Using OpenStax for PGCE Courses at The University of Sunderland

We don’t want to have somebody who could be a fantastic teacher [and] didn’t really get there because they didn’t have access to the materials to develop their subject knowledge.”

Andy Fraser is a senior lecturer in the Education School at the University of Sunderland.  With a specialism in science and maths  pedagogy, Andy focuses on initial teacher training and education research on Sunderland’s Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) and undergraduate Physics and Mathematics with Education programmes. The Education School at Sunderland is one of the largest higher education (HE) providers in the region and offers a large range of PGCE programmes including an international, distance PGCE qualification with a current intake of around 500 trainee teachers. The growing science and mathematics PGCE programmes have a current intake of 50 and 15-20 trainee teachers, respectively, during the 2017-8 academic year.

Andy currently uses a range of OpenStax materials within both undergraduate (UG) and postgraduate (PG) courses, discovering the textbooks in December 2015, shortly after joining Sunderland.  For Andy the OpenStax science and math textbooks provide a “very coherent package” of materials with “a lot of thought been put into the delivery pathways.”  With multiple pathways to take students from UG to PG level, OpenStax provided good resources to support both UG study and transition students into the science PGCE that Andy was reworking at the time. Following review and integration, Andy began to use OpenStax in courses from early 2016 onwards. Andy explains the factors that were important during the development of the new iterations of these courses:

“I wanted to construct a set of Mathematics and Science resources which was open access for students and complimented existing purchased learning materials. I wanted to lower that burden by having information that was free at the point of use for our trainees, but also would stay with them after they left our institution. As a result, they would have materials they could take with them into that professional practise during and after the completion of their time with us.

                  … The demographics for our university are very challenging. We have a number of students who join us who are not affluent students, so empowerment and access to education for all and not being disadvantaged financially is a major driver for our city university.

One of the second drivers … was to identify materials which can be cut up, chopped up, and put back together in a way that suits our learners … so we wanted all sorts of materials, so we could move very rapidly, change our materials in light with changes to the national curriculum, so we wanted materials which would be very efficient to develop in the first place and very efficient to maintain. I believe we’ve managed that. We spent an awful lot of time looking at resources upfront, we didn’t make any quick decisions.”

Using open educational resources (OER) such as OpenStax ensured that students had immediate and transnational access to course resources at no cost, in perpetuity. This is particularly important given the range of students that Sunderland serves and enables students on the distance, international PGCE to have access to resources that were previously often restricted due to different country’s copyright laws.  

Having previously developed and used OER during his time as Head of Mathematics at a secondary school, Andy was also “strongly wedded” to using OER “from a budget point of view.”  In addition to the affordances of an open license and the “highly adaptable” content, having a no-cost resource at the core of your teaching enables “…you to identify capital expenditure on things which help the teaching of learning of those resources such as good ICT resources, good ICT for mathematics, good ICT for science based resources which then further enhance the value of that initial OER resource.” Further, the regular updating of the textbooks come with no cost to students or to Andy and colleagues so “…we can deliver constantly a high quality of teaching and learning resources for our students with low development times…”

Other reasons for choosing OpenStax include the additional resources that many of the textbooks have (such as slidedecks and test banks of questions). Blending together a mix of OpenStax materials into Sunderland courses, and integrating material from the Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Calculus and Statistics books, was made easy as the books complement each other well, are “very comprehensive,” and enable the development of a one-stop-shop or “one coherent source” across the science and math components of the PGCE.

Adaptation of OpenStax and its benefits

Initially providing different textbooks to students ‘as is’ in courses, over time the “…approach [became]… much more complex…” with courses now incorporating different assets from the textbooks in a more integrated way and “signposting” students to “deeper and deeper resources should they have the appetite to go there.” As Andy explained:

“Our approach is much more complex now. We develop a lot of our teaching learning materials on the campus learning platform and what we do because of the structure of, take for example the OpenStax material, we can embed segments of their book, diagrams, power points, student problems, within our campus environment in small bite size pieces.

Now that’s really effective because what we can do is we can structure our … we can microstructure our course in a way that is different than just slavishly following through a textbook and quoting chapters. Secondly, what it allows us to do is, very importantly for us, is at the correct learning points we can embed other best practise resources, such as the PhET simulations from Colorado University and also Khan Academy learning resources to help student who perhaps need a different teaching and learning style than what we are delivering in the classroom. So we can back up our own teaching with very good segments from the OpenStax resources, plus Khan Academy, plus PhET resources. So we can embed inquiry based learning and different teaching and learning styles and interweave those in a very efficient manner.”

There are a range of benefits to this development of “significantly richer and joined up resources.” Both Andy and colleagues are concerned with “teacher resilience” and mitigating against the nationwide problem of high numbers of teachers who leave the profession early on in their career. By providing “a toolkit of resources” which can be accessed post-PGCE and is regularly updated acts as a vital resource for teachers embarking on their career. In addition, such as “toolkit” provides a connection and continuity between students, graduates and Sunderland.

Read more about how Andy effectively combines OpenStax, Khan Academy and PhET simulations within the virtual learning environment (VLE) Canvas.

Advice to Others? 

Andy had the following advice for fellow educators who are considering incorporating more OER into their courses:

  • Take your time and “work on the basis of 80/20, review and plan;”
  • This means that 80% of your time should be working with colleagues to review the resources together: “mak[ing] a very thorough and robust appraisal of the resources out there” before spending 20% of your time implementing;
  • Remember “…if there isn’t a resource out there… don’t use it for the sake of it. Use [resources] … that are entirely appropriate for your course and your teaching and learning. Go into it with an open mind;”
  • In order to integrate and use open resources effectively you might need to upskill your ICT skills and invest in this appropriately;
  • Keep in mind that the quality, additional resources and the extent of peer review varies between different types of OER in addition to certain subjects having resources geared to particular contexts (e.g. law, economics etc.)

Next Steps?

It is estimated that around 50-70 students currently use OpenStax materials as part of their PGCE studies with “student feedback tend[ing] to be very good” and positive outcomes on subject knowledge and student outcomes. Going forward Andy and colleagues are planning to integrate OER across the whole of the secondary PGCE programme with library and information colleagues supporting this process by identifying OER and ensuring that open resources are ranked highly in staff and student searches of library catalogues.

Find out more

Picture Credits

Andy Fraser (used with permission); The University of Sunderland and the River Wear by Beck Pitt is licensed CC BY 4.0; Open Textbooks by Giulia Forsythe (Public Domain)

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