In this post, Chad Flinn, dean of the School of Trades and Technology at Medicine Hat College, relates the findings of his research conducted as a 2019 BCcampus Open Education Advocacy and Research Fellow. During the course of his research, Chad was an electrical and entrepreneurship instructor at BCIT.
Vocational education is a fast-moving and quickly changing discipline. It often feels challenging to keep up with the current changes in technology and safety. Textbooks and materials can be obsolete before they are even in the hands of the students. This disconnect can result in students learning information that is — at best — not current, and at worst, dangerous and unreliable. The use of open educational resources (OER) has the potential to help programs and their instructors keep up with the changes that occur in curriculum and contexts as needed.
As open education continues to grow and expand, trades education and its students could find value in adopting the use of OER. As vocational education programs struggle to keep up with those aspects of the trades that are rapidly shifting, OER can help the curriculum stay current. Collaborating with fellow students, creating resources that can contribute to the discipline, and having the ability to revise documents and resources as the industry changes would all offer much-needed help in a vocational educational context. In addition, trades could add a distinct voice to the conversation surrounding OER and open educational practices. This study investigated electrical trades students’ experiences as they used and co-created open educational resources.
This study involved two separate cohorts. The first cohort ran in 2018/2019 with 16 students, and the second cohort ran in 2019/2020 with 15 students. The classroom setting was a mixture of theory-based and hands-on training, focusing on giving the students a foundation in both theory and in practical skills, to help them acquire an apprenticeship in the electrical trades. Before the first project, there was a class discussion on group work in which it was decided that the instructor would ensure that the groups were collaborating and that the work was not left to one or two members. A session was devoted to instructing the students on using collaborative tools, such as Google Slides and Slack. There were daily check-ins to make sure that the students were on task and on track.
The resources produced during the course were online textbooks created in Google Slides by the students. Students were educated on Creative Commons licences at the beginning of the course and shown where to find OER for their research. When the projects were completed, students were asked if they were comfortable sharing their resources under a CC BY licence.
The students also created explainer videos using the Flipgrid platform. These videos contained student explanations of topics and provided detailed walkthroughs on how they would solve problems. The videos were shared openly with the class through the Flipgrid platform. Students were made aware that it was possible to upload these videos to YouTube and share them with a Creative Commons licence instead of the standard YouTube license.
The research questions that guided this study consisted of one primary question and three secondary questions.
The primary research question that framed the study was “What is the experience of electrical trades students as they co-create and use OER during their own vocational education?”
The secondary questions consisted of the following:
- What are some barriers that students may encounter when co-creating OER?
- What strategies might be used to assess the contribution of co-creating OER to the student experience?
- What does it mean to co-create and use OER as a trades student?
Six themes emerged in this research:
- Value of co-creation
- Lack of digital literacy skills
- Value of peer and self-assessment
- Student agency
Many of the commercial textbooks required in the trades program are not written in a manner that is easy to understand for typical trades students. The language is more skewed toward engineering students and can frustrate many trades students. This disconnect in language can also be a strong barrier for first-generation Canadians, as it can be prohibitively difficult to try to learn a new subject written in technical jargon in an unfamiliar language.
Having access at any time to the co-created resource is a benefit that many participants mentioned, as was having resources that were written in a language and style that they could understand. Both these aspects of co-created resources made it easier for the participants to find and understand the information.
Value of Co-creation
Students stated in interviews that they had an easier time retaining the course’s information when they co-created resources with their peers. Having to research, investigate, collaborate, and write the information in their own words caused them to engage with the course material on a deeper level. Participants noted that these self-directed and collaborative tasks helped them understand the information better than if they had just read a textbook or memorized certain facts for a test. One of the participants stated, “We didn’t just remember the information: we understood it.”
Students appeared to engage with the content and enjoy the process of co-creating OER with their peers. This enjoyment was not something that many of the participants expected. A few participants noted that it was difficult at the beginning of the course because they were shy and did not know anyone. However, as the students started to get more comfortable, it was noted that the school days became more enjoyable. They found that they would converse and work on the projects even outside of the classroom with little resistance.
Lack of Digital Literacy Skills
The research found that participants were proficient at using social media. Setting up WhatsApp or Snapchat groups for discussion came easily to many of the participants. This use of chat software is a common practice in current students’ experience of education: many classes will have backchannel group chats set up to discuss class issues. While proficient with social media, many participants struggled with how to begin their research. Many of the students did not know where to start or how to use even basic internet search skills. Those that did have an understanding of the necessary search skills still cited feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information that was available on specific topics.
It is of interest to note that many of the participants stated a distrust in Wikipedia as a source. These responses were unprompted, as Wikipedia was never mentioned in the survey or the interview questions. Some of the participants questioned the validity of information on Wikipedia and how to identify a credible source. The findings emerging from this research are consistent with research that shows that students’ use and knowledge of technology are much more complicated than Prensky’s concept of the “digital native” would suggest.
Value of Peer and Self-assessment
From the interview data, it would appear that the peer and self-assessment used in the course was a positive experience for the students. After the completion of each unit, the students would assess themselves and their peers on their participation in the projects. These assessments provided a resource for in-depth discussion around the purpose of assessment and constructive criticism in vocational education.
The data collected in this study suggests that this course was a change from how the participants had previously experienced education. Most of the participants had experienced a classroom setting in which the instructor shared their information from the front of the classroom to the students. This “banking model” — wherein an instructor has the information and knowledge and then deposits that knowledge into the students — is something that many participants had felt comfortable with. As the course progressed, many found the experience of co-creating educational resources enjoyable and that it changed how they viewed education as a practice.
Far from a Conclusion
The integration of co-creation exercises in trades education has the potential to spur some much-needed changes in the current model, which often favours multiple-choice exams when it comes to assessing trades theory. Note that this may not necessarily be a bad thing — most trades licensing exams are multiple choice. However, there is much more to experience in the trades classroom: collaboration, problem-solving, troubleshooting, and communication skills are all valuable skills in industry, and co-creation exercises can help teach and practice those skills.
While our trades students must learn the foundations of their trades, we also have an opportunity to provide a richer and deeper understanding of how the industry works. Co-creation can help vocational students become better in their trades, and those students in turn can work toward making the trades better.
“I always knew that involving the students in the creation of their own learning resources was beneficial. Finally having the research and data showed that this was a much more engaging and important process than I initially had thought.”—Chad Finn, dean, School of Trades and Technology, Medicine Hat College
“Chad’s research is vital in transforming teaching in the trades, with concrete examples on how students were more engaged with the curriculum through co-creation of learning materials and peer and self-assessment strategies. Giving students agency over their own learning, the curriculum, and engagement builds student confidence as well as enhances their potential in and outside of the classroom.”– Amanda Coolidge, director, open education, BCcampus
- Open Education Advocacy and Research Fellows 2019/20
- Open Education Advocacy and Research Fellow – Chad Flinn
- Open Pedagogy and the Trades
- Award for Excellence in Open Education: Chad Flinn