Increasing Student Engagement and Learning with OERs: An Interview with Paul Heideman

Posted on March 5, 2021

By Jessica Ramey - Instruction & Research Librarian

It’s OE Week and we’ve been spending some time thinking about all the ways OERs have impacted the people at William & Mary. One such person is biology professor, Paul Heideman. Dr. Heideman is well known on campus as a passionate teacher, accomplished researcher and author, and OER advocate. Jessica Ramey, one of our research librarians, recently got the opportunity to ask Dr. Heideman a few questions about his experience with OERs, his answers did not disappoint: 

Paul Heideman
Paul Heideman teaches a class. File photo/Joel Pattison  

1. Paul, you’ve earned a reputation for creating Open Educational Resources and building your courses around open content. Can you describe the role OERs have in your teaching? 

“They helped me realize that the more costly textbooks didn't help much for my classes. That is true for all except for one small class that really needs a for-profit textbook. The OER textbooks in my field offered everything my students and I needed from a textbook.”   

2. I know there are many reasons faculty decide to use and create OERs, can you tell us what motivated you to begin creating open content? 

“I started creating some of my own text content in the form of handouts many years ago.  My textbooks always overlooked concepts and principles that help my students understand the logic of biology.  I used my lecture notes to create handouts that my students could review as a second source of information.  My fear at the time was that students would stop attending class, but while they appreciated the supplement to my lectures, my attendance didn't change.   

I started adding short videos in 2015, when I was brave enough to try out the technology.  That began after I was explaining a particularly difficult concept yet again in my office hours -- probably the 100th time.  I realized I had explained that concept (a Donnan Equilibrium) in the same way, with sketches, as I had in class -- but somehow in the one-on-one sessions, with time for pauses and thinking, my students got it.  It occurred to me to try to put it into a short video.  I scripted it out, and then used a webcam to record my hand on my iPad drawing while I explained the concept.  The 5-10 minute video took about 90 minutes to prepare.  I posted the video for my class, and the next time students asked me about the concept, I suggested they watch the video, and then come talk to me with questions.  But, almost none of them came to talk to me.  I also noticed that over 2/3 of the class had watched the video, on average 2-3 times each.  They did better on the exam question on the topic, and I saved time by not having to explain the concept as often.  That got me started, and I've done over 100 since then.  Despite the poor production quality and my shaky drawings in the videos, students find them useful, and I think they learn more.” 

3. Adopting and/or creating OERs can seem daunting at times, can you share how you got started creating content? What was your process like? 

Now, when I realize students are struggling with a concept, I think about how to make a video on it.  When I have time, I think through the series of sketches I'll illustrate, and start recording trial versions.  Usually after a few starts, I get something that works.  

I've also done sketch videos after requests from other faculty members, some from outside W&M.  To my surprise, some of my videos on YouTube now have over 10,000-20,000 views.  That gives me joy -- to realize I'm reaching students I never meet. 

And, see #2 above -- I can explain MUCH more, at nerdy length, if you're interested. 

4. What changes, if any, did you see in student success and engagement after implementing OER content? 

“Many students tell me it helps tremendously to be able to pause me when needed.  They also like the fact that most are fairly short: one topic per video.  When topics go together, I put them in a playlist.  My written text hasn't been as interesting to students, but it also helps.  I find that it also helps me to record videos not just on content, but on strategies to solve a particular category of problem.  When faced with a problem, what are the things to consider before starting on a solution?  In what order should one go through the steps?  How can one check for understanding or errors?  How does one think about an alternative to the initial solution?  All of those help my students improve not just the facts and principles they recall and understand, but also how to apply their knowledge to solve a problem.” 

5. I’m sure it can’t all have been sunshine and roses, what have been some of the challenges you have encountered along the way? 

“Insecurity and Time.  It took a lot of small steps.  I made a lot of mistakes.  But, I also had a HUGE amount of help from W&M Library staff and eLearning (now STLI) staff.  In the long run, I think I save time for better learning outcomes.  But, the initial investment of time was challenging.  That's one reason I offer to help others start, if they want to try a video.  And, that's why I've made videos for colleagues -- on literature, economics, classics, and especially biology.  I was initially bothered by my poor production quality -- but it turns out the students don't seem to care about the production at all.  They just want content that helps them learn.” 

6. If a colleague was to ask you for advice in getting started with OERs, what would your must-known, can’t proceed without, best advice ever, pro-tip be? 

“Work with STLI & the OER folks at W&M Libraries, and get advice from W&M colleagues.  There are a lot of skilled people willing and able to help.” 

Very special thanks to Dr. Heideman for taking the time to talk with us! 

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