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.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Adapting the MOOC model

Tonight I joined the Twitter intro social for #MOOCMOOC.  It got me thinking that I needed to really spell out what I did last year in my biology course.  While doing this might help some people, I realized that I needed to do it for myself.  Being somewhat absent minded, I need a little space to reflect on what I did, what worked, and what went wrong.

To start of, the course I am speaking about is Principles of Biology I here at Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA.  This is the first biology class for those majoring in biology (or pre-med), and is generally considered a Freshman level course.  Spring semester is actually when we get most of the Freshmen to take it, so it was my big course for the year. 

While in #change11 mooc, I decided to take a leap of faith and do my spring 2012 course in a new way; call it a petite mooc.  For years I've had my students do online quizzes, discussion boards, lists, and even blogs, but in my mind I never got the assignments to gel the way I wanted.  Ultimately, I wanted the students to form into one large learning community (that was the idea I got from #change11).  So, I completely restructure my course.

Now remember, these are mainly freshmen.  They are not yet adult learners.  This may change in the next 10 years, but they are not coming to college (at least not GSU) with the motivation seen in most adult learners.  They are also still very much novices when it comes to biology.  They may know some content, but they don't understand the context.  While I consider myself a mentor, I also recognize that I am still a teacher.  There is a need to explain what I mean here, and it spans pedagogy to andragogy.

The simplest way of saying it is that a teacher is one who TEACHES; meaning one who is going to provide content and context for a student in a given subject.  This does not necessarily mean a "Sage on a Stage," but it does mean that the teacher (the Master) is helping to build an information framework for the student (the Novice). 

I really like the model of situational leadership in helping to explain what I mean about the role of the teacher at this point.  I know that situational leadership has been modified for education, but I really like some of the simplicity of the original model, especially when it comes to hybrid pedagogies and MOOCs.  Put simply, there is a development curve (learning curve) when people start something new; novices need direction, then coaching.  More advanced students then need support.

So my role as a "teacher" is to help them build the mental framework they will use in their chosen discipline, BUT it is also my role to help them develop into more adult learners.  That is the part I think many people leave out.

As I work with a class, I need to provide ways to help them move from novice to journeyman; from being passive recipients of knowledge to active seekers of knowledge.  That takes us to the mentor.

A mentor then is one who takes on the Coaching and Supportive roles.  This is also where we enter the realm of andragogy.  You are not dealing with passive learners who are in it just for a grade, but with people engaged in the material.

That brings me to what I did in my last class.  First off, here is the syllabus for you to look at:  Hybrid BIOL 2107.  There are things that I have changed from this, but it will give you an idea where I started. 

Each week of the semester had a broad topic to cover (like Energy Harvesting).  Each day of the week students received a newsletter that gave them specific information on the topic and a Daily Challenge.  Here is a copy of one of the first newsletters: Daily Newsletter January 10, 2012

Students were to blog about the daily challenges.  Sometimes the challenge was content based, and at other times it dealt with context.  Students got points just for submitting a blog (minimum 100 words) that was on the topic.  I could go in and find students who were having problems with information, and correct their errors kindly without a grade being hung over their head.  I also didn't have to sit there and try to "figure" out a grade.  I could skim, read, rate.  I could also bring feedback into the classroom.

Three times during the semester, the students had to write a milestone paper.  Many students quickly realized that they could "steal" from their blogs to write the paper, and that was the idea.  To use what they had already written about, and bring it into a logical format.  These were graded by peer review, and students were told that this would be the basis of their final paper.  I got to go in again and give feedback that was not linked to a grade. 

At the end of the semester, the students combined all of their milestone papers into a learning reflection paper (and they were required to reflect on what they had learned).  This was graded by me through a rubric built from their peer review work.  It worked amazingly well.

There was one student who complained that she did not learn anything through this process, and that she felt that she wasted her time.  She said this to me the day I was putting grades in from their comprehensive final.  One thing she said is that she knew she failed the final because the blogs and writing didn't help her.  I showed her the final and her jaw hit the floor.  We went through it, and I asked her if she had know (some content point) before the class.  Jaw still on the floor, she shook her head.  Yes, she had gotten an A on one of the toughest finals I had given.  She looked at me and said "I take it all back." 

She was not alone.  Over the summer, I had students come to me and ask when they could take me again.  They all commented on how writing had helped them, and how they had built friends and study buddies through my course.  Most also said that even though other instructors didn't require it, they were still trying to write out information as if I had given them challenges.

I said I would mention failures.  The biggest one was my badge idea.  Not because it was bad, but because I could not implement it in a way that didn't distract from other things.  We'll see how it works this year.


  1. Hi Robert! Thank you for this link....I really like the way you have integrated writing and content (biology) together. I think the MOOC concept promotes Rennaissance Thinking - in that we have to blend all ideas together to really get to more meaningful learning....

    Will go over this again and write a "list" of the way you did things....Have to try and figure out assessment/badges myself this term, so would be great if we could chat about it....
    verenanz at gmail dot com

  2. Verenanz, is there something specific that you're looking for? I'll work up a list of different tasks and such, but if there is something specific, I can put more info down about that.