Kathryn-Murphy Judy

The interview series “Why We Choose Open: OER Stories” invites VCU community members to share why they use, adapt or create Open Educational Resources (OER) and what impact that work has on their students, teaching experiences, and/or career.

Faculty: Kathryn Murphy Judy, Professor of French, School of World Studies

Resource: Atelier RÉEL, an interactive and student-driven open textbook for French 202. Available online using Rampages/Pressbooks.

Funded by a 2017 and 2018 Affordable Course Content Award
Estimated annual student savings: $10,000
Average number of VCU students impacted annually: 50

Briefly describe your project
Atelier RÉEL is a highly interactive, student-driven open textbook for intermediate French. It provides learning materials intended to increase students’ linguistic and cultural skills in preparation for their future professional lives. It is filled with many interactive exercises, gravity forms, and live conversations with native speakers. Resources and materials are updated regularly from new materials curated by students in the course. Upper-level student researchers are hired to co-create new interactive content with faculty and to enhance resources in other ways, such as creating an accompanying language-learning app.

The idea began with students learning to curate authentic content in French. The OER textbook grew out of open access, student-curated online learning modules developed in concert with upper-level student researchers & developers. Both resources are actually a part of a larger VCU School of World Studies project, in which similar materials are being built across several languages. Thanks to a VIVA Open Course Grant in 2020, we’ve also reached out to include faculty and students in Spanish, German and ASL from Reynolds Community College and the University of Mary Washington.

What is unique about the project is the high degree of student involvement in the process. Although faculty drive the curriculum, students play a critical role at every step of the way from the initial content curation all the way to design, development, evaluation, and redesign. Student input makes sure that our OER materials deliver a R.E.A.L. (relevant, experiential, active learning) VCU experience.

What motivated you to make the switch to open and affordable course content?
Several years ago, a group of language faculty in the VCU School of World Studies realized that the fourth semester (202) level in the world language curriculum was problematic for students and faculty alike. For students continuing to a major or minor in languages, this course targets foundational skills and knowledge, paving the way to advanced study. For the students finishing a co-curricular requirement, however, it often has created a barrier to graduation, especially if they’ve waited a year or more, thus losing essential skills over time. So, the faculty team agreed that R.E.A.L. task-based language learning and digital literacy could re-invigorate the 202 level. Rampages was chosen as the digital platform for open access student writing, curation, and e-portfolios of authentic materials in the target languages. Working with the ALT Lab, we built a site for students to curate thematically driven topics from the regular curriculum. The curations lead students to engage in internet searching in the target languages and cultures they are studying. Simultaneously, they hone their interpretive proficiency in the target language. Then, they write publicly presented blog postings from which they actively learn vocabulary, grammar and syntax in the process of drafting, peer editing and revising.

Learners have been more engaged in their learning thanks to the researching, summarizing, and creating in the target language on topics of their own choosing. By having a common, freely accessible, and openly licensed site to collect, share, and retrieve their work, students learn from one another, all the while taking their own writing more seriously due to its public forum. 

The growing archive of curations led faculty to triage the best of each current year with an eye to building modules based on them. Modules, however, have two criteria: (1) they have to really spark student interest, and (2) they have to either have Creative Commons licensing, copyright allowance, or exist in the public domain. We learned early that seemingly “open” YouTube videos could disappear and ruin an entire module. To ensure student interest, we opened our project up to upper-level students who would not only help us with triage, but also collaborate with us on the design of engaging activities for this generation. A growing set of modules led us to design an entire e-textbook where they can be inserted as needed and afford students a no-cost alternative.   

What was your experience creating OER material? How did it compare to what you were expecting?
For me and the other faculty who have been working on this project, it has added a spark to our teaching. I’ve learned so many new, interactive ways to present course material. Once we added students into the mix, it ignited a whole new dynamic and a wealth of approaches. Students who are learning languages have so much to share with faculty who teach them, especially as changing generational ways of interfacing with learning evolve in concert with new media. Today’s students want to have choice and voice in how they learn. My team in French makes sure that the OER stays relevant, that its interface remains user-friendly, and that learners have options in their learning paths. One of them is working on an app because she said she would have wanted one for her ESL classes: I would never have gone in that direction on my own!

How were students impacted by the new materials? What was their reaction?
First off, students really appreciate that the textbook is no cost. Second, our approach has students doing the language, not just learning about it. Every unit is framed by “Can-Do” statements that align with the national standards in language learning and give students a clear roadmap for their learning outcomes. This has made a huge difference in their performance and significantly reduced frustration. Before, any number of students could recite the rules (for example, the past participle agrees with, in number and gender, a preceding direct object), but now they acquire the rule, using it to communicate their own ideas. Moreover, they realize that they won’t achieve advanced fluency at the 202 level: language learning is a steady progression toward increasing proficiency. In one survey, 80% of the class found that the OER supported their learning goals, especially when they got to see and hear the French language ‘live’ in real world situations. Another learning outcome we target is student development of greater language learning autonomy. This is especially important since the 202 course is often the last formal language learning experience some will have. One student noted in the final survey, “For me it provided insight into how to improve my French using online tools.” Another felt that, “all the resources I could ask for were offered [to] me.”

The undergraduate student researchers who co-create materials with me and other faculty members are also big winners in this project. Besides gaining valuable digital literacy skills and improving their language proficiency, the R&D undergrads from a few years ago saw themselves gaining from: 

  • Regularly search for language learning apps, programs and sites
  • Interest in and attention to how to teach and learn foreign languages
  • Good online searching skills, far beyond just vanilla google search
  • Know and use WordPress frequently

They either get credit or paid for their work, so there’s always some sort of compensation. For some, it may include the prestige of a UROP Grant (we’ve gotten five) or a Baldacci award. And finally, over fifteen of the R&D team have presented with me and other faculty at national, regional, local and VCU conferences since 2017. They gain valuable skills and experience for grad school and future careers. 

How have you been impacted by your use of OER?
I have considerably changed my teaching mentality and practices. For years, I’ve espoused the “guide on the side” dada about teaching with new technologies and pedagogies, but working with several cohorts of students has pushed me to give them more autonomy and responsibility once they grasp the project concept and learn the tools. Thanks to one student, we now use Google Classroom to orchestrate step-by-step process writing and to track due dates and preparation for their native speaker exchanges. Another undergraduate researcher came up with the idea for a mobile app that connects the OER to the Google Classroom to social media and handy resources for informal learning. She proposed it: I told her to go for it. The student teams enjoy gamifying learning: there, too, I step back and let them charge ahead. I make sure that the language is correct and appropriate and the learning is communicative, but the rest is in their hands. I benefit so much from them and, they gain experiential learning and language development from me.

I’ve also had the chance to write many grants for this project. Most of the time, I seek funding for term colleagues who don’t get research credit for their work. I also seek funding for students, although Federal Work Study has been a boon for supporting students (thanks to the Honors College). Occasionally, we secure funding for conferences. This project has led to publications (e.g. Mathieu et al., 2019), spotlights on local and national OER sites (VCU, VIVA, COERLL, FLTMag), and many conference presentations. Finally, it has given me a way to engage in project-based learning with language students and provide ongoing professional development for my colleagues. Win-win for all of us!

Do you have any guidance for other faculty considering the switch to open and affordable course content?
Do it. The process of thinking through how and what to build and discovering what exists as OER out in the virtual wilds can lead us to exciting innovation across all three volets of our academic lives: teaching, research, and service. Looking at other OER products to see how they might be revised for the specificity of VCU teaching and learning is an exciting way to refresh curricula and incentivize today’s learners. Most of all, I enjoin faculty to make students their partners. There should be no us v. them in teaching and learning: we must always look to form a community of inquiry in search of new knowledge.

Citation: L. Mathieu, K. Murphy-Judy, R. Godwin-Jones, N. Boykova and L. Middlebrooks. 2019. “Learning in the Open” in New Case Studies of Openness in the Language Classroom, eds. A. Beaven, A. Comas-Quinn, B. Sawhill. Research-Publishing.net. https://doi.org/10.14705/rpnet.2019.37.9782490057511

Learn more about OER in the VCU Community
Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching and learning materials that are free to access online and shared with open licenses that allow for unrestricted use, retention, sharing and editing by faculty and students. OER can be any type of teaching or learning materials, including textbooks, images, videos, slide decks, assessments, syllabi, and whole courses. 

VCU Libraries’ Open and Affordable Course Content Initiative provides education on open education and textbook affordability and direct support for the adoption, customization and creation of open educational resources, including managing the Affordable Course Content Awards. To learn more or explore the possibility of using or creating OER, visit the initiative’s website or contact Open Educational Resources Librarian Jessica Kirschner at kirschnerj2@vcu.edu.

Categories Faculty/Staff, OER Stories, Open Textbooks, Why We Choose Open