of a conference room that could hold ~30 students. What interested me was the fact that, of the two SMART Boards I located, both were being used in very different settings.

Unfortunately, I was never able to sit in on a lecture or sneak into a conference where a SMART Board was being used. However, I was able to question various staff and faculty about their thoughts towards the boards. One professor in REN (whom I have since lost the name of) highlighted that the SMART Board software made it easy to interact with slides, make notes throughout a lecture, along with save and distribute these notes after class ended. She also mentioned that students enjoyed using the SMART Board for their presentations in class. I heard similar feedback from several staff members, who noted that the board made lectures more engaging for students. When I asked about the learning curve for the board software, the professor said the basics of the software for the board were relatively easy to pick up. However, she also admitted that she hasn’t been able to explore many of the software features of the board. I expected to hear this when talking with staff, recalling from my own experience that the learning curve was relatively easy, but also had a high ceiling.

So there you have it. I was able to locate two SMART Boards, and received some feedback regarding their use in a postsecondary setting. Some could say the mystery has been solved, the case abruptly closed. Yet, I argue the contrary. In all my searching, only two SMART Boards were uncovered; less than what most elementary and high schools have. If these boards have been deemed beneficial towards interactive teaching by school boards, as shown in some research, why are they passed off in a post-secondary setting? What makes a post-secondary setting so different that SMART Boards are deemed non-beneficial to student learning? I could see the argument of class size brought forward, but I would simply rebut with possible use for tutorial or labs. Others could argue that these boards are just entertainment tools, but I would rebut that with effective training these boards could be used highly effectively.

To end this blog post, I would like to pose a question that has been on my mind throughout this quest. If SMART Boards, or any interactive whiteboards for that matter, are deemed beneficial in high school, are we doing current and incoming post-secondary students a disservice by not including them as part of our educational pedagogy? I hope the University of Waterloo, an educational institute who prides itself on innovation, looks further into whether SMART Boards hold benefit for our classrooms of tomorrow. Until then, I will continue my search, trying to unravel this tangled mystery. Oh SMART Board, where art thou?

I would like to thank Kyle Scholz and Gordon Stubley for their tips on SMART Board locations.

References: Armstrong, V., Barnes, S., Sutherland, R., Curran, S., Mills, S., & Thompson, I. (2005). Collaborative research methodology for investigating teaching and learning: the use of interactive whiteboard technology. Educational Review, 57(4), 457-469.

Beeland, W.D. (2002). Student engagement, visual learning and technology: can interactive whiteboards help? Action Research Exchange, 1 (1). Retrieved from:

Glover, D., Miller, D., Averis, D., & Door, V. (2007). The evolution of an effective pedagogy for teachers using the interactive whiteboard in mathematics and modern languages: An empirical analysis from the secondary sector. Learning, Media & Technology, 32(1), 5–20.

Oh SMART Board, where art thou? Part 1 — Eric Van Halteren

SmartboardHaving recently finished my Bachelors of Education degree, I came out of school with a wealth of knowledge and an array of teaching strategies under my belt. During my practicum placements, I gained a variety of experiences working with middle school students and learned about the wonders of SMART Board. To quickly describe, a SMART Board is a digital board where an image is projected onto a large, whiteboard looking touch screen which is connected to your computer. With the appropriate software, the instructor can actively engage in his/her lessons using the touch screen with writing tools, built in manipulatives, and video capabilities.

From a teaching standpoint, I think SMART Boards are wonderful teaching tools that go far beyond that of the ‘glorified whiteboard’ that they were sometimes described as. They are a great interactive tool that I could use in a classroom, and the software was relatively intuitive. With the software for the board, I was able to create lessons that could accommodate multiple learning styles without having to draw upon a vast array of external tools. I found myself experimenting with the software and testing the limits of it, with the goal of enhancing student learning in my classroom.

With this newfound knowledge about SMARTBoards in mind, I was fully expecting to see these tools in many classrooms when recently I arrived at uWaterloo. However, when I arrived on campus and explored some classrooms, I was not able to locate one. I went on a quest to find a SMARTBoard, looking from building to building, but was only able to locate whiteboards, chalkboards and projectors without interactive boards. Although they may be somewhere on campus, I was at a loss as to where they could be. At this point I started to question my view of SMART Boards. Was I wrong? Were they really just glorified whiteboards? But having used them in a classroom, I knew this to not be true. But if this is not the case, than why are they uncommon in a post-secondary classroom?

What I would like to know is what may hold instructors back from using a SMART Board in the classroom. If the university offered these boards, would instructors use them? When I was teaching in an elementary school setting, having a SMART Board often enriched my lessons due to the variety of manipulatives that I could readily have at my disposal. However, classrooms at a university level are often more lecture based and the appeal of manipulatives may be lost on many lecturers. Also, classes in university tend to be much larger than secondary school classes, which may restrict the interactive nature of the board. There are many possible reasons for not having a SMART Board in a post-secondary classroom, but the question is whether the benefits outweigh the drawbacks for instructors.

At the moment I don’t have an answer as to why SMART Boards are not more common in post-secondary classrooms at uWaterloo. Perhaps they are, but I just haven’t been in the right set of classrooms to find them. Regardless, I plan on unravelling this mystery, or at least further my perspective towards SMART Boards in a post-secondary classroom.

If you happen know of the whereabouts of SMART Boards on campus, or have your own personal experiences using SMART Boards, please share your thoughts and help me unravel this mystery. You can also look forward to Part 2 of this entry, which will be posted on December 11th.  For now, I will end this mystery with to be continued…

Attack of the Macs — Bailey Jacobs, CTE Co-op Student

It is safe to say that technology has dominated the world—Okay, I may be exaggerating [slightly] but it is evident, walking into any lecture currently taking place on the UW campus, that laptops have undeniably invaded the university classroom.  Seeing as it has been a few years since the CTE blog has discussed the contentious topic of laptop use, I am going to tackle this subject from a new angle… The student’s perspective. Continue reading Attack of the Macs — Bailey Jacobs, CTE Co-op Student