All posts by Barb Murphy

SFU students open to open textbooks

SFU Student Texts

By Candy Ho

We’ve all got at least a few of those past course textbooks that have been collecting dust on our bookshelves or even in our basements; expensive paper weights – in the literal sense.

According to an article written by Max Hill, Features Editor for The Peak student newspaper, an increasing number of today’s students are finding ways to avoid amassing their own textbook collections by not even purchasing them in the first place. The impetus, he claims, is due to the perceived high prices of texts – some of which many students don’t feel will be worth their investment. Instead, he notes that over 50% of SFU’s students are turning online to the ever burgeoning private used/loaned textbook market.

However, Hill argues that a new movement is quickly gaining traction that may even thwart the best efforts of those looking to ‘recycle’ their texts to recoup some funds. Government agencies like BCcampus are “compiling a collection of free and readily available open textbooks designed for classrooms in BC and across Canada”  – that’s right; they’re completely free.

From the flexible education perspective, this not only means that faculty members can adopt and adapt open textbooks to suit their courses; but also, students can avoid the “to buy or not to buy” dilemma as they can access open learning resources right from the get go.

For more information about the BC Campus Open Textbook Project, please visit:

For more information on the Simon Fraser Student Society’s petition for an open textbook program, please visit:

Sometimes you need to build your own learning system

Hellenic Studies
André Gerolymatos (left) and Costa Dedegikas of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies developed and built a custom learning management system for Greek-language training.

By David Porter

For André Gerolymatos, a professor and director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies, the problem was straightforward — how do you build a system for Greek-language training that is engaging, productive and works on the mobile devices that today’s students consider everyday-carry equipment? In solving the problem, Gerolymatos and his colleagues in Hellenic Studies, illustrated the role of faculty and departments in spearheading innovation and flexibility at SFU.

“We were facing a serious challenge in offering Greek language in a university with a very small population of Greek speakers, in a city that has a very small Greek population to begin with,” says Gerolymatos.

To address the challenge, he worked with Costa Dedegikas, the centre’s technology manager and leader of a team of software engineers that recommended a modular approach to designing an online learning system that could host the language lessons. The design approach they took was future-oriented, allowing the learning system to be used with emerging technologies, with other languages, and in other kinds of courses.

After working with experts to obtain feedback on their Greek-language system, a funding partnership with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation enabled the team to take the learning system a step further, and this meant making a big decision, said Dedegikas:

“Go with an off-the-shelf learning management system (LMS) or build an innovative platform that pushed the boundaries of existing LMS environments.”

The Hellenic Studies team developed its own lab at SFU with a view to staying on the cutting edge and maintaining its modular approach to instruction. The team also included learner profiles and data analytics in the competency-based system, an environment that provides both students and instructors with a real-time picture of achievement.

Gerolymatos and Dedegikas have begun to work on improved technology through an SSHRC grant for a new mobile-enabled system that will contribute to language preservation and instruction for First Nations communities. The new system will also work for other courses and languages, and it is currently being used at SFU for mobile-enabled history courses that include archival video.

The critical design decision for the Hellenic Studies team was user engagement. Its systems had to work for the faculty and instructors who teach the courses, and they had to work for students and demonstrate that learning was happening. To ensure success, the team took an inclusive, iterative, design-based approach to implementing, testing and improving the system.

Gerolymatos and Dedegikas believe they have built an innovative niche technology that could also be used successfully by other departments at SFU and beyond.

The flexibility of studio physics


By Sherrie Atwood

It’s a Thursday afternoon and Dr. Daria Ahrensmeier’s studio physics lab is buzzing with activity. Her students, in groups seated at round tables, begin class with a low stakes iclicker quiz on electrical circuits. After each polling result the decibel level rises as students discuss why answers are either correct or incorrect. Rather than hurriedly moving on, Dr. Ahrensmeier, a theoretical physicist, is cool and calm: she smiles while those who got the correct answer gesticulate, draw diagrams, and talk it out with those who did not. In these conversations you can actually hear the students developing their own understanding of the process of electrical conduction. “

Studio physics is an idea imported many years ago from Dickinson College in the U.S. In the labs students integrate content from the online portion of the course—which Dr. Ahrensmeier describes as a visual representation of a book chapter—with practice: today students are looking at the optics of an oscilloscope which each group puts together by itself. This flexible approach offers a more custom fit for students. “With a lecture,” explains Dr. Ahrensmeier “you have 200 people sitting there and it’s impossible to make it run at a pace and with content that fits everybody’s needs. That just can’t happen.” In contrast, in the studio physics lab, Dr. Ahrensmeier and the TA circulate amongst the tables: “I think that’s where the flexibility comes in that we can answer specific student’s questions and the groups’ questions. “Flexibility has to be done the right way and that’s the tricky part. Students need to know what they have to do but there is flexibility in how fast and which order these tasks have to be completed.”

Is this format better than a single lecture? “A lot better,” according to Soroush Jafary. “I love the labs: I think they’re essential. I like doing things rather than just sitting there listening.” Adam, another student, agreed: “Students study in class rather than receiving information on what you are supposed to be studying. So, it’s a lot more work because you’re constantly writing, you’re constantly doing questions. You can’t fade out like you do in a lecture. Another student pointed out the experiential appeal of the lab: “You work in groups and do experiments and that’s also how you learn—which is really helpful in that you see real world applications of what you’re learning in the book.”