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.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Research, or why I let students start with Wikipedia...

Yes, I let my students start with Wikipedia.
Yes, there are controversies over Wikipedia, but students use it.  The general population uses it.  Heck, most of the faculty I know use it when they need to understand a new topic.

So, the goal is to help them use it as an appropriate resource, or tool.

In my last blog post, I discussed the Digital Literacy Disconnect.  The post deals with my growing realization that students don't know how to filter information and build a personal information architecture.  Where my generation learned to use card catalogs and annual abstracts, my have learned to go to Wikipedia.  Is it so horribly bad?  As long as they use it as a research tool, no.  If they think it is the end game, then yes.

At the beginning of the semester, I asked the students why Wikipedia was not an acceptable academic resource.  The answers were as expected:  too many editors, it is open for anyone to edit, not reliable, because the instructor said not to use it.  Afterward their answers, Usually someone in the class pipes up and says that it is not a "Primary Source".  This is when I get them to realize that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and as such is not a valid academic source for quotation or citation.

So, if it is not a valid academic source, why use it?

As I tell my students, when they answer my daily questions and build their blogs, Wikipedia is a fine place to start their research.  In biology, the information in Wikipedia is rather good.  Yes, there are some exceptions, but overall for general biology, it is a good starting point.  The most important aspect of the Wikipedia pages is that they have references and external links.  Both of these are an excellent resource for students.

Think about it.  How many times have you used a peer reviewed article mainly because of the references the author used?  Think about review articles; how many references did you look up after reading the review?  If you think about your own research, don't you back track from one article to another?  If an article is referenced many times, do you see it as something valuable?  Something important?  Maybe something you should know for your discipline?

We may start by doing an initial search, or maybe it was a paper recommended to us.  Sometimes we come across it from journals we read monthly, but the process is using one article to look for other "informed opinions".

Have you ever tried to teach this to students?  Did it work well?

I've found it a struggle to teach this to students, but when the student has used Wikipedia for this purpose, the transition to using journal articles is easier.  It is just a matter of back tracking references.  Gaining inspiration or methodological ideas from other authors.  What is important is the research skill.  Does it matter whether it was learned from Wikipedia or trying to instill in them our pre-digital research skills?

I'll leave you with a graphic that was sent to me.  There are parts of the graphic I don't like (including the plagiarism comments), but it is eye opening.

Via: Open-Site.org

Friday, March 16, 2012

Digital Literacy Disconnect

In the #change11 MOOC, the concept of digital literacy has appeared numerous times.  Usually as a call for an increase in digital skills among students. 

The concept of the Digital Native seems flawed.  While most of our students were born during or after the information tech revolution, most do not understand the concepts of the technology they use.  They may be highly skilled in areas such the use of social networks, email and texting, but does this show an understanding of foundational concepts of such systems?  The Digital Native is a user of technology, not necessarily a partner or innovator.

I argue that the true digital natives were not those who were born after the information revolution, but were born before it.  We lived through the transformation, and adapted to it as it changed. Those that were born after seem to have a disconnect with what we would consider Digital Literacy.

An epiphany struck me a few weeks ago.  It may be something others have considered, but it was a major shift in my perspective.  When I was growing up, I learned how to use a card catalog and the purpose of the Dewey Decimal system.  They were not abstracts, but something read to my daily life (OK, maybe not daily).  When I got to higher education, I learned to use Annual Abstracts and other research references.  By graduate school, some of the first computer based Abstract searches were starting to be used, but I knew how to use other means to find what I wanted.

What I realized is that I had built an information architecture.  I had learned not only how to search to find relevant material (and read to confirm it's relevance), but ways to filter and organize information.  I could remember most of the papers that I read (especially if they had impact), and I had a mental file system of relevant information.  I knew where I had filed the paper, so I could go back for specifics when needed.  In essence I had built a knowledge management system for my own learning.

When I talk with my students, I realize that they don't have that.  Information is at their fingertips, and there is no real reason for them to memorize the wealth of knowledge we have available today.  The problem is they are not building the information architecture to support their learning.  They don't see the difference between things that are memorized and the core concepts and perspectives that need to be mentally actualized.  If you can articulate the core concept, then you can hang any information off the structure you've built, but if you don't have a solid understanding of the core, you will be rebuilding the structure again and again.

That is what I'm seeing with my students.  Though I tell them that this something like the Translation of RNA into a protein is a foundational concept, they don't learn it.  Every semester after that, they have to relearn the concept.
*By learn, I mean understand the core concepts.  They don't need to know every fact, just the core process; when they have that, they can hang the facts off of it.

Digital Literacy falls into the same problem.  Students use the systems, but do they understand the concepts underlying the systems?  This is not about being able to replicate the systems, or even innovate new ones (though it is hoped that could occur).  Instead, it is about building different perspectives, different models for how to view and interact with the world.

So, the question I'm now faced with is how to help students build these informational architectures?  You can't tell them to do it, they'll just balk at you while they roll their eyes (an extreme, but powerful image that many can relate too).  This is something that has to be woven into the class as a hidden Learning Objective (you can tell them after the fact).  But how do you do it?  One thing that comes to my mind is I have to first clearly understand what I mean by an informational architecture.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

More Cognitive Dissonance

I am starting to realize how valuable it is for me to get ideas out of my head and out into world.  Not as some grand thesis of life, but for the feedback received.  I've realized that even a small statement can chance my perspective, especially when confused over a concept.  So, here I am again posting about some of the thoughts running through my mind.  Some of my current thoughts are informed by the happenings in the Change 2011 MOOC, and others from the recent Biology Leadership Conference.  Add to that reading more about the Bologna accords, and the Lumina Foundations DQP process. 

The first dissonance deals with a Liberal Arts Education.  Just sit with the phrase for a moment.  What thoughts does it bring up in you?  What image does your mind create?

I asked friends on Facebook what they thought of General Education and Liberal Arts.  The responses they gave me were not unexpected, but shows a disconnect between what I see as General Education/Liberal Arts and what non-academics see.  This is especially true when you look at people still in school.  This is a question I'm going to ask my Freshmen class today, just to see what their feeling is on a Liberal Arts Education.  So, what were the comments?
  • "The idea is to give freedom. But I've seen few liberal arts majors that don't regret their decision and end up in grad school hoping that gets them their degree. My girlfriend wishes she had gotten something that translates better to a job than her Political Science degree."
  • "Because we assume people need to be more well rounded to be successful. This is why we are failing, every team has its players, playing the game makes you well rounded. We need more experts in my opinion."
  • "Because 'everyone needs to go to college' but not everyone really needs to go to college and not everyone can really hack it at college. ( I say this from the position of having more then 4 years of college and no degree) So we create a ' diverse spectrum of programs suited for all types of students' Oh and because more students = more money for schools and student loan companies. "
  • "I think that a lot people don't "figure out what they want to be when they grow up" until after traditional college age. Yet, most jobs require a college education." 
I feel like an odd ball, because  when I was an undergraduate, I took classes outside of my major because I thought that they were interesting.

The comments above reflect a common thread I've heard about liberal arts education.  People want a degree with meaning, and they want to get through the degree.  Many see classes outside of your major as being unnecessary or even wasteful.  It is strange that for academics, we are seeing breakdown in the traditional (and abstract) concepts of disciplines, observing instead a strong increase in multidisciplinary or cross-disciplinary studies.  

The problem is we as academics have not articulated our expectation of what it means to have a liberal arts education in a why that is meaningful to the non-academic.   Most people see Liberal Arts as being history, political science, philosophy, or art.  They don't see it as something more holistic; that liberal arts means those in the humanities have to learn science and math, as well as scientists having to experience the humanities.  

Why do we have liberal arts education?  Perspective.
The goal is to give students a diverse perspective of the world.  It can also be described as having different models to use.  A good example of this concept can be found in "Sparks of Genius" by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein.  They show how art helped informed the discoveries of great scientists.  Warren Buffet has also spoken of how diverse models, even non-financial, can inform his financial adventures.  

The goal is not just to fill your head with information, but to provide different perspectives.  So, how do we articulate this as a valuable goal to students?