Dr Chris Barnett, a physical and computational chemist, is an undergraduate and postgraduate chemistry lecturer in the Science Faculty at UCT. He ascribes to the principle of “learning by every means” and his teaching philosophy is about engaging with students in a way which enables them to try their best, find confidence to ask questions and realise that getting something wrong is a key part of learning.
In February 2019, Chris and his colleague Dr Cesarina Edmonds-Smith were awarded a grant from the DOT4D project to develop the “Ingxoxo” (isiXhosa for conversation, discussion) platform. Through this collaboration, they are exploring a forum-based approach to peer-to-peer learning and open textbook development.
What is the problem he is trying to address using open textbooks?
Students who join UCT do so from all corners of South Africa and bring with them a wide range of schooling, cultures and experiences of the world. This, along with the fact that South Africa has 11 official languages, means that many first-year students experience a long and often stressful period of adjustment to university life and the way they are taught in a higher education setting. Being taught in a language different to your mother tongue as well as having a Westernised, English textbook is often a major cause of not understanding the key concepts presented in lectures.
The Ingxoxo platform serves as a forum for student discussions around first-year physical chemistry in any South African language and provides a safe, comfortable space for students who may not feel comfortable to speak in lectures to pose questions and contribute to discussions. Questions are answered by fellow students as well as by course lecturers.
The platform contains links to video and audio explanations as well as other resources posted by first-year students and the Ingxoxo community which are relatable to South African and African experiences with chemistry. These new ideas and explanations of chemical concepts that are relevant to the South African student will be compiled into an openly licensed, online, mixed-media e-book, co-authored by the students to allow for a fully inclusive look into first-year chemistry.
What is his authorship approach?
The Ingxoxo authorship approach is based on a “social” approach in which students interact with a dynamic platform that mimics social media engagement principles, using “like”, linking, bookmarking and sharing functions as well as avatar options and user-friendly design. The forum runs on the Discourse app and posts can be formatted using Markdown, LaTeX / MathJax and mhchem.
Students are encouraged to get involved through modest incentivisation schemes, through which they receive chocolates, stickers and classroom accolades for frequent posting, responding to fellow students’ queries or translating content into another language. The idea is to accumulate content for the open textbook over many years of engagement, but to start the forum conversations afresh each year in the hope that this will enable students to feel at home in a virtual environment that is dedicated to them and their classmates’ specific needs.