Apereo Foundation Fast - Dolphin Awards Interview with Dr. Tobias Thelen

Tobias Thelen
February 21, 2023
Michelle Hall, Apereo Communications

Dr.Tobias Thelen of Osnabrück University was the 2022 recipient of the Apereo Dolphin Award for Teaching and Learning.

The Apereo Board was particularly impressed with Tobias’ continued efforts to improve educational technology in teaching and learning over the last ten years. Innovative flipped classrooms and his  "Open Source Software Development" course inspired students and colleagues to explore new modes of education and software. Tobias successfully integrated open source tools for building online courses directly into Osnabrück University's learning management system, an approach now used by several other universities

Tobias is the head of the Digital Teaching branch and deputy managing director of virtUOS the center for digital teaching, campus management, and university didactics at the University of Osnabrück (Germany). Tobias was a founding member of virtUOS in 2002. 

Tobias has been a researcher and lecturer at Osnabrück University in Artificial Intelligence, Computational Linguistics, Web Technologies, and Databases since 1998. He completed his Master's degree in Computational Linguistics & Artificial Intelligence, Computer Science, and Philosophy in 1998 and his Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence and Computational Linguistics in 2009. He completed both degrees at Osnabrück University.  

Tobias lives in a village close to Osnabrück with his wife and three children.


Michelle Hall, Apereo Foundation Fast (MH): Tobias thank you for joining us on Apereo Foundation Fast and congratulations on your award!

Tobias Thelen (TT): Thank you! I am thrilled to have been awarded this prestigious prize. International awards related to teaching activities are really rare and therefore I’m even happier about the honor.


MH: Please tell us about your “Open Source Software Development" course for which you were nominated.

TT: The first iteration of the course started back in 2011. I had noticed that of course, all our computer science students had heard about “Open Source” but associated hardly more with it than “free of charge” and “developed by hobbyists.” So I started a seminar covering a broad range of aspects from definitions, licenses, and tools to business models and project governance models. For a series of presentations, the students had close looks at selected open source projects and also investigated who is behind these projects, what motivates the developers, and how projects achieve professional and sustainable status. The seminar [has been] offered on a regular basis since and also became a kind of lab for project ideas, motivating students to contribute to open source projects. The course’s focus on more than “just technology” was unusual for a computer science class. Many participants reported that they started thinking about the structures, motivations, and business models behind software development after this seminar. 

I myself learned from looking at so many different projects that “open source” is such a broad umbrella term for totally different things that it sometimes is nearly useless. For example, take single vendor open source projects where a company controls the development with strict contributor agreements (if at all possible) and more or less labels restricted demo versions of a software as open source and compare that to open, community-driven efforts which we try to promote for our own tools. 


MH: What open source tools have you incorporated into Osnabrück University's learning management system? 

TT: We offer a full set of community-developed open source tools for teaching and learning at our university and for all these tools we aim to be part of the community. The core product is Stud.IP, a German learning management system (LMS) that allows for deep integration of LMS features with administrative processes like course and examination planning, class enrolment, lecture hall management, etc. Though a lot of the functionality is very specific, we managed to join and support a stable development community of roughly 20-30 German universities and some professional service providers. Being part of the development community allows us to integrate the LMS with all the other services in a very good way. We use Apereo’s Opencast as our lecture recording and video management system and we have been part of its development community from the very first day. As synchronous tools became much more important since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, BigBlueButton for video conferencing and Matrix/Element as a groupware messenger have been added and play a very important role for us now.


MH: Do you have a favorite open source teaching and learning tool? What do you like best about it?

TT: As it comes to teaching, I love tools that empower students to create unexpected things. I like the “study group” feature we created for our LMS that allows students to access all the LMS tools usually only available for instructors. They can create their own learning contexts - and they do! Be it to prepare a presentation; to start a long lasting student initiative; to team up with instructors to deepen a topic, etc. And it always happens that we think “Well, why should this tool be interesting for students?” and then they start creating quizzes, uploading videos, working with a wiki, and so on.


MH: What was your primary driver for incorporating open source into your course offerings and Osnabrück University's learning management system?

TT: We love community-driven open source teaching tools for more than just the features. For example with Opencast, I always volunteered as a beta tester for the latest versions in my lectures. I might even have been one of the first [people] to use it as a regular service in a real lecture. This was one of these great opportunities to combine my role as an instructor with our software development team and our mission to create an attractive tool portfolio for our entire university. Being part of our tools’ development communities not only allows for connecting practical experience directly with the development process but also for experimenting with innovative ideas on a large scale. We would never be able to create such a broad range of professional high-quality tools on our own and we would never be able to influence the development and bring our inventions to so many people if we weren’t part of the communities.


MH: What Apereo projects, committees, or initiatives are you involved with?

TT: I'm indirectly involved with Apereo's Opencast project as a promoter, user, beta tester, and supervisor of bachelor's and master's theses experimenting with new ideas.

MH: Tobias, please tell us about a pet project you would like to focus on during your year as an Apereo Dolphin Awardee. 

TT: Currently, I’m looking into the development of small domain-specific tools for practicing various skills relevant to academia. A bit more than a pet project in this sense is an online environment for practicing academic English reading skills that I started developing with Ella Dovhaniuk, a Ukrainian refugee who is an English as a foreign language researcher. We were able to just finish a distributed online class with 50 Ukrainian students and Osnabrück cognitive science students to create more content and motivating gamification elements and will hopefully be able to launch the platform in March of 2023.

MH: Thanks Tobias, that project sounds really cool. We will look forward to hearing more about it soon. Any exciting plans for your Apereo Dolphin Award award funds?

TT: Apart from completing our cycling equipment for weekend family trips, I will support an open education resource project that I co-founded: “Circus Palope” [it] is a series of OER textbooks for teaching German reading and spelling that’s already used as the official textbook in more than 30 primary school classes in Germany and Austria. It combines open content creation with exciting and new didactic ideas.


MH: What would you say are your favorite aspects of working with the Apereo community? What’s made you passionate about working in this area with these folks?

TT: Apereo provides incredibly important infrastructure for professional open source communities in higher education and I like how the enthusiasm for working together, joining forces and ideas is everywhere. 


MH: Tobias, as you may remember, the theme of Open Apereo 2022 was “The Value of Open Source.” Could you give us a few thoughts on “The Value of Open Source” both at your University and in the world at large?

TT: The tech world is ruled by a few big companies. Partly because developing hardware, software, and new services have become extremely expensive but partly also because we as human beings love shiny effortless products and interfaces. But that comes with the price of becoming totally dependent on these few companies. In contrast, it must be the aim of higher education to not only create users of technology but builders and shapers of our world’s future. As our future is digital, they must become builders of digital tools as well and I believe that only community-driven open source projects can provide a strong, independent, and academically sound basis for that. As universities, we must be able to influence and shape the tools we’re using. We must encourage and support our students to engage in open source and open content communities as they offer the unique empowering experience of being a creator and not only a user of the digital world.


MH: Dr. Tobias Thelen, thank you so much for your time and for this excellent interview. You have given us a great deal to think about. Congratulations again for your well-deserved award. 


Fast Follow-up: Do you have a suggestion for who we should interview on Apereo Foundation Fast? Email, Apereo Communications Manager, Michelle Hall with your suggestions. michelle.hall@apereo.org

Follow Dr. Tobias Thelen on LinkedIn or Twitter to learn more about his many projects.

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