This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The role of the teacher...

Shukies post distributed if not contributed brought up a point that has been on my mind since #change11 began.
The charismatic, eloquent, nurtuting side of teaching is part of many cultural backgrounds - what forms of knowledge transfer, what craetive skills, will replace them in a networked, web based approach?
It seems to me that the loss of the eloquent instructor and the nurturing teacher would be a grave loss for education. Beyond cultural backgrounds, we learn through communication. This is one reason why the concepts behind the MOOC appear so powerful. Combining social connection and reflective practices to learning has amazing potential, but even with mass amounts of digital resources and feedback, there is still a need for a human connection. The MOOC, as with all forms of distance learning, can leave a person feeling that they are struggling alone. One problem is the desire for critique. While most of us don't like criticism (negative connotation here), we do like feedback that tells us we are on track, but also encourages or inspires us to greater achievements. The eternal ney sayer or yes man as feedback is soul draining and unproductive. I think we all yearn to have that nurturing confirmation that we are doing something right.
Teachers also help inspire our communications. Isn't there some teacher or professor in your background that you wanted to be like? Or a teacher you hope you are never compared to? Did you learn eloquence from your parents alone, or was your communication style molded by your teachers and mentors? One role of the teacher is to help students build, develop, mature, and stretch their communication skills.
Ultimately, I believe that our greatest role as educators is to become mentors.

True or False

Last week, I learned to take the comments regarding MOOC participation to heart. I got busy at work putting out fires, and lost track. I'm still reviewing blog posts so nothing major to add right now.
So what I wants to talk about today is one assessment form that I really like: true or false questions. I know that many people hate them, and consider them only for rote memorization. Maybe it is my background in symbolic logic, but I see TF questions as more than rote memorization. I see them as statements for critical analysis. Is the statement true? With out reading behind the words, or looking for the authors meaning, does the statement have truth functionality. It is not about substituting a wrong word, or changing a date by one year. Instead, it is about using common misconceptions and seeing if the student can find the flaw in the statement.
One of the problems I've seen in my students is a difficulty in analyzing simple statements. It becomes progressively harder to get them to analyze paragraphs and even whole works without this skill. TF questions get to this analysis.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Knowledge and Intellectual Skills: Two Sides of Education

Last night, I discovered that Blogger and the iPad don't get along.  My post got cut a little, and so I'm going back to finish up on some of the thoughts.

 One of my jobs is to coordinate teaching labs for microbiology and genetics.  The microbiology class is a skills heavy class.  It may sound silly, but working with a microscope is really difficult for students.  They come into the lab, and many think they know how to use the microscope.  It only takes them a single class to realize that they had been using it incorrectly, or at least, ineffectively.  The reason is that all of the graduate students who teach these labs work as mentors, checking the work and progress of every student.

Consider this analogy:  The first time you had to change a tire, fix a sink, sewed a costume, cooked a dinner, or any DIY project, it took a lot of time.  You either had to keep reading instruction, probably messed up at least once, and most likely left a mess behind.  Now think about the first time you did something DIY, but had someone looking over your shoulder. It may have taken the same time, but your mistakes were caught before they could go to far.  Your mentor gave you alternatives, they showed you the correct way to hold a hammer so you stopped hitting your thumb.  This is the goal of a teacher or mentor, to help students avoid common pitfalls, avoid common misconceptions, generally to avoid having the student "reinvent the wheel." 

There is no need for a microbiology student to build a compound microscope just so they know how it works.  A mentor can help guide them through the steps to learn how to use the instrument.  Likewise, a teacher can help a student learn how to read a scientific article to get the maximum amount out of it, instead of struggling for days and still remaining confused.  Once they start exercising their intellectual muscles, you can release the guiding hand.  They can come back to ask questions and get support, but the learning is then on their terms.

The conclusion I've reached about education is that it is more than just the accumulation of information (knowledge), but also the building of skills.  The MOOC idea does help to build skills, especially in creating knowledge communities, building knowledge management, and gaining confidence in forming and redistributing knowledge. Yet there seems to be an expectation that the students within a MOOC of are of a level where they have already built skills in knowledge discernment, meaning they have the ability to shift through information and find that which is generally considered reliable.  Most of the members of  #change11 seem well-educated and well-informed, as well as possessing the basic skills needed to build a distributed knowledge network.  The question becomes, could you take this model to students just entering college for the first time?  It would require more guidance and assessment, it would require a strong mentoring presence.  Can it be done, yes, but it may end out to be a variant model from what we are participating in.  At least, my gut says it will look different.

Is knowledge acquisition the summit of education? #change11

I read "Systematic Changes in Higher Education" by George Siemens and Kathleen Matheos this weekend. The article has gotten me thinking on a number of topic, but I'm going to focus this post to one unspoken assumption that I've seen in a number of articles on the use of online networked learning and the role of the university; namely the idea that knowledge is what is transmitted during a course.
It is true that most courses are knowledge based, and there are some of my colleagues that focus only on the transmission of knowledge. Yet I see the transmission of knowledge as only a minimal part of a teacher's job. Of more concern is the training of a student in they ways to think. This post represents a building of this idea, as I'm still working this concept out.

The idea starts with thinking within your discipline. Even though they are both scientists, biologists and chemists approach matters differently. This is easily seen when you get them together to talk about specific topics we cover in both area. We sometimes even have different terms for the same thing. While we both may use the hypethetico-deductive model of reasoning (aka, the scientific method), our application is different. By the time I get students in my Principles of Biology class, they have come across the scientific method in high school and college chemistry. They can recite the list of steps, but they don't understand it. Not just the application, but what it means as a model of reason and knowledge acquisition. Part of my job is to dedicate them, not on a memorized list, but in terms of what it means to think within this model. Literally, train them in thinking.
I could give the students papers and notes, but until they exercise their brains by working through implications, it becomes a meaningless mental task. It is here that a teacher is invaluable. The teacher, by their own knowledge and experience, knows where the pitfalls are in using the model, and how to get around them. People have written books on this, but until you try it, with someone watching over your shoulder, it is just meaningless.
Part of this training in a reasoning model is also information filtering and knowledge management. Biology is an information dense discipline, with new information coming out weekly. So students must be mentored in knowledge filtering. This could be reading scientific articles, a task which is even daunting to graduate students, or just finding valuable non-peer reviewed information. Last week, I was on open study answering some questions when I saw a question about the nuclei in the heart (cardiac muscle). The first response linked to a page called Heart Nuclei. I don't the the poster even read the page, just the title. The page was a new-age mystical article about linking the heart to a higher power. It had no relation to the known cellular or physiological properties of the heart.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Outcomes vs. Process

I was reading the Learner Weblog by John Mak when I was struck by the dichotomy of student outcome vs. the process of learning.  The administrators of our school are concerned about our outcomes (Pass/Withdraw/Fail), and many of the faculty are worried about student readiness for upper division courses.  So, I live in an outcome system model.

Yet evidence is showing that the process, and not the outcome, is important to learning.  I can easily see this in practice.  Some of my A students who did not have to struggle in my class because they had good prep to get to my level, are actually some of the worst students I've seen.  They don't take ownership of the material, don't pay attention during group work or case studies, and don't pick up on the higher Bloom's taxonomy I'm trying to get the students to see.  They also tend to do poorly once in the higher level classes.

Now, those students who struggled (some with A's, others with B's) ended out doing well in the higher level courses.  They sat with the material, asked questions, worked things out for themselves, took notes in class and actively participated.

Online education, especially MOOCs focus on the process.  This is great if you are an active learner and are not looking for credentials, but many people are looking for some type of acknowledgement at the end of a course (in the case of a University, a grade).

So the question becomes, in an outcome based system (and I do not see it changing from an outcome based system), how do you focus on process?  At the end of a semester, I have to assign grades, so what then is my criteria for reviewing the student's work?  How do you assess their performance in a networked social environment?  Is it even necessary to perform assessments on what was accomplished in the online environment, or just the outcome of what they learned?

Is it enough to provide them with a clear understanding of the objectives, facilitate their travel through online social networks, then periodically assess them?  Part of me says yes, but there is another part that wonders at the role of the teacher.  I strongly believe in the mentor role, as opposed to the lecturer talking for hours, but I am hesitant to just "let them go."  One problem may be that I am concerned about their ability to filter material.  I've seen students with very strange ideas as to what an appropriate internet source can be.

My instinct is to say "try it and see what happens."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reflections on a connectivist model and MOOCs #change11

     As a physiologist, I've come across the idea of neural networks and connectivist cognitive models.  Neuroscience is not my area, so while I've come across the idea, I have not read extensively on the subject.  Seeing this referenced by people writing about MOOCs and also in the introductory videos for the Change MOOC, I may be looking into learning more about connectivist models.
     One aspect that intrigues and scares me is the idea that a learner is in charge of which elements of a course they take, which they ignore, and which they discard as they build a unique perspective on the subject matter.  What intrigues me is the idea that the student engages as a full partner in a learning experience.  They are not just participating, but taking charge of their own learning experience.  The idea of students moving from a passive to an active role is exciting, and something I would like to see in my own classes.  But the idea makes me nervous.
     In teaching biology course, especially the introductory courses, there is a great deal of material that must be covered.  In the introductory course I teach, it is expected that at the end of the class, all of the students will show competencies in the principles of cell and molecular biology.  There is a central curriculum for the course, because students will struggle in upper division courses if they do not have a strong common foundation in the principles.  This means knowing and understanding the language, including vocabulary, the ability to identify and describe structures, and the ability to discuss and explain common pathways and mechanisms that occur within the cell.
     I've seen students who fail to build the foundation flounder in the upper division courses, and I've seen instructors become frustrated when it becomes obvious that the student needs to have a refresher on basic topics.  So, now I wonder how, through a MOOC, to get a students to explore and learn a set of core concepts.  Can it be done through course objectives?  If they are receiving credit through my institution, I can require that specific assignments be completed, thus coming to a consensual set of concepts that must be mastered.  Yet, how do you do this if there is no credit cap?  I can not see an answer as flippant as "it doesn't matter," really working.  Yes, I am providing a learning opportunity with a MOOC, but where does my responsibility to the students education begin and end?  If I know that they will need concept X in another course, how do I go about making sure that they are exposed to Concept X and work on mastering that concept?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Personal Reflection on Online Learning and MOOCs #change11

      I've been teaching at the college level for over 15 years, and I have rarely taught a class the same way twice.  I'm always looking for new ways to reach my students and help them to realize that the greatest learning comes when they take ownership of the information and the process.  My field is Microbial Ecology, and I have taught freshmen to graduate students.  Regardless of the level, I am constantly amazed at the amount of information we are expected to cram into a person during two meetings a week for fourteen weeks.  Really, the amount of information that they need to process and begin to master can not be conveyed in face to face time allotted.

      About 6 years ago, I started to do some of my learning assessments online and assignments online.  The online quizzes got the students to start reading their textbooks before class, and they came into class better prepared.  I found that I spent less time going over basic material, and that the students were up to the task of handling some of the deeper, more complex, subjects.  Over the last six years, I've been adding more assignments to get my students to think about the course materials.
     Two years ago, in a course on Medical Microbiology, which is taught almost exclusively using case studies, I decided to give them assignments which made them convey material in new ways.  The first was to create video casts of the immune system.  In honor of our school having a football team, the assignment was to explore the immune response of our school's mascot, Pounce the Panther, from either the Bulldog Bacterium or the Yellow Jacket Virus.  I was stunned at how well they did!  While there were some science specific fixes I wanted them to do, their videos which went up on iTunesU were >90% accurate (and a lot of fun).
     Their second task was to create brochures, posters and talks regarding a communicable disease.  We even had a Disease Day on the Commons where they talked to their fellow students about diseases (unfortunately, turnout was bad because of the rain).  I will never forget a student yelling across the common, "Do you have Syphilis?  Well, do you know the Symptoms?"

     Currently, I am working on making a Hybrid inclass/online course for general biology.  The goal again is to help students deal with the overwhelming knowledge base of cellular and molecular biology by working independently and in small groups, on small projects (like discussions), and larger projects.

      I came across the idea of a MOOC while working on this hybrid class.  I'm intrigued with the idea, and what I've come across on the web.  I signed up for the Change MOOC course to learn more about this learning model, and to see if I can use some of the concepts in building a hybrid general biology class.