A Student’s Request
During the Fall 2016 semester, a student came to my office to ask me a question.
Haley: “Hey, are you teaching your tropical marine biology class next semester?”
Me: “No, it’s not on the schedule.”
Haley: “Why not?”
Me: “Well, we try to rotate our upper level electives and I didn’t think there would be enough interest, especially since the field trip has expenses, and I know that extra costs are especially hard for students.”
Haley: “If I can recruit enough students, will you teach it?”
I guess I didn’t think she could pull it off when I answered so quickly, but then the students started rolling into my office to get on the list! Energized by their enthusiasm, I did some schedule shenanigans (with my always-cooperative biology department colleagues), and the Spring 2017 tropical marine biology course was now a thing.
Thus began an adventure in pretty much student-led everything.
At the time, I had been experimenting with open pedagogy for a few semesters earlier in my other courses, but these students inspired me to make this course the open pedagog-iest ever. Encouraging students to create, share their work publicly, openly license it, connect and collaborate with others outside of the classroom are central to open pedagogy for me as well as for many others. But if you follow my work, you might already know that I put student agency at the top of my list when I define open pedagogy for myself.
On the first day of class I began with: “What do you all want to do this semester”?
We talked about topics in tropical marine biology, learning outcomes that I’ve written in the past, grading, attendance, and some open pedagogy tools like domain of one’s own, hypothes.is and twitter. We also discussed the field trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands which they were especially excited about. We collaboratively decided how the course would be structured and run. To be fair, some of the students in the class had already taken a course from me using an open pedagogy approach, or had taken a bio course with one of my colleagues doing a similar thing so it wasn’t entirely new to everyone. Also, ALL of the students had used OpenStax Biology in their first year course so they at least knew about the idea of OER. My now nearly standard practice of asking students to write their own plan for attendance and create their own proposal for grading was born from this discussion.
Lesson 1: It makes a huge difference when you develop a departmental culture and students have the opportunity to engage in more than one course that emphasizes open pedagogy and OER.
The students in this 2017 semester set about creating all kinds of excellent content on their individual domain sites. You can find the original version of that work and the student sites on our course website.
I know I am one of those people that has to figure out things for myself that others have already figured out; but one of the most important things that I realized that semester, was the extent to which social interactions and community building are critical to learning. The more time that students have to interact with one another informally, joke around, talk about life, the more they begin to trust each other, and the more effectively they seem to learn. One of my students in the 2019 semester wrote about this on his domain site.
Lesson 2: Don’t underestimate the extent to which your classroom culture contributes to student learning.
Spring 2019: Students Create and Edit an Openly Licensed Book
The Tropical Marine Biology course is now on a two year cycle (with optional field trip). When the Spring 2019 semester began with a new crop of students, I raised the possibility of creating an openly licensed textbook on introductory tropical marine biology. The class decided to curate, edit and expand upon the content created by the 2017 class, and put it all into a pressbook. Students in the 2019 semester also created many new pieces to add to the book. Students worked in teams on different sections and took on various roles as chief editor, section editors and content creators. I gave advice and feedback throughout the process, but the students made the decisions about what to include in the book.
A 2017 reprise
When the 2019 semester ended, the pressbook project was in good shape but still needed editorial work. It occurred to me to turn to the students from the 2017 class for help. What is especially significant to me about this whole story is the extent to which several of the now-graduated alumni from the 2017 class were eager to participate in the final editing process of this book. These students felt a strong connection to this work even two years after the course had ended and some of them were now in jobs or in graduate school.
Four former students from the 2017 class titled the book, wrote the introduction, tirelessly edited much of the content, and even added several new and important pieces.
Final Lesson: When students create and participate in something that feels important to them, long after they graduate, they are still part of the learning community that began with a course.
Very proud to present: A Student’s Guide to Tropical Marine Biology