All posts by ML

A student’s evolving perspective on open educational resources

Brady Wallace, with SFSS President Chardaye Bueckert, at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

By Brady Wallace

Brady Wallace is the Arts and Social Sciences representative on the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) Board of Directors. He is also the project lead of the SFU BC Open Textbook Working Group, a group committed to exploring ways to increase use of open content at SFU. It’s no surprise that he advocates the use of open educational resources (OERs), which offer instructors and students the chance to assemble digital course content at no cost. But it is interesting to hear how OpenCon 2014, a four-day conference on “open access, open education and open data” for students and early-career researchers, broadened his thinking about the value of the “open” philosophy in general. His reflections are especially relevant in the context of SFU’s search for more flexible and responsive ways to ensure accessible and relevant learning experiences for students. Brady can be contacted at

I’d like to share three key pieces of learning we took away [from OpenCon 2014] that would be relevant to the SFSS’s mandate of advocating and representing the interests of SFU undergraduates:

1. The opening keynote by the OpenCon organizing committee introduced the idea of open as a human rights movement advocating for equality. Open in this sense refers to greater accessibility to all publicly funded research. This immediately sparked my interest, as I had never thought of access to information as a human right. Being a post-secondary student in a developed country, I don’t often come across many of the barriers experienced every day by individuals around the world. Considering open in this context inspired me to start thinking of how our current BC Open Textbook Program could be expanded to focus not only on open educational resources, but also on the field of open access.

2. Nicole Allen, Director of Open Education at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), discussed the advantages of OERs and the importance of institutions recognizing the advantages of pursuing open access. Allen shared an impactful statement: “At the end of the day, students cannot learn from materials they do not have access to.” In terms of our current campaign at SFU, we must not let up on efforts to save students money and enhance their educational experience.

3. Finally, Daniel Demarte from Tidewater Community College spoke about the “Z degree,” which he described as North America’s first zero-textbook-cost associate degree program using only OERs. According to Demarte, participants in this program are expected to save $1200 per year in textbook costs, have a reduced drop-out rate, and enjoy 100% access to all materials throughout their entire degree. His conclusion is that the use of OERs contributes to more students making it past the finish line. Through greater use of OER materials available through the BC Campus collection, I believe students at SFU could not only tap into greater savings, but also engage with more flexible content that professors could customize for their courses, in turn producing more engaged course materials, professors and students.

Prior to attending OpenCon 2014, my interest in the current advocacy initiative at SFU was narrow in scope. As a program holding the potential of untapped cost savings for undergraduate students at SFU, I valued the BC Open Textbook program and our advocacy efforts that point solely in that light. From collecting signatures from undergraduate students interested in greater uptake of BC Campus materials to posing questions at the SFU Senate regarding the University’s stance on the program, my outlook centered on greater cost savings. However, OpenCon 2014 served as an invaluable opportunity to enhance my knowledge in all areas of open. It was an inspiring weekend, revealing to me the true potential students have for influencing their surroundings. As Heather Joseph stated so eloquently, “We’re not the leaders of the future generation, we’re the leaders of the now.” Therefore it is time to assemble the masses from coast to coast, meet with our elected representatives, and ensure that open is a priority for everyone.

Creating confidence and competence through conversations

Let's Talk Business

If flexibility is about responsiveness, then the Let’s Talk program offered by the Student Learning Commons (SLC) is a prime example of a flexible approach shaped by and to the needs of its participants.

Donna McGee Thompson, head of SLC, says the program is designed for English as an Additional Language (EAL) students who want to become more comfortable communicating in English, and its structure is deliberately informal. Tim Mossman, EAL coordinator, was the SLC lead responsible for developing the program and training peer facilitators.

“Once per week students come to the group and participate in a series of fun and engaging discussion-based activities led by peer educators to gain confidence and proficiency in spoken English,” says McGee Thompson. “The activities are individualized—students speak about their own experience and then hear from others. It’s not a lecture or workshop format. Instead, the focus is on the individualized conversations to facilitate reflection on personal experience.”

The conversational format in a setting where they are not being evaluated means students relax and share more about their issues, says McGee Thompson. This element is a key pedagogical underpinning of the program.

Let’s Talk actually has three iterations: Let’s Talk Business for Beedie students, Let’s Talk Psychology for first-year psychology students, and the general Let’s Talk program for EAL students from all disciplines. In every case, says McGee Thompson, the secret of success is the program’s use of peer mentors, students who are willing to support their peers in their educational —and cultural— journey.

While general guidelines exist, Let’s Talk has no limitations and is designed for flexibility to ensure the comfort of all who participate. Some students attend regularly for an entire semester; others may drop in once or twice. Participants discuss a new topic each week that incorporates vocabulary development, listening comprehension, pronunciation, and critical thinking—but it’s all malleable, based on what the participants are keen to discuss or need at a given time.

Although the program is not directly related to students’ academic work, its goal is to increase their confidence and comfort level in approaching their TAs and professors with questions, and to participate in group work with other students. It’s also an example of how flexible education extends to the ways in which we establish a supportive environment around learning activities.
Let’s Talk is designed with international and new Canadian students in mind, but the program is open to all SFU students, as well as interested faculty and visiting professors. Any groups interested in exploring a customized EAL communication program for their students are encouraged to contact Tim Mossman to talk further:

For more information:
Let’s Talk:
Let’s Talk Business:
Let’s Talk Psychology:

Research Commons helps grad students reach the finish line

Grad Pres

The Task Force on Flexible Education recognizes that flexible learning occurs both inside and outside of the classroom. This is part one of a two-part series highlighting two flexible programs offered by SFU Library.

The notion that a student’s sole responsibility is degree completion is becoming obsolete. Today, many students are forced to juggle multiple life roles, and school is just one of the many priorities on their never-ending list. Finding adequate support and work-life balance may be even more difficult at the graduate student level. Flexible education within the context of that reality is about providing the resources and support students need to complete their programs despite the constraints—and it’s something the SFU Library understands well. Nicole White, Head of the Library’s Research Commons, leads a team that is providing a remarkable integrated solution: Thesis Boot Camp.

Ideal for students nearing the end of their dissertation or thesis, the 3 day intensive program is designed to propel participants toward the finish line. Each three-day Thesis Boot Camp provides a comfortable working environment, with librarians and writing facilitators available for writing and research support. Students establish individualized goals at the start of the camp and choose how best to use the three days. While some use the time to get feedback on their current thesis draft, others take the time to write, review, or further their literature searching. Many take advantage of workshops on obtaining ethics approval, copyright permissions and other topics.

Thesis Boot Camp has engaged staff members from Health and Counselling Services, the Office of the Ombudsperson, the Office of Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Fellows, and the Graduate Student Society to educate students on topics like maintaining well-being, working effectively with a supervisor, and accessing relevant resources. White emphasizes the importance of recognizing that participants are at various stages of their writing and must be empowered to be “masters of their time.” Thus, the program is flexible and personalized as students are free to plan their itinerary for maximum benefit.

The workshops foster a peer support network that also enhances the participant experience: “[Students] mind each other’s experience and generate tips and tricks from one another.” White points out that it’s common for participants to make connections across different disciplines, stay in touch and provide mutual support beyond the sessions.

For more information:

Thesis Boot Camp:

“All in a day” workshop series:

The world cafes: Charting a path toward implementation

World Cafe DAC
Participants at the Burnaby world cafe at the Diamond Alumni Centre on January 26.

Over 70 faculty members, staff and students attended world cafés hosted by the Task Force on Flexible Education at the Burnaby campus on January 26, and in Vancouver on February 2.

The participants, supplied with refreshments, writable table covers and a collection of coloured markers, moved from table to table to discuss key questions related to flexibility and relevance in education. The result—captured visually by graphic recorders—was a compilation of thoughts ranging from the cautionary to the visionary to the practical.

The world café series, which will conclude with a session at SFU’s Surrey campus on February 17, will help guide the task force as it develops recommendations to ensure that SFU instructors and programs receive the support they need to continue providing relevant and flexible learning experiences to their students.

The conversations during the completed events centred on five themes:

– Relevance
– Teaching approaches
– Infrastructure and support
– Student agency
– Program design

The challenge for the task force will be to sort through the many ideas proposed by participants in order to identify clear goals and actions. Participants did seem to agree about certain broad principles, including the following:

– Progress will require institutional support, including a financial commitment, to foster cultural change.
– Change will require talking to various partners (unions, faculty members, administration, etc.) about the implications for SFU’s organizational structure.
– The university should build on existing “flexible” initiatives, in part by sharing current achievements more widely with the community.
– Long-term transformation will require changes to the infrastructure that supports teaching and learning activities.

In addition, they suggested a number of concrete steps:

– Address students’ desire for marketable skills by being more explicit about how the strengths of a university education—including critical thinking, literacy, citizenship and writing skills—deliver what employers want.
– Conduct research to define the meaning of relevance within different departments and student populations.
– Incorporate experiential learning into all programs through capstone projects, community-based courses and other forms of active learning.
– Encourage and support inter-disciplinary work and provide budgetary incentives for faculty members to undertake such activities.
– Investigate new approaches to course structure, length, delivery modes and scheduling.
– Introduce a foundational course on lifelong learning in which students could learn study skills, critical thinking methods, assessment of scholarly materials, and other related skills.
– Provide better advancement opportunities for good teachers.

The final Surrey world café on February 17 is open to participants from all campuses. For details and to register.

Personalization and an emphasis on competencies: How B.C.’s new education plan will shape our students’ expectations

Jan Unwin
Jan Unwin provides an overview of changes happening in the K-12 sector that will impact future teaching and learning
approaches at SFU.

Passion, purpose and personalization are three elements that public school (K-12) students view as fundamental to the ideal education system of the future. These are some of the core findings of a study presented at SFU on January 16 by Jan Unwin, superintendent of graduate and student transitions with B.C.’s ministries of Education and Advanced Education.

Unwin’s presentation was arranged by the Task Force on Flexible Education (TFFE) to provide a glimpse into the changes that could shape SFU’s incoming students—and their expectations—in the years ahead.

According to Unwin, the provincial government is taking a bold leap towards reimagining and restructuring the K-12 public education system to make it more reflective of today’s diverse educational needs. “It’s a mind shift,” she said, adding that the current K-12 system is built on “systems and models and structures that were set up for a different age.”

Unwin indicated that the government has identified five key areas of focus for the next B.C. Education Plan: personalized learning, quality teaching and learning (including mentorship), flexibility and choice, high standards, and learning empowered by technology. A key question guiding the exploratory study went like this: Why should our education system be one-size-fits-all when we know that no two students are alike and that they come to us with different goals, aspirations and competencies?

Perhaps one of the largest pedagogical shifts within the proposed plan is the focus on competencies rather than content as the driver. Unwin described the vision is one in which teachers take on a coaching and mentoring role to assist students with finding their passion and a successful pathway to their future.

“We want to create the best possible life chances for kids and young adults, and we want them speaking about their entire educational experience with passion, purpose and pride,” said Unwin. “We need to work collaboratively to get it right.”

The proposed transformation of the K-12 system will have enormous implications for post-secondary institutions like SFU. The TFFE is highlighting these types of issues and working to generate discussion around how the university can be more responsive to, and prepared for, students who will expect approaches to teaching and learning that mirror, at least to some degree, the reimagined K-12 curriculum.

Want to know more about Jan Unwin’s presentation? Follow the links below to view the presentation webcast, see the presentation slides, or download the new B.C. Education Plan.

Click here to watch the webcast.
Download a copy of Jan’s slides.
BC Education Plan:

Students as entrepreneurs of learning experiences

Venture Connection
Student participants of the SFU Venture Connection program and the winners of the 2014 Coast Capital Savings Venture Prize, an annual competition that recognizes entrepreneurial excellence at Simon Fraser University.

By Candy Ho

Can learning entrepreneurial skills be considered a form of flexible education? If you ask Dr. Michelle Unrau, Program Manager for SFU’s Venture Connection (VC) program, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

Similar to the Co-operative Education program, VC serves as a co-curricular element that students can apply to, and complete in addition to their regular studies. However, its uniqueness is embedded in its sole focus on entrepreneurial development.
Its non-traditional learning model includes a mentorship approach that utilizes multiple industry experts to provide tailored, just-in-time advice to student entrepreneurs. Going beyond the bricks and mortar of the institution, its notion of learning space is also non-traditional, as the “classroom” is typically a coffee shop or a student’s place of work.

Students learn and apply entrepreneurial theories by going through steps of creating, testing, launching, and growing a business. They receive ongoing support to engage and network with business people in their area, and to even talk to potential customers. They find themselves faced with answering questions like: Should they conduct market research to determine the feasibility of their business idea? What about mastering their five-minute business pitch in front of potential investors? Lead generation? Business model canvas? All of these activities require students to actively conduct research, and interpret data to inform their business decisions.

Like most educational settings, VC is not aiming to only develop successful outcomes; instead, learning through challenges or unexpected situations that may at first appear as setbacks or even failures are also highly valued. “VC has truly become the place where students can gain skills and confidence to apply theoretical learning – in a safe environment – and actually ‘do’ entrepreneurship,” says Unrau.

For more information on SFU’s Venture Connection program: click here