Thompson Rivers University

Award-winning leader in open education talks online learning

December 14, 2020

TRU's Brian Lamb recently won the BCcampus Award for Excellence in Open Learning. He talks about where online learning and open education are heading.

As TRU’s Director of Learning Technology and Innovation for Open Learning, Brian Lamb knows a thing or two about online learning and learning technology. He is also a leader in open education and received the BCcampus Award for Excellence in Open Education this November in recognition of his leadership, commitment and dedication to the area.

The BCcampus award acknowledges “outstanding contributions to the open education movement in British Columbia.” Lamb does not fall short on these contributions. He has been innovating and advocating for open education for decades, beginning in the early 2000’s with his ground-breaking work at UBC on wikis and blogs to his leadership within Open Learning at TRU and his founding role in OpenETC—a collaborative of educators, technologists and designers sharing their expertise to provide open education tools for BC post-secondary faculty and students.

“A tireless advocate for students, Lamb’s body of work exemplifies the best qualities of open pedagogy, open technologies, privacy advocacy, access and student autonomy,” Lamb’s nominator Clint Lalonde, the project manager of open source homework systems for open education at BCcampus, says. “A leader in open education, both provincially and globally, his contributions in open education over the years have been invaluable in moving open education forward.”

Moving forward in education is in the thoughts of many—given the sudden shift to online and virtual learning due to COVID—and Lamb reflects on the good, the bad, the redeeming and the future of online education.

Q: We know education is going to look different going forward. As an expert in online and open education, what are your predications as to what the future of education might look like?

A: Education has absolutely been changed forever, I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to whatever it was we were doing before. I do worry that we may see a trend toward mass learning, automation, more centralization and for example, things like standardized textbooks or increased online surveillance through questionable surveillance technologies. However, at TRU and within Open Learning, we have a very strong culture of open education. This points to a future that is built by the educators themselves. Instead of outsourcing to a paid vendor, we work together and build online learning tools, platforms, resources and the like ourselves and then we share it and continue by building on the work of others. TRU also engages in things like network learning where the activity of the students actually extends beyond the classroom and beyond the virtual learning space. For example, we’ve done a lot of work with online portfolios with students where they build an online website for themselves as part of their coursework and this then becomes an online artifact of their learning—often an open artifact that students can share and get feedback on. These are tourism, English and education students who are learning to build websites, which is a great transferable skill to have. 

As difficult as it’s been in our field, we are really insisting on maintaining a human focus to education now and going forward. We use the phrase “ethic of care”—fostering interpersonal relationships—a lot on our team and maintain a real effort to keep the human focus of education in place.

Q: Having Open Learning to draw on, how do you think campus virtual learning has fared?

A: TRU has had a somewhat privileged position because the Open Learning working model didn’t have to change a lot. The university is very fortunate as the Open Learning learning technology team also supports campus. I think that’s a huge strategic benefit for the university. It’s meant that when we’ve needed to, we’ve been able to draw on the expertise of a lot of people including experts in digital learning. Whether that’s for advice or on occasion, or additional help. 

It has still been an extremely difficult year but as hard as it’s been, when I talk to people from other institutions I honestly feel that TRU has been faring much better than a lot of other places. It’s been a really challenging year for higher education in general but, I have been truly humbled and impressed when I see the work that’s been done on campus. There’s been a significant number of professors here on campus who have really taken this opportunity to challenge their process and look at what they’re doing and think about how to do it differently and some of these professors are now saying “I’m never going back to what I did before.” As they return to face-to-face classes, they are going to take what they’ve learned this year and have a much more robust set of strategies and skills they will be able to draw on when they teach.

Q: Have you seen any innovations on campus or through Open Learning that have come about due to the changing landscape of higher education resulting from the pandemic?

A: Absolutely. It’s not necessarily innovation in the sense that no one ever knew that this could be done. For example, we must be close to 20,000 videos created by the TRU community just on Kaltura—a video management service enabling videos to be shared or embedded into TRU’s Moodle system —alone. That doesn’t include people that have recorded on BigBlueButton or Zoom—web conferencing applications— or YouTube. On the Kaltura video platform alone we are averaging 400 new videos a day. Some of that is just someone talking to a web cam, but you’d be surprised how many of these videos are now online artifacts with integrated diagrams and drawings, videos, third party materials and open educational resources. We’ve seen some really improved digital literacies. In terms of innovation, as a team we had to be a lot more mindful of the “innovation” work our team supports. We are working with so many more people and we really did have to streamline our offerings—not just for workload, but for messaging to the community. When someone is doing something for the very first time and they come to us saying “I need to start teaching online for the very first time, what do I do?” we made the decision that the fewer options, the better. We decided to provide the bare essentials of what they would need to communicate with students and then over time, we would build out and share techniques for them to extend their tool set as they felt comfortable. 

However, the pandemic hasn’t meant that we’ve given up on innovative work. In addition to supporting students building online website portfolios, we are also doing a lot of things with mapping applications. We have built open technology frameworks through which students can take a Google map for example, and embed research materials into it with the geographical details on it. 

Q: Have you seen any recent changes or advancements in online educational technology within the TRU community?

A: Video definitely jumps out. I’ve been really impressed by some of the instructor led online discussions. They aren’t just treating them as a Moodle discussion forum but using some alternative discussion tools like Mattermost—an open-source, self-hostable online chat service with file sharing, search and integrations. While we’ve encouraged a lot of instructors with diverse sets of international student communities to offer “any time” or asynchronous deliveries, many of them have stressed that their students really need that sense of real time connection where they can see and hear each other. So, many instructors are really trying to meet the very diverse needs students have right now and that’s the stuff that impresses me the most. Considering what our students are faced with, instructors ensuring they find ways to have meaningful connections with students and make the virtual delivery space feel like a real human learning space is most impressive. But it’s also clear that a lot of instructors are really pushing themselves in how they work with a tool like Moodle. They don’t just use it to post their lecture PDFs, they’re running some pretty complex exams and gradebooks and really building their skills. When you think about Open Learning in contrast, we have a production team and instructional designers that put those things together. For the most part, instructors delivering campus courses virtually are expected to do that on their own.

I have to applaud my team, it is challenging and demanding to keep up. And one of the things that I’m proudest of this year is that we have a very high percentage—I want to say 100%—of our help tickets getting a response within 24 hours. In fact, most of the help tickets get resolved within a few hours. That’s been a team effort and I know everyone across campus really appreciates that. 

Q: What do you think TRU—on-campus and Open Learning—is doing right with virtual online learning?

A: One thing that I think does make TRU special is we don’t require open online learning to belong to one small set of people. It’s not just up to our instructional designers or our open learning faculty members. We have incredible allies and supporters in all areas including the library helping us identify resources, designers, technologists with a very strong set of open source tools, open education working groups, OER resource grants supported by the university and TRUSU’s advocacy for open textbooks and open educational resources. We have a really comprehensive culture that supports online and open education and that is much stronger at TRU than most places that I see.

Q: Do you have any intel on post-pandemic innovations?

A: TRU and my team are the co-founders of the OpenETC—The Open EdTech Collaborative—a cooperative endeavour of open educational technologists to collaborate on platforms and practices. We try to pool our efforts and resources so we can provide a level of quality that we wouldn’t be able to do independently. That’s allowed us to share applications and build on each other’s work. The OpenETC is able to support great usable tools and do more interesting things with technologies that are ethical and that promote autonomy for instructors and students. OpenETC has taken some really big steps even with the pandemic and we are poised to do some really amazing things within the next couple of years.

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