Talking Teaching

June 9, 2014

carl wieman on active learning

Recently I wrote about a paper by Freeman et al: a meta-analysis looking at the impact of active learning on student success in maths, engineering, & the sciences (the ‘STEM’ subjects). In the same volume of PNAS is an accompanying commentary by Carl WiemanWieman is a physics Nobel Laureate who also leads a research group working on improving teaching & learning in maths, engineering, & the sciences (which has resulted in some interesting initiatives at other institutions). Commenting on Freeman’s results, he notes that

Freeman et al. argue that it is no longer appropriate to use lecture teaching as the comparison standard, and instead, research should compare different active learning methods, because there is such overwhelming evidence that the lecture is substantially less effective. This makes both ethical and scientific sense.

Wieman goes on to say

However, in undergraduate STEM education, we have the curious situation that, although more effective teaching methods have been overwhelmingly demonstrated, most STEM courses are still taught by lectures – the pedagogical equivalent of bloodletting. Should the goals of STEM education research be to find more effective ways for students to learn or to provide additional evidence to convince faculty and institutions to change how they are teaching?

Personally I’d go for the former; there’s a wealth of information out there now. What’s needed now is to somehow get more university STEM educators to engage with the scholarship of teaching & learning in their various disciplines. Now there’s a challenge!

C.E.Wieman (2014) Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. PNAS published ahead of print, May 22 2014. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1407304111

June 3, 2014

more on moocs – go read this post!

Filed under: education — Tags: , , — alison @ 9:31 am

I wish I had more time, because then I could read even more articles and blogs and papers about the things that really interest me, like enhancing the quality of teaching and learning. And there’s some great stuff out there, including a post on Massive Open On-line Courses entitled “MOOCs, student engagement, and the value of contact.” It’s the lack of real interpersonal contact in MOOCs that’s one of their big limitations, from my perspective, and I think the post’s author nailed that concern in this comment:

I think most MOOCs are just textbooks for the Internet age. A brilliantly delivered lecture or a brilliantly written book are both good content delivery systems. But without interaction, feedback, and mutual accountability that is all they can be.

Just one reason to go over & read the full post by chemprofdave.

June 1, 2014

“If you’re going to get lectured at, you might as well be at home in bunny slippers”

This is a post I first wrote for the Bioblog.

There’s an increasing body of literature demonstrating the benefits of active learning for tertiary students taking science subjects. This is a topic I’ve written about before, but I’m always interested in reading more on the subject. And let’s face it, the more evidence the better, when you’re wanting to get lecturers in the sciences engaged in discussion around different ways of teaching. As you’ll have gathered, I find a lot of new science & education material via alerts on Facebook, as well as through the more conventional journal feeds & email alerts, and so it was with this recent paper by Scott Freeman & colleagues, which looks at the effect of active learning on student performance in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) classes: I saw it first described in this post1 (whence also comes the quote I’ve used as my title).

The paper by Freeman et al (2014) is a meta-analysis of more than 200 studies of teaching methods used in STEM classes, which included “occasional group problem-solving, worksheets or tutorials completed during class, use of personal response systems with or without peer instruction, and studio or workshop course designs” (ibid.). The impact of the various methods on student learning was measured in two ways: by comparing scores on the same or similar examinations or concept inventories; and by looking at the percentage of students who failed a course.

What did their results show? FIrstly, that students’ mean scores in exams assessing work covered in active learning classes improved by around 6% over more traditional teaching-&-learning formats (& finding that matches those of earlier studies); and secondly, that students in those traditional classes “were 1.5 times more likely to fail”, compared to students given in-class opportunities for active learning (with a ‘raw failure’ rate averaging 33.8% in traditional lecturing classes and 21.8% in more active classes). These results held across all STEM subjects. The researchers also found that active-learning techniques had a stronger effect on concept inventories compared to formal exams (& here I’m wondering if that doesn’t reflect – at least in part – the nature of the exams themselves eg did they give opportunities to demonstrate deep learning?) Interestingly, while the positive impact of active learning was seen across all class sizes, it was more pronounced in classes of less than 50 students.

On the class size thing, I’m wondering if that might be because it’s easier to get everyone actively involved, in a smaller class? For example, I’ve got a colleague at another institution who runs a lot of his classes as ‘flipped’ sessions, and ensures that all students get the opportunity to present to the rest of the group – this is far easier to set up in a class of 50 than in a group with 200+ students in it. (I know! When I run ‘design-a-plant/animal’ sessions, there’s time for only a sub-set of student ‘teams’ to present their creatures to the rest of the class. Plus you really have to work at making sure you get around all teams to talk with them, answer questions, & so on, and so it’s perhaps more likely that someone can remain uninvolved.)

The research team concluded:

Finally, the data suggest that STEM instructors may begin to question the continued use of traditional lecturing in everyday practice, especially in light of recent work indicating that active learning confers disproportionate benefits for STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for female students in male-dominated fields. Although traditional lecturing has dominated undergraduate instruction for most of a millenium and continues to have strong advocates, current evidence suggests that a constructivist “ask, don’t tell” approach may lead to strong increases in student performance, amplifying recent calls from policy-makers and researchers to support faculty who are transforming their STEM courses.

The ‘bunny slippers’ quote from the lead author comes from the post that originally caught my eye. And I suspect there may well be bunny slippers (or the equivalent) in evidence when my own students watch lecture recordings at home :) But this does raise a question around massive open on-line courses (MOOCs), which tend to have a very high ‘fail’ rate – how much of this might be attributed to the difficulty in ensuring opportunities for active learning in these ‘distance’ classes?

And of course, we aren’t really talking a simple dichotomy between ‘traditional’ lecture classes and classes with a very high component of active-learning opportunities – something the research team also note: some of the ‘non-traditional’ methods they surveyed had only a 10-15% ‘active’ component. This is something discussed at more length by Alex Smith in a post entitled “In Defence of the Lecture”. I have to say that his approach sounds very similar to mine, with its mix of socratic questioning, pop quizzes, group discussions, and – yes – sections of ‘lecture’. As Small says:

Not every lecture is a person spending an hour talking nonstop to deliver facts. A good lecture is engaging, it naturally invites discussion and dialogue, it operates at a level much higher than raw information delivery, it is a natural setting for the expert to act as a role model, and it can be integrated with more formal activities (e.g., clicker questions, small-group discussions, etc.).

Lecture should not be the sole means of instruction, and bad lectures are a plague demanding eradication, but we err when we too strenuously inveigh against the lecture.

I couldn’t agree more. And maybe that’s a message that’s being lost in the louder discussion around active learning, and which needs to be heard more widely.

1 The comments thread for this story is also worth reading.

S.Freeman, S.L.Eddy, M.McDonough, M.K.Smith,N.Okorofor, H.Jordt & M.P.Wenderoth  (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/05/08/1319030111

May 23, 2014

some more thoughts on facebook & student engagement

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , , , — alison @ 9:58 pm

After I wrote my last post, on using course-related Facebook pages to help enhance student engagement, I thought I’d see what students thought about the issue. So I shared a link to the post on the FB page run by our biology students, and asked what members had to say. I also mentioned the idea in class, and discussed it with a colleague (we were originally talking about student management systems, but it was one of those wide-ranging chats that grows and grows…).

Somewhat to my surprise – although I guess I hadn’t really given it a lot of thought – there are a lot of FB pages out there with links to various papers and programs. (Our registrar set one up with several friends, when they were working on a group project for a postgraduate paper, as a means of sharing ideas and working on problems.) The students tell me that they found the pages really did help with a sense of ‘belonging’, especially for those who were at a satellite campus or didn’t come onto the actual campus regularly. They gave opportunities to share information, answer questions,  & just be social.

Interestingly, several said that they found our ‘standard’ student learning management system, Moodle, difficult to use from a smart-phone: apparently you need to log on again and again; there’s no means of staying logged in for a day, for example. They also reminded me that with FB, you get notifications whenever someone posts something on a thread you’re following; on Moodle the notifications are less constant and via email.

And apparently some students find Moodle quite intimidating (& I must follow up on why), and people were more likely to comment & to answer each other on student-run class FB pages.

One thing that’s become more & more obvious to me, the more I think about it, is the immediacy and the highly visual nature of FB, as opposed to the text-based look of a Moodle page (and yes, I know you can add pictures!). Here’s a screenshot of part of the page for my A semester class:

Screenshot 2014-05-23 08.50.35

As you can see, it’s all words. If someone wants to see what’s being discussed, they have to open the ‘Discussion forum’ folder, & once they’re in there, they need to open a particular ‘topic’. They need to click on the link for a video or webpage – there’s no enticing link. And so on. Whereas on FB, the video or the page are right there with a nice visual tag. OK, posts and comments build up & will slip to the bottom of the page if they’re not active, but that happens within a Moodle forum as well.

Anyway, what I’m thinking I’ll do is set up a closed page for the B semester paper (students have ask to join) and send the link for the page to everyone in the class. I’ll make it clear that this is as well as and not instead of Moodle, which remains the official means of sharing information & resources. Also, I’ll set it up so the class reps – if they agree! – are admins (& they and I can agree on some basic house rules), so that there’s a feeling that this is more ‘by the students, for the students’. And then we’ll see what happens. (I’m sure I’ll think of more things as we go along!)

What do you think?

May 12, 2014

facebook – more than just social networking

Some of my readers over on Sciblogs will probably have realised that I quite like Facebook – not least because it’s a good source of gorgeous images and quirky facts that can start me thinking about a new science blog post. (You don’t see that side of me here on Talking Teaching :D ) Also, it’s fun keeping in contact with friends & participating in various discussion groups.

One of those groups was set up by the biological sciences students at my institution, and it’s used mainly for sharing biology articles and images, the occasional in-joke :) , and alerting other students to upcoming events that their committee has organised. This particular page sees a bit more student activity than some of our paper-specific moodle pages, so for a while now I’ve wondered about the potential of a good Facebook page to be more than ‘just’ a place to hang out and share pictures & stories.

Anyway, recently I had a conversation (on FB, lol) with a couple of fellow Ako Aotearoa Academy members about this potential. It turns out that they both use FB quite extensively in their teaching lives and gave me a lot of helpful hints – along with a very recent paper on this very subject (Dougherty & Andercheck, 2014).

Kevin Dougherty and Brita Andercheck teach a large (around 200 students) introductory sociology class at Baylor University in the US. Like all those with classes of this size (or larger), they recognised that one of the major issues they face is

the tendency for students to feel like anonymous spectators rather than active, collaborative participants

- that is, there’s a real risk that many students will not properly engage with classroom activities, & that their learning will suffer as a result. I’ve written previously about flipped teaching as an example of a technique to increase student engagement (& performance), but with a range of different learning styles among class members, what works for one student won’t necessarily work for another.

So, how do Dougherty & Andercheck use social media to enhance their students’ engagement with the subject, and their achievement (as measured against the learning objectives for the paper)?

The larger a class gets, the harder it can be – even with the best will in the world – get everyone actively involved in discussions, debates and group work during class time. Teachers might try & manage this using a Student Learning Management System (SLMS) like Moodle but again, many students don’t really engage here either. (Certainly that’s been my own experience.)

The authors wondered, what about Facebook? After all,

[s]ocial media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are part of life for the generation of students now filling college classes

and it’s easy to load material and set up discussion threads. (Even a relatively technological illiterate like me can do it!) Why not use it as a more engaging SLMS, one that’s more likely to get buy-in from students because it’s already familiar to them?

I can just hear the cries of horror that might greet such a proposition. Don’t students already spend far too much time on FB and other networking sites? It would just be a distraction. These are valid objections. But with evidence in favour from a developing body of research into such uses of social media, Dougherty & Andercheck set up a study of the impact of a group FB page on students’ engagement & performance in their own class.

For anyone interested in doing likewise, their paper in Teaching Sociology has a very useful description of how the class page is set up & administered. (One of my Academy colleagues has similar pages for MOOCs that he is involved in; due to their size, he has some students help with the admin.) It was run in parallel with their ‘normal’ SLMS, Blackboard, and the latter was where students obtained class handouts & readings. FB was for sharing & discussion; for videos, news stories, & photos; for the ‘Question of the Day’.

For students unable to participate or uncomfortable participating in the classroom discussion, we invited them to add their thoughts and reflections to the conversation on Facebook. We used poll-style questions on the Facebook Group as another means to engage students.

Students readily got involved, ‘liking’ posts, joining discussions, and posting material. Two weeks into the semester, more than half the class had joined the page, and 2/3 were part of it by the end of the paper. To see how all this activity affected learning outcomes, the researchers carried out content analysis of student postings & matched this to performance, and also asked students for feedback via the usual paper appraisals.

The appraisal data showed that half the class visited the FB page on at least a weekly basis, and that the majority were positive about its effect on their experience in the class. While  24% disagreed (ranging from slight to strong disagreement) that it enhanced their experience, Dougherty & Andercheck noted wryly that “it was students who never or rarely used the Facebook Group who disagreed”. Students also felt that the page gave them a stronger sense of belonging in the course, and also that it positively influenced their achievement of the learning objectives.

Of course, the final proof of the pudding is in the eating (sorry, channeling cooking blog here!): was this reflected in actual performance? The researchers found that FB group membership showed a positive correlation to total quiz points and total points. It also had “a marginally significant, positive relationship” with both a student’s total score for the paper and their score in the final exam, and the number of posts someone made was linked to their quiz score.

What’s more, their analysis of the page’s content and their students’ use of the page clearly shows how involved many class members became in discussion. This is a big point for me: I use Moodle in my own class & it’s sometimes a bit sad to see how little real conversation there is about a topic. We might see a question posted, followed by a couple of answers, & then it all dies down again. Would discussions become deeper & more complex in a different, more familiar (&, let’s face it, less clunky) medium? I guess there really is only one way to find out. (And I’ll be making good use of the very helpful hints provided at the end of this thoughtful, and thought-inspiring, paper!)

K.D.Dougherty & B.Andercheck (2014) Using Facebook to Engage Learners in a Large Introductory Course. Teaching Sociology 42(2): 95-104 DOI: 10.1177/0092055X14521022

April 25, 2014

plagiarism & managing it

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , , , — alison @ 10:14 pm

I’m marking first-year essays at the moment. Because these students have had little or no practice at writing scientific essays before they arrive in my class, we give them a lot of learning support. There’s a marking rubric, which students get along with the questions at the very beginning of the semester. (Alas! This doesn’t seem to stop the last-minute rush-combined-with-sheer-panic!) We spend time on tuts discussing how to structure an essay, how to cite and to reference & to paraphrase, and so on. Both the senior tutor & I are more than happy to comment on drafts – some of my colleagues think we’re nuts, but giving formative feedback early in the piece significantly improves the final essay & means less time is spent at that end. And this year I followed the example of my friend Margaret Henley and ran a drop-in session in the student centre: I was there, along with the Science librarian and staff from Student Learning, and the 50 or so students who attended moved around between us depending on what they needed. (Far more time-efficient then having the same number of students turn up to see us in drips and drabs.

And of course we also discuss at some length the issues and concepts relating to plagiarism, and students’ essays are put through the Turnitin system on submission. (This year I set it up so that they could see their score after submission, which they seem to quite like.) So I was interested to see this story on plagiarism and cheating in NZ universities,  in the NZ Herald a few days ago. It was notable that there was a bit of variation between institutions in the number of instances of cheating that were detected, which I suspect has more to do with processes than with actual differences in (dis)honesty in the student bodies. We all seem to handle it differently, too; my own institution has a student discipline committee, to which all instances of suspected plagiarism are supposed to be referred. I like this system – it is a lot more transparent in that the paper convenor doesn’t end up being the judge, jury, and executioner (with all the potential conflicts that this entails), and more consistent because the same set of standards, and outomes, is applied across the board. Which is probably why I felt more than a little uncomfortable to see that, in one instance reported in the Herald story, an individual lecturer seemed to be making the judgement call. Maybe that was just the way the story came across in the paper. I hope so.

There’s an interesting discussion here on why students plagiarise, which suggests that maybe we, the teachers, have something to do with it in that we maybe don’t do enough to help our students develop their own ‘voice’ and the confidence to use it:

Students… often stumble into plagiarism (or rush head-long into it) because they either cannot find or do not trust the authority of their own voice.

The author, Nick Carbone, concludes that

[h]elping students find their own voice, their own words, so that they can distinguish better their voices and words from the voices and words of the sources they research, hear, read, and that really, when you think about it, always already surround them, seems to me more and more, the best way to help students understand, really, what plagiarism is all about.

I’m not sure how feasible it actually is, in a paper that’s not first & foremost a writing paper, to help all students find their ‘voice’. (Nor am I sure that all academics would view it as part of their role to do so.) And I definitely agree with Jonathan Bailey that the ultimate responsibility for plagiarism does rest with the student. But – as he says – teachers can do a lot both to educate students about academic integrity and to minimise the temptation and the pressure to plagiarise. For example, the pressures involved around large high-stakes assignments may make a spot of cheating look more attractive. Bailey lists the following steps to reduce plagiarism’s allure (but also reminds us that the problem’s never going to go away completely):

  1. Educate on Plagiarism: Teach students clearly what it is and how to avoid it. Discuss plagiarism openly and without scare tactics.

  2. Craft Plagiarism-Resistant Assignments: Use prompts that can’t be Googled, require multiple drafts and include in-class portions when possible.

  3. Connect With Students: Offer to help and give students the support they need so they are confident they can complete the assignment.

  4. Forgive Mistakes: Understand that mistakes happen and treat them as chances to teach, not discipline.

  5. Discipline Fairly: Those who clearly are trying to cheat should be disciplined fairly and strongly as appropriate.

Which makes me feel that we’re doing something right, in my first-year papers. (It also reminds me how frustrated I get to see the same questions pop up in tests and exams, year after year. What do people expect?!)

March 31, 2014

paying it forward

Over the last few weeks I’ve been mentoring a colleague from another institution, helping put together their portfolio for the 2014 Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards nominations. It’s been a huge amount of work for them, given the need to encapsulate how they meet the award criteria in a total of 8000 words.

At first this looks an unreachable target, but then once you start writing notes and accumulating statements in support, then the problem becomes how to cut the thing down to size. And many people also find it really hard to write about themselves: it sounds like blowing your own trumpet & that can be a difficult thing to do. (Having said that, I know I looked my own finished portfolio & thought, wow! do I really do all that? It was quite affirming, plus the constant reflection was great for my teaching practice.)

So, it was a lot of work for my colleague, who wrote and edited many drafts, solicited supporting comments from students and colleagues, decided on a ‘theme’ to tie it all together, found suitable images – and all the while also carried their usual demanding teaching & admin roles. (I suspect the research may have taken a back seat for a while.) The end result: fascinating reading on a number of levels and a record of excellent teaching in practice (regardless of what happens in the TTEA stakes).

And on the other end of email & phone, I read those drafts, offered other possibilities for investigation/inclusion, proposed many edits (both large & small), found the occasional image, and suggested cuts – you reach a point where you’ve so much personal investment in what you’ve written that you just can’t bear the prospect of removing anything, no matter how the word limit looms over you**.

Yes, that took quite a bit of time at my end too, & I’ve had other colleagues at my institution asking why on earth I would want to take on such a task. But you see, I believe in paying forward: having won one of these awards myself, I feel that I should share what I’ve learned from the process and to help others with tasks like this.

And I’ve made a new friend as well!

 

**(I gather I also provided a calming influence :)  It’s been a great learning experience for me too, as I’ve learned about the cool things someone else is doing to enhance their teaching & their students’ learning experiences.)

March 12, 2014

teaching plant life cycles – trying a different approach

For whatever reason, I find that many students seem to struggle when it comes to learning about plant life cycles. The whole sporophyte/gametophyte, meiosis/mitosis thing really gets them – & that’s even before we start looking at how the life cycle is modified in different groups of plants. Yes, the textbook has lots of diagrams & yes, I’ve always started simple & worked on from there, with opportunity for plenty of questions, but still there are those for whom the topic fails to click. (Not to mention the lecturers in third-year classes, asking whether we really teach this stuff in first-year.) This year the issue’s become even more of a challenge, given that about 2/3 of my large-ish (N>200) didn’t study plants in year 12 at school.

So this year I wondered if it would help if I drew a really basic cycle on the board, as preparation for a more detailed session in the next lecture. I do this in tuts anyway, but not everyone comes to those… And because I use panopto for recording lectures, I needed to think about the best way to do it, because while there are whiteboards in the lecture room they are non-interactive, & the camera doesn’t do a good job of picking up things on a ‘normal’ board. And this is where having a tablet (not an iPad this time; it’s too frustrating when mine won’t communicate properly with the lecture theatre software) comes into it.

This is because, once the tablet’s hooked up to the lecture room system, then anything I might write on its screen (with my spiffy little stylus) is recorded via panopto. And so I left blank slides in my presentation, & drew all over them when we got to that stage, cute little frogs & everything :) (Why frogs? Because we started off with drawing an outline of an animal life cycle, slotting in meiosis & fertilisation, haploid & diploid – with the opportunity to expand on what those terms might mean – before going on to drawing alternation of generations in a very general sense.

Which sounds fine in practice, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, now that I’ve gone & checked the recording, I see that the material on my tablet DIDN’T make it across to panopto, which is downright annoying & obviously I’ve stuffed up somewhere. OK, everyone in the lecture theatre got the benefit of that experience, but those who weren’t, didn’t :( And part of the reason for doing the recordings, is that those who’ve got lecture clashes can catch up later. Mutter mutter mutter.

However, all is not lost. I’m staying later at work for an evening event, so I’ll do a re-record once I can get into a free lecture theatre.

All part of the learning curve – as is the anonymised ‘feedback’ thread I’ve set up on our Moodle page. If the technique helped most students understand the concept of alternation of generations, then I’ll work on doing it better. If it didn’t, well, I guess I need to go back to the drawing board.

February 16, 2014

presenting on plants at WCeLfest

This post was first published on my ‘other’ blog.

For the last few years our Centre for e-Learning has run WCeLfest – a day of presentations & discussion around using various technology tools to enhance teaching & learning. I always find these sessions very valuable as there are a lot of people doing some really interesting things in their classrooms, & there’s always something new to learn & try out myself. I offered to run a session myself this year, which is what I’m going to talk about here, but I was also asked to be on the panel for a discussion around what universities might look like in the future, and that was heaps of fun too.

My WCeLfest session was billed as a workshop, so to kick things off I explained that the attendees were going to experience being in what is effectively a ‘flipped’ class, getting the students’ perspective, and why I’d developed the class in the way that I had. (I added that feedback on that experience was welcome!) I think there was one biologist in the room, so for most of those present the things they’d be doing would be just as novel as they will be for many of my students.

First, my ‘class’ got some extra background information. If previous years are anything to go by, then about a third of the students in my first-year biology class won’t have studied the year 12 Achievement Standards related to plants1. This always poses something of a challenge as we run the ‘plants’ part of the paper first, flowers & fruit being readily available in late summer (& I doubt things would be different if we taught it later in the paper). So I’m always thinking about improved ways to bridge students into the subject without boring those who have a reasonable background in things botanical.

The first lecture looks at what plants are & why they’re important, both ecologically & in terms of human history. For the last 2-3 years I’ve used an active learning exercise, putting up a graph on changes in atmospheric oxygen over the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s existence and asking the students to interpret and discuss the information it shows. But, using the same graph with a different group of learners, I realised that some of my students might not even know what photosynthesis entails, which would rather destroy the purpose of that part of the class.

So this year, they’re getting homework for the night before: this video. And at WCeLfest, we watched it together.

As you’ll have seen, there are a few, very basic, questions at the end of the video, but we stopped the video before reaching the quiz & instead briefly discussed and answered each question in groups, plus there were some additional queries, which was great. The original set of questions reinforce the basic concepts & give those students who were unfamiliar with them a bit of confidence that they’re prepared for the next step.

Now, for my ‘real’ class I’ll be showing an additional, more complex video, but for this shorter session we just moved on to the data interpretation.

Again, I explained the rationale behind this part of the session. I’d decided to do this exercise with my first-year students for a couple of reasons: firstly, to break up the class and get them actively engaged in the learning process; and secondly, to give practice in the process skills needed to interpret information provided in graphical form. The question they needed to address, using their knowledge from the video and the data in the graph, was: without plants, life as we know it wouldn’t have evolved in the first place. Why not?

O2 concn over time.png

As I do in my normal classes, while the class split into groups to come up with an answer, I circulated between those groups2 in order to hear what was going on & field any additional questions. “What was the atmosphere made of before photosynthesis began?” was one, which led to a brief consideration of how the Earth formed. And I needed to explain oxidised/oxidation, as well. This was a really valuable process for me as it’s highlighted a couple of areas where I need to do a little more background work with my first-years.

A quick summary of the class discussion: the ‘oxidation’ part is important because that’s how we know when oxygen generation began – iron-rich rocks began to rust. It wasn’t until the exposed rocks had been oxidised and the ocean had become saturated with oxygen, that oxygen began to be released into the atmosphere, as evidenced by more oxidised rock. As O2 accumulated in the atmosphere, the ozone layer formed, offering protection from the sun’s UV radiation & allowing living things to move onto the land.

And we finished with a quick look at the ‘design-an-organism’ class that I’ve previously blogged about.

The feedback was very positive, with several people saying that they could see how they might use the flipped classroom technique in their own teaching. It was also lovely to hear someone say that they’d got a bit worried when they realised we’d be talking science, but that they’d really enjoyed the experience and learned some new things along the way. And I’d learned ways to improve the exercise, so the enjoyment & learning were mutual

1 These are AS91155 Demonstrate understanding of adaptation of plants or animals to their way of life, and AS91156 Demonstrate understanding of life processes at the cellular level. You’ll find them here on the NZQA website.

2 In my ideal class3 there’d be an ‘aisle’ between every 2 rows of seating, to allow teachers/facilitators to move more freely among the students.

3 I can dream, can’t I?

February 11, 2014

musings on moocs

I’ve had a few conversations lately around the topic of Massive Open On-line Courses (or MOOCs). These fully on-line courses, which typically have very high enrolments, have become widely available from overseas providers (my own institution recently developed and ran the first such course in New Zealand, which I see is available again this year). If I had time I’d probably do the occasional one for interest (this one on epigenetics caught my eye).

Sometimes the conversations include the question of whether, and how much, MOOCs might contribute to what’s generally known as the ‘universities of the future’. This has always puzzled me a bit, as in their current incarnation most MOOCs don’t carry credit (there are exceptions), so don’t contribute to an actual degree program; they would seem to work better as ‘tasters’ – a means for people to see what a university might have to offer. Depending on their quality, they could also work to encourage young people into becoming more independent learners, regardless of whether they went on to a university – there’s an interesting essay on this issue here. So I thought it would be interesting to look a bit more closely.

Despite the fact that these courses haven’t been around all that long, there’s already quite a bit published about them, including a systematic review of the literature covering the period 2008-2012 by Liyanagunawardena, Adams, & Williams (2013), and a rather entertaining and somewhat sceptical 2013 presentation by Sir John Daniel, (based largely on this 2012 paper).

The term MOOC has only been in use since 2008, when it was first coined for a course offered by the University of Manitoba, Canada (Lianagunawardena et al, 2013). Daniel comments that the philosophy behind early courses like this was one of ‘connectiveness’, such that resources were freely available to anyone, with learning shared by all those in the course. This was underpinned by the use of RSS feeds, Moodle discussions, blogs, Second Life, & on-line meetings. He characterises ‘modern’ MOOCs as bearing little relation, in their educational philosophy, to these early programs, viewing programs offered by major US universities as

basically learning resources with some computerised feedback. In terms of pedagogy their quality varies widely, from very poor to OK.

Part of the problem here lies with the extremely large enrolments in today’s MOOCs, whereas those early courses were small enough that some semi-individualised interactions between students and educators were possible. Unfortunately the combination of variable pedagogy plus little in the way of real interpersonal interactions in these huge classes also sees them with very high drop-out rates: Liyanawardena and her colleagues note that the average completion rate is less than 10% of those beginning a course, with the highest being 19.2% for a Coursera offering.

Daniel offers some good advice to those considering setting up MOOCs of their own, given that currently – in his estimation – there are as yet no good business models available for these courses. Firstly: don’t rush into it just because others are. Secondly,

have a university-wide discussion on why you might offer a MOOC or MOOCs and use it to develop a MOOC strategy. The discussion should involve all staff members who might be involved in or affected by the offering of a MOOC.

His third point: ensure that any MOOC initiatives are fully integrated into your University’s strategy for online learning (my emphasis). To me this is an absolute imperative – sort the on-line learning strategy first, & then consider how MOOCs might contribute to this. (Having said that, I notice that the 2014 NMC Horizon report on higher education, by Johnson et al.,  sees these massive open on-line courses as in competition with the universities, rather than complementary to their on-campus and on-line for-credit offerings. And many thanks to Michael Edmonds for the heads-up on this paper.)

This is in fact true for anything to do with moving into the ‘universities of the future space (with or without MOOCs). Any strategy for online learning must surely consider resourcing: provision not only of the hardware, software, and facilities needed to properly deliver a ‘blended’ curriculum that may combine both face-to-face and on-line delivery, but also of the professional development needed to ensure that educators have the pedagogical knowledge and skills to deliver excellent learning experiences and outcomes in what for most of us is a novel environment. For there’s far more to offering a good on-line program than simply putting the usual materials up on a web page. A good blended learning (hybrid) system must be flexible, for example; it must suit

the interests and desires of students, who are able to choose how they attend lecture – from the comfort of their home, or face-to-face with their teachers. Additionally, … students [feel] the instructional technology [makes] the subject more interesting, and increase[s] their understanding, as well as encourag[ing] their participation… (Johnson et al., 2014).

This is something that is more likely to encourage the sort of critical thinking and deep learning approaches that we would all like to see in our students.

Furthermore, as part of that hybridisation, social media are increasingly likely to be used in learning experiences as well as for the more established patterns of social communication and entertainment (eg Twitter as a micro-blogging tool: Liyanagunawardena et al., 2013). In fact, ‘external’ communications (ie outside of learning management systems such as Moodle) are likely to become more significant as a means of supporting learner groups in this new environment – this is something I’m already seeing with the use of Facebook for class discussions and sharing of ideas and resources. Of course, this also places demands on educators:

Understanding how social media can be leveraged for social learning is a key skill for teachers, and teacher training programs are increasingly being expected to include this skill. Understanding how social media can be leveraged for social learning is a key skill for teachers, and teacher training programs are increasingly being expected to include this skill. (Johnson et al., 2014).

There is also a need, in any blended learning system, to ensure skilled moderation of forums and other forms of on-line engagement, along with policies to ensure privacy is maintained and bullying and other forms of unacceptable behaviour are avoided or nipped in the bud (Liyanawardena et al. 2013; Johnson et al., 2014). And of course there’s the issue of flipped classrooms, something that the use of these technologies really encourages but which very few teaching staff have any experience of.

Another issue examined by Liyanagunawardena and her colleagues, in their review of the MOOC literature, is that of digital ‘natives': are our students really able to use new learning technologies in the ways that we fondly imagine they can? This is a question that applies just as well to the hybrid learning model of ‘universities of the future’. In one recent study cited by the team, researchers found that of all the active participants in a particular MOOC, only one had never been involved in other such courses. This begs the question of “whether a learner has to learn how to learn” in the digital, on-line environment. (Certainly, I’ve found I need to show students how to download podcasts of lectures, something I’d naively believed that they would know how to do better than I!) In other words, any planning for blended delivery must allow for helping learners, as well as teachers, to become fluent in the new technologies on offer.

We live in interesting times.

And I would love to hear from any readers who have experience in this sort of learning environment.

T.R.Liyanagunawardena, A.A.Adams & S.A.Williams (2013) MOOCs: a systematic study of the published literature 2008-2012. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 14(3): 202-227

L.Johnson, S.Adams Becker, V.Estrada, & A.Freeman (2014) NMC HOrizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas. The New Media Consortium. ISBN 978-0-9897335-5-7

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