Talking Teaching

October 29, 2014

reflections on e-teaching and e-learning

Dear readers – what follows is a much longer post than I would normally write (& yes, at times I write some quite extensive posts!). This is because the current post constitutes my ‘portfolio’ to support nominations from my students for an e-learning award offered by my institution. I decided to write the portfolio in this form because blogging is a medium that I feel comfortable writing in, & because it’s so easy to add hyperlinks, files etc. (Consequently many of the links lead to my own reflective writing elsewhere on this blog, and to presentations I’ve given.) Plus I would really very much value feedback & comments – I don’t regard myself as anything approaching an expert (or even a journeyman) in this field and I know that my future practice will benefit from your insights.

That said, please do read on!

Technologies such as Moodle, panopto, AdobeConnect & the like allow access to learning opportunities  in a much more flexible way than the ‘traditional’ university environment, and this is going to become more and more important in the future as student demographics change. For example, as the number of people in the  18-25 age group continues to decline while the 50+ cohort continues to grow, then we will need to offer education to ‘non-traditional’ students and in ‘non-traditional’ ways. From an institutional perspective, using learning technologies in an interactive way can also help to ensure that we enhance retention and meet graduate profiles. For example, the graduate profile for our BSc says that students can communicate using a range of methods including multi-media (which includes web-based resources and activities), can work cooperatively, and have the skills necessary for self-directed learning: acquisition of all these attributes (plus the more usual acquisition-of-knowledge outcomes) can be supported by learning technologies, particularly those that are interactive.

So then, what does this look like in the context of my own teaching practice? I know some people see me as an ‘early adopter’ of classroom technologies like these, but on reflection I think my activities in this area have grown organically – much like my teaching career, I suppose.

RELECTIONS ON APPLYING TECHNOLOGY TO TEACHING & LEARNING

Moodle and Facebook: 

Alison is constantly introducing new ways for us to learn through technology. From educational videos and other resources on Moodle to an accessible Facebook forum for students to share their own passion for biology, she has been experimenting successfully with the digital resources available to teachers at the University of Waikato.

Great at technology, innovative ideas (eg facebook page for 101)

Very helpful both during lectures and tutorials. Very active on Moodle, promptly responds to forum questions, has created a Facebook page for the paper.

(Student nominations, 2014 e-learning award)

I’ve used Moodle ever since it became available: paper outlines, study guide notes, powerpoints of lectures, assessment materials, quizzes, discussion forums, useful links & readings  – it’s all there. Once panopto came on-stream, links to lecture recordings went up on moodle as well, thanks to the WCeL wizards. I’ve always encouraged students to ask questions, join discussions, and post materials on Moodle (I have colleagues who’d rather receive individual emails but honestly! why answer the same question multiple times?) but interestingly, it was the first-year students who were most active in doing this.

However, in the last couple of years I’ve seen this activity drop right off, and it’s been something of a concern. Being asked for feedback on Moodle as part of the University’s process of identifying a new student management system really made me reflect more closely on this, partly in light of my own use of other on-line communities (not least of them, Facebook). From talking with students I gained the impression that moodle can be very ‘clunky’: it takes at least a couple of steps to arrive at a resource, whereas on FB links are right there and obvious. The students complained that they were continually having to log in to moodle during the day, in contrast to remaining logged in on FB, and that they preferred the FB notification system. This got me thinking about how best to use this as an additional way of supporting my students’ learning and increasing their engagement. (This is not to say that they don’t use Moodle: a recent survey I carried out with our 2nd-year students shows that they clearly do – but they just don’t engage to any great extent.)

There’s a lot of literature available now about using Facebook to support teaching and learning. Fittingly, I was introduced to some of it through the Ako Aotearoa Academy FB page that I administer, but I’ve since talked more widely about it with colleagues at other institutions and started delving more deeply into recent publications; for example, Dougherty & Andercheck, 2014 (my reflections on that paper are here), and Kent & Leaver’s 2014 e-book, “An education in Facebook?”. And I sounded out my students, who were extremely positive about the idea. The result: we have a Facebook page for the first-year biology class, where they regularly post material & start discussions, and where I post course information and questions or polls (all mirrored on our Moodle page), along with links to other, science-based, FB pages.

BIOL101 student post

BIOL101 2nd student post

My thoughts after a semester? Yes, it’s a bit of additional work, because notices, polls and so on must be posted in two places rather than one, and because there’s the need to interact with other posters. It would be good to see more students there – at present just over half the class is present and at least observing on FB - but (and it’s a big ‘but’), commenters are far more lively and engaged than on Moodle, which seems to be reserved for ‘serious’ questions. That engagement is important, as it contributes to enjoyment and performance. Plus there’s also evidence that engagement (or lack thereof) with study, with teachers, and with the institution – can affect student retention.

As an aside, the lack of ‘personal’ feel to many MOOCs is a shortcoming of this method of content delivery; as the author of this blog post has said,

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.

We have to ensure we deliver that personal touch!

Anyway, next year I’ll be more systematic about my use of Facebook in relation to my teaching, in the sense of examining whether there is any correlation between use of the page and academic outcomes. And I’ll use tools like ‘question of the week’ – on both Moodle and FB – to try to lift engagement further.

Panopto

I leaped early into the panopto pool, and I’ve been splashing around in it ever since

Incorporates technology. Records every lecture for panopto and makes good use of moodle.

regular and helpful facebook user. encourages students to get involved in various online activities.

(Student nominations, 2014 e-learning award)

Panopto’s a tool for capturing classroom teaching and making it available on-line for students to access whenever they please. I first became aware of it when the University was gearing up for its i-TunesU presence, and decided that the technology had a lot to offer me and my students as a tool to enhance teaching and learning practices. (I am definitely not a fan of technology for technology’s sake – it needs to have a pedagogical benefit.) And I’ve been using it ever since – for lectures, for podcasts, for catching up when I’ve had to cancel a lecture due to illness. I promote it whenever I get the chance, in tearoom conversation but also at conferences and symposia (e.g. Fun with panopto). (I also use it to review and reflect on my own classroom performance; the recordings are really useful when considering whether something could have been better communicated, although they are certainly unforgiving when it comes to things like mannerisms and use of voice!)

Students certainly value this technology. It gives them the flexibility to balance workloads, manage lecture clashes, revise for tests and exams, and to be absent due to illness or family commitments. Of course, it also gives them the ability to simply skip class and promise themselves that they can catch up later, something the literature shows doesn’t necessarily happen. I believe that we (academics) need to be more forthright in communicating with students around this, but that’s not to say that we should reduce our use of lecture recordings!

Able to pause and go over things i don’t understand. Can also do them in my own time.

For me, Panopto is most valuable during study week for revisiting explanations rather than for catching up on missed lectures.

Usually if I don’t watch an entire lecture on panopto it was because I preferred the text-book or other material to the lecturer’s style of teaching, or because the lecture recording failed, or because I listened to the lecture on podcast.

(2014 student feedback via surveymonkey)

There’s a lot more to lecture recordings than this. They can be used for ‘catch-up’ snippets – recordings of the slides at the end of the lecture that you didn’t get to because there were concepts that needed additional explanations. But panopto also supports more active learning techniques such as flip teaching, where a lecturer can prepare a short recording for students to watch ahead of class, and the actual classroom time is used for group discussions and problem-solving. For a couple of years now I’ve been running ‘Design-an-animal/Design-a-plant’ classes (described in the previous link) to consolidate student learning in a fun and cooperative way, during the A semester.

(2013 student feedback: Aspects of the paper that should be maintained)

The design a plant exercise. This exercise ties the knowledge we have acquired in past weeks, producing a
comprehensive well developed understanding of the adaptations and functions of different plants

the “designing a plant” was a great activity that was very interesting and exciting

the flip class which was really fun.

And in the B semester this year we had a session on DNA technology, where the class decided they’d like to hear more about GMOs: I provided short explanatory clips on gene cloning and PCR & DNA sequencing for them to watch ahead of time, so that we could spend the ‘lecture’ on discussion (and a very wide-ranging discussion it proved to be!).

Furthermore, techniques like this have a clear and significant positive effect on student learning (eg Deslauriers, Schelew, & Wieman, 2011)Haak, HilleRisLambers, Pitre, & Freeman, 2011) and we need to encourage their wider use as we reshape ourselves as a true ‘university of the future’.

 

REFLECTIONS ON SUPPORTING LEARNERS

Educators aren’t just using techniques like this simply because the technology has become available. There have to be positive outcomes for the students. I touched on some of these at the beginning of this post, in the context of ensuring that students have gained the attributes we describe in our graduate profiles.

However, another big plus for digital learning technologies is the way in which they allow us to meet the different learning needs of students. (I’m inclined to agree with the author of this post regarding different learning styles, mind you.) For example:

  • They really open up the options for students for whom work commitments, or geographical isolation, mean that they can’t attend classes in the ‘normal’ university hours.
  • For all students, the ready availability of lecture recordings means that they can review a class, or part thereof, as often as they need in order to gain understanding of concepts and information.
  • Students who are ill, or have lecture clashes, or sudden family commitments, don’t have to stress too much about missing classes (but see the following paragraph :) )
  • The fact that recordings are downloadable as mp4 files means that students can use them pretty much where & when they choose – on the bus, perhaps, or sitting in a comfy chair at home.
  • It’s easy to incorporate video clips, or even music (albeit with a scientific message) into classes. This opens up a whole new range of resources to use with our students (and breaks up the ‘lecture’ format, re-energising the classroom). This has occasioned some ‘interesting’ discussions over the use of such material from other institutions: it’s not “our” learning material, and students should be seeing our resources and ideas. This is true, but why re-invent the wheel? If an excellent resource exists, then use it! – and enhance the role of facilitator of learning, rather than simply someone delivering facts.
  • Technologies also empower students in ways that we might not always consider – for example, setting up a Moodle discussion forum for anonymous use means that someone who might be too shy to speak up in the lecture theatre can ask their questions, & make comments, in a less-threatening environment.
  • And having just attended a session on the use of AdobeConnect, I can see (& will make use of) the potential in being able to set up a ‘virtual’ pre-exam tutorial, synchronous with an actual class, for students who can’t make it onto campus for that particular session: they can see & hear what’s going on & ask questions of their own, for example. (It looks like panopto on steroids so I will admit that I’m left wondering what will happen to the latter in the future.)

I feel very strongly, however, that while we definitely need to provide learning opportunities for academic staff around learning technologies, we also need to educate students around their use. Despite the frequent use of the term ‘digital natives’ in discussion around our students and e-learning, the description really doesn’t fit our current cohort particularly well, and there’s a very interesting discussion of the term here. (It may be another story when the current crop of under-5s reach tertiary classrooms as many of them have truly grown up immersed in and using on-line technologies. And having said that, we also need to remember that there remain sectors of society who simply cannot afford to access the hardware to enable such learning. How do we enable them?) This means walking the class through what’s available on moodle, for example, or how to download an mp4 file of a panopto recording. But it also means discussing with our students - very early on in the piece – the perils and pitfalls of relying on recordings as an alternative to actually being in class eg the frightening ease with which you can fall behind in watching lectures after the event. This should be done with all first-year classes: many of this cohort have difficulty adapting to the different requirements, expectations, and learning environments of the tertiary system as it is and, lacking time management skills, can very easily fall off the wagon – something that has implications for both completion and retention.

She is very helpful and she knows her topic well. Very organised and goes beyond her duty to make sure students are getting everything in order to succeed. 
 
I think she is a really great lecturer and has used a range of different tools to help us learn in her lectures such as a drawing tool on the computer and has also created a Facebook page for BIOL102 to make it more interactive and fun to learn for everyone enrolled in the paper.
 
She is a really great lecturer, who makes a lot of effort to ensure her students get all the information they need to learn about what she is teaching. she also takes the time to make sure that students questions are answered, and always keeps in mind that because students have different learning levels, that she gives all the information required. 
Demonstrates a real passion for what she teaches. 
(Student nominations, 2014 e-learning award)

e-LEARNING & PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

As I said earlier, I definitely don’t see myself as an expert in this field! This means that I frequently reflect on my classroom practice and the things I’ve learned (the focus of many of the posts here on Talking Teaching!), and I take advantage of professional development opportunities as often as I can. In the past I’ve attended quite a few workshops on various aspects of Moodle (and the on-line support materials are very useful too; thanks, WCeL team!). The university’s Teaching Development staff run regular Teaching Network sessions, where participants learn from each other on a whole range of teaching-related issues, & I go to these at every available opportunity. The most recent session, by Alan Levine, introduced the idea of pechaflickr as a tool for engagement and for learning, and that’s led me to think about using a pechaflickr session in tutorials, as a fun change of pace but also of a means of checking understanding of particular concepts. Definitely one for next year.

Sharing is good. And so I promote these technologies when I get the chance :) This year I facilitated a session on flip teaching at our annual WCeLfest (where I gained a lot from the participants’ feedback), but was also invited to take part as a panellist in a discussion of what our university might look like in a future where distance and blended learning make much more use of digital learning & teaching technologies. And I’ve previously shared their application at other conferences – in a 2013 discussion around how teachers’ roles are changing from disseminators of facts to facilitators of learning, for example. In addition, I led a discussion about MOOCs at a UoW Council planning day earlier this year, which also formed the basis of this particular post.

Learning technologies also have huge potential in terms of outreach to the wider community. For example, since 2005 I’ve been running Scholarship Biology preparation days for students - and their teachers – preparing for the Scholarship Biology examinations, which has involved travelling to deliver sessions in the Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, Auckland and Hawkes Bay, as well as in Hamilton itself. (I also write another blog, originally intended to support these students and still containing a considerable amount of material that’s useful to them and their teachers.) But these face-to-face sessions are one-offs, as it were, so this year I decided to set up a Facebook page so that interactions and support could continue. Feedback from the teachers is very positive. Sadly,  the students have not been so engaged on the page,  although the teachers tell me their students are definitely using material from the page in class,  which is a great outcome from my perspective. I’ll leave this one up and running and hopefully, as resources build up and teachers encourage their students to use it from the beginning of the year, we’ll start to see some more active student participation. I can also see the value in using AdobeConnect to run occasional virtual tutorials for this far-flung group of students – it would be particularly valuable for those students who are the only one at their particular school sitting this exam, as they’d get the opportunity to interact with others (&, if I can work out how to set it up!) work cooperatively with them to solve problems in an on-line active-learning world.

Schol Bio FB feedback

 

 If you’ve read this far – thank you for staying with me :) I appreciate your company on what is for me a continuing journey of self-reflection and learning around my teaching practice. I’ll be grateful for your feedback – and I do so hope you don’t feel you’d have been better off sitting at home in your bunny slippers :)

best wishes, Alison

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 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

February 7, 2014

not science as I know it

This was first posted on my ‘other’ blog :)

By accident,  I came across the curriculum document for Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) which provides teaching & learning materials to parents who are homeschooling their children. New Zealand students who complete the program right  to year 13 gain university entrance.

Home Schooling NZ gives parents advice about the ACE program, but makes it clear that HSNZ does not work for Accelerated Christian Education or sell their teaching & assessment materials.  However, I was startled to see the following listed by HSNZ as one of the ‘distinctives’ [sic] of the ACE program:

Each student is taught from a biblical perspective developing critical thinking skills that will enable them to discern what is truly “…the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2)

Having had a fair bit to do with the development of the Science section of the current national curriculum document, specifically, the Living World component, I was naturally interested in seeing how ACE handles a science curriculum. The answer is, poorly.

In fact, I feel that it’s most unfortunate that the ACE science program is officially recognised here, given statements such as this from Sir Peter Gluckman (the PM’s Chief Science Advisor) about the importance of science and science education. For example, from the curriculum overview material for grade 1 students we learn that students will

  • [pronounce and learn] new vocabulary words as they are defined and used in the text
  • [discover] God’s wisdom as he1 learns about God creating Earth…
  • [learn] about the design and care of the human eye and ear; high, low, soft and loud sounds.
  • [learn] about the importance of personal health – clean teeth and hands.
  • [gain] a respect for God as he learns about God’s wisdom, goodness, kindness, and that all things belong to God.
  • [read] stories and answer questions about God’s creation.
  • [continue] to build eye-hand coordination by drawing shapes, irregular shapes, and directional lines.

That’s it.

In contrast, the New Zealand Curriculum document has a number of subject-specific achievement aims for students at this level, in addition to those relating specifically to the nature of science. For example, students in their first year or two of primary school should

  • Learn about science as a knowledge system: the features of scientific knowledge and the processes by which it is developed; and learn about the ways in which the work of scientists interacts with society.
  • Appreciate that scientists ask questions about our world that lead to investigations and that open-mindedness is important because there may be more than one explanation.
  • Explore and act on issues and questions that link their science learning to their daily living.

Remember, that’s in addition to the achievement aims for biology (Living World), chemistry (Material World), earth sciences (Planet Earth & Beyond). and physics (Physical World).

And so it continues. I mean, how could this (from the ACE objectives for Grade 3) be construed as science by anyone assessing the document?

Studies Bible topics such as Jesus’ return; sin, death, and the curse; man’s freedom to choose to love and obey God.

Or this?

Discovers the Bible to be the final authority in scientific matters.

Science, it ain’t. It would appear that helping students to gain and enhance critical thinking skills isn’t on the curriculum either – after all, teaching students to look to authority for the answers runs completely counter to encouraging critical thinking and teaching students how to weigh up evidence.

While I haven’t read all the PACEs available for the curriculum, partly because I am not going to buy them in order to do so, I have read through the samples available on line. Among other things, the materials I viewed encouraged rote learning rather than deep, meaningful understanding of a subject – a long way indeed from current best-practice models of teaching & learning.

However, others have read ACE’s PACE documents, & have been extremely critical of them. The Times Education Supplement, for example, was startled to find that ACE materials available in 1995 contained the claim that the Loch Ness Monster has been reliably identified and seems to be a plesiosaur. (It seems this reference has since been removed from new textbooks published in Europe.)

The TES also addressed some rather trenchant comments to the UK educational body responsible for giving the ACE curriculum equivalent status to O and A level examinations. Perhaps the NZ equivalent of that body should give the ACE documents a closer second look.

 

1 No female pronouns used, that I could see. (No room for female scientists in this curriculum, either – students are introduced to ‘early men in science’.)

 

January 21, 2014

teaching laboratories – the shape of things to come?

A quick post from notes I took during another talk at the Ako Aotearoa Symposium last December: this was an exciting presention on the changing form of teaching laboratories, by Ken Collins and Joanne Kelly from Labworks Architecture (another colleague also mentioned this session, in her own post on the day’s proceedings).  Ken & Joanne began by noting that lab spaces are used for students to gain and enhance a range of skills: critical thinking, developing solutions to problems, working collaboratively, practising practical skills. ‘Traditional’ lab spaces don’t really accomodate all this, they said, & went on to explain why & to share with us some of the solutions they’ve developed for various clients.

Their focus was on the links between space, technology, and pedagogy (something that’s been missing in most of the labs I’ve taught in, where the technology’s been retrofitted as need and funding dictate). Having more flexible spaces encourages pedagogy, which in turn is enabled by space. Pedagogy is enhanced by technology, which will also place demands on space – after all, if you’re using computer screens to show things, you want to be in a room where all students have a clear line of sight to the sceens. In other words, a modern teaching space embeds technology, which of course extends how we use the space. (I see this a lot in the way our wonderful first-year tutor delivers our lab classes, retrofitted technology & all.)

More & more, this is equally true for how we use lecture/tutorial spaces.

‘Old-style’ learning spaces have always tended to focus on the perceived needs of the teacher, & to support highly structured, teacher-led, ‘instructional’ (didactic) learning experiences. Joanne & Ken believe – & I think most of those who attended their presentation would agree – that these days, in a modern classroom, about 15% of lab-room learning would be teacher-led. Of the remainder around would see students collaborating on various investigations 75% – ie there’s much more collaborative problem-solving, which realistically is how many workplaces operate anyway – and the remaining time is given over to small- & large-group discussion & feedback. It’s arguable whether that’s best done in a lab, & so the presenters showed classrooms they’ve designed where glass doors separate formal lab space from breakout spaces. I immediately added that to my mental ‘I’d really like this for our students’ list :)

They concluded by asking us to think about classroom space in general. We’re already seeing a move from libraries as study environment to ‘hubs’, with individual work spaces alongside commons, cafes, and alcoves where people can chill out or just sit for a quiet discussion. What will the future be like, as we continue down this road? (More virtual reality, perhaps? At a previous symposium we heard about the use of ‘virtual labs’, for example, via Second Life, allowing students to practice lab skills & protocols before actually coming into the real-world lab.) Certainly any changes should allow & support innovative practice in teaching & learning; for example, new lecture theatres could be low-pitched rather than steep, with room to move between rows, & thoroughly technology-enabled.

I’ll have to make sure these options are on the table, when the time for lab refurbishment rolls round.

December 12, 2013

Evaluating teaching the hard-nosed numbers way

[This is a copy of a post on my blog PhysicsStop, sci.waikato.ac.nz/physicsstop, 10 December 2013]

Recently there’s been a bit of discussion in our Faculty on how to get a reliable evaluation of people’s teaching. The traditional approach is with the appraisal. At the end of each paper the students get to answer various questions on the teacher’s performance on a five-point Likert Scale (i.e. ‘Always’, ‘Usually’, ‘Sometimes’, ‘Seldom’, ‘Never’.)  For example: “The teacher made it clear what they expected of me.” The response ‘Always’ is given a score of 1, ‘Usually’ is given 2, down to ‘Never’ which is given a score of 5. An averaged response of the questions across students gives some measure of teaching success – ranging in theory from 1.0 (perfect) through to 5.0 (which we really, really don’t want to see happening).

We’ve also got a general question – “Overall, this teacher was effective”. This is also given a score on the same scale.

A question that’s been raised is: Does the “Overall, this teacher was effective” score correlate well with the average of the others?

I’ve been teaching for several years now, and have a whole heap of data to draw from. So, I’ve been analyzing it (for 2008 onwards), and, in the interests of transparency, I’m happy for people to see it.  For myself, the question of “does a single ‘overall’ question get a similar mark to the averaged response of the other questions?” is a clear yes. The graph below shows the two scores plotted against each other, for different papers that I have taught. For some papers I’ve had a perfect score – 1.0 by every student for every question. For a couple scores have been dismall (above 2 on average):

Capture1.JPG

What does this mean? That’s a good question. Maybe it’s simply that a single question is as good as a multitude of questions if all we are going to do is to take the average of something. More interesting is to look at each question in turn. The questions start with “the teacher…” and then carry on as in the chart below, which shows the responses I’ve had averaged over papers and years.
Capture2.JPG
Remember, low scores are good. And what does this tell me? Probably not much that I don’t already know. For example, anecdotally at any rate, the question “The teacher gave me helpful feedback” is a question for which many lecturers get their poorest scores (highest numbers). This may well be because students don’t realize they are getting feedback. I have colleagues who, when they give oral feedback, will prefix what they say with “I am now giving you feedback on how you have done” so that it’s recognized for what it is.
So, another question. How much have I improved in recent years? Surely I am a better teacher now than what I was in 2008. I really believe that I am. So my scores should be heading towards 1.  Well, um, maybe not. Here they are. There are two lines – the blue line is the response to the question ‘Overall, this teacher was effective’, averaged over all the papers I took in a given year; the red line is the average of the other questions, averaged over all the papers. The red line closely tracks the blue – this shows the same effect as seen on the first graph. The two correlate well.
Capture3.JPG
So what’s happening. I did something well around 2010 but since then it’s gone backwards (with a bit of a gain this year – though not all of this year’s data has been returned to me yet). There are a couple of comments to make. In 2010 I started on a Post Graduate Certificate of Tertiary Teaching. I put a lot of effort into this. There were a couple of major tasks that I did that were targeted at implementing and assessing a teaching intervention to improve student performance. I finished the PGCert in 2011. That seems to have helped with my scores, in 2010 at least. A quick peruse of my CV, however, will tell you that this came at the expense of research outputs. Not a lot of research was going on in my office or lab during that time.  And what happened in 2012? I had a period of study leave (hooray for research outputs!) followed immediately by a period of parental leave. Unfortunately, I had the same amount of teaching to do and that got squashed into the rest of the year. Same amount of material, less time to do it, poorer student opinions. It seems a logical explanation anyway.
Does all this say anything about whether I am an effective teacher? Can one use a single number to describe it? These are questions that are being considered. Does my data help anyone to answer these questions? You decide.

December 5, 2013

nz’s pisa rankings slip, & the soul-searching begins

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , , , — alison @ 11:06 am

The latest PISA results are out, and NZ – despite remaining in the ‘above the average’ group for OECD countries – has nonetheless  slipped in this measure of achievement in reading, maths administered by the Programme for International Student Assessment . This is of concern, & there are probably multiple complex causes for our decline. Certainly the previous PISA commentary (2009) recommended that we pay attention to matters of inequality (There’s interesting commentary here, & also on the RNZ website.)

This morning’s Dominion-Post (I’m in Wellington at the moment, at a teaching symposium) carries a story giving a primary-teaching perspective.There are two key issues here: many primary teachers lack a science or maths background; and primary teachers in general are not well supported to teach these specialist sujects. (The removal of specialist science advisors - something I’ve commented on previously - did not help things.) This is important, because if students don’t gain a good understanding of these subjects – and good experiences of them! – during primary school, then they’ll basically be playing catch-up when they arrive in specialist secondary school classrooms.  Sir Peter Gluckman’s suggestion (in his report Looking ahead: science education in the 21st century) that each primary school have a ‘science champion’ would help here, but in the medium-to-long term it would probably be even better if intending primary school teachers received much greater exposure to the STEM subjects to begin with.

Should we worry? Yes, but I definitely agree with Fiona Ell, from the University of Auckland, who’s quoted in this morning’s Herald as saying:

People get very hung up on the ranking … because it’s like a Top of the Pops top 10 thing. I don’t think they should be ignored … but knee-jerk reactions to rankings are really dangerous in education systems.

So, there are issues that we need to address, and as Fiona’s pointed out, there are no quick fixes – we need to deal with them in a considered way that includes as many variables as possible (i.e. not just practices in schools).

One of those issues is highlighted by Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Science Adviser, who’s said:

What’s worrying is that there seems to have been a decline in the people represented in the top end of the scale and an increase in the number of people at the bottom end of the scale.

And socioeconomic status may well play a part in this. From the Herald story:

New Zealand was one of just two countries in which socio-economic status had a strong connection to a student’s performance. Some countries’ education systems made up for social disadvantage, but this was not the case in New Zealand.

So any solution addressing the PISA results will of necessity be complex. It’s not going to be sufficient to look only at what’s going on in schools. Yes, support and professional development for STEM teaching across the compulsory sector will be needed. The quality of teaching is definitely important (for a student’s perspective see the Herald article). But without also seriously considering and attempting to deal with the social inequalities in this country, I suspect changes in the educational sector alone will not be enough.

October 26, 2013

doing citizen science

This is something I wrote for my ‘other’ blog, but I thought I’d post it here as well as the whole ‘citizen science’ thing has considerable value for school-level education, and I thought some of you would probably have some valuable insights into/comments on the subject.

The other day I was asked for some advice on setting up a ‘citizen science’ program. The people asking were looking at developing outreach: giving talks, helping with local science-y initiatives, setting up websites, & so on. I responded that it all sounded good, and it was great that they were looking at ways of communicating about the science they were doing, but that it didn’t really sound like my understanding of the term ‘citizen science’. (I hasten to add that I’m not an expert: I do a lot of science communication, but this is not the same thing at all.)

The idea of citizen science has been around for quite some time – there are papers on the subject dating to the 90s – but in New Zealand I would hope it’s developing a higher profile in the scientific community with the advent of the NZ Science Challenges & their requirement to get ‘the public’ more engaged with the science that we’re doing in this country.

And under the citizen science model this requires some serious thinking about the logistics, because one thing it’s not, is scientists telling laypeople what they’ve been doing. Instead, it sees school children, their whanau, members of various community groups, all getting involved in an organised and coordinated way with the actual research: making observations, collecting data, discussing the results, looking at how to apply them in their area. This is a lot more complex in terms of organisation than arranging to give a talk or write a pop-science article (or a blog!).

Jonathan SIlvertown defines a citizen scientist as “a volunteer who collects and/or processes data as part of a scientific enquiry” (2008: 467), and notes that such projects are becoming particularly common in ecology and environmental science. (And it’s not a new initative: Bonney et al (2009) point out that US lighthouse keepers got involved in collecting data on bird strikes back in the 1880s. Perhaps we could regard Charles Darwin as a citizen scientist, particularly at the beginning of his career – he certainly wasn’t doing it as part of a paying job!) He goes on to say that “[t]oday, most citizen scientists work with professional counterparts on projects that have been specifically designed or adapted to give amateurs a role, either for the educational benefit of the volunteers or for the benefit of the project. The best examples benefit both” (2008: 467). This makes it clear that planning to involve citizen scientists in a given project has to part of the initial project development; it can’t really be an add-on at the end. While many of the projects Silvertown lists are essentially surveys and censuses, Bonney et al (2009) provide a model for doing citizen science to answer particular scientific questions in a way that also enhances science literacy and engagement with the subject.

Bonney & his colleagues work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which over the years has seen the results of many ‘citizen-science’ projects published in a range of journals. At the same time they’ve noted increases in scientific literacy and engagement with science among many of their lay participants. These are very positive outcomes, and they’ve put together a model for setting up such initiatives and assessing their success. Commenting that “e have found that proj- ects whose developers follow this model can simultaneously fulfil their goals of recruitment, research, conservation, and education “, Bonney & his team list the following steps/stages in setting up & running a successful citizen-science project:

1. Choose a scientific question – it will probably be one that stretches across a relatively long period of time, or a large geographic area.

2. Form a scientist/educator/technologist/evaluator team – this must include individuals from multiple disciplines – the scientist to develop the question, methodology & analysis tools; the educator to field-test methods with the participants, develop support materials, etc; and so on.

3. Develop, test, and refine protocols, data forms, and educational support materials: it’s essential that participants receive clear protocols for collecting their data (using clear simple forms) & that they receive help in understanding those protocols and passing their data on to the researchers.

4. Recruit participants. How this is done is going to depend on whether the project is open to all or is intended for a particular cohort eg school students.

5. Train participants, so that they gain confidence in their ability to collect and submit data, & know they’ll be supported as and when necessary.

6. Accept, edit, and display data. “Whether a project employs paper or electronic data forms, all of the information must be accepted, edited, and made available for analysis, not only by professional scientists but also by the public. Indeed, allowing and encouraging participants to manipulate and study project data is one of the most educational features of citizen science.” [my emphasisi]

7. Analyse and interpret data. This can be tricky due to the often‘coarse’ nature of the data-sets collected by participants,  & made more so if there are (for example) errors due to species mis-identification or misunderstanding of protocols.

8. Disseminate results. While this will involve scientific publications, it’s also important – & essential – that the results and their interpretation & application are also communicated with the citizen scientists who helped to generate them.

9. Measure outcomes. These will be both scientific and educational. The former are fairly straightforward to quantify: number of papers published, conference presentations given, or students successfully completing theses, for example. The educational outcomes may be harder to define, but Bonney et al suggest assessing things like the length of time people were involved with the project; how often they accessed web sites associated with the project; whether their understanding of the science content improved over the duration of the research; whether their understanding of the nature of science was enhanced; positive changes in attitudes towards science; better science-related skills; the number of participants stating increased interest in a career in science.

Doing all this will of necessity require education or social science research techniques, so there’s someone else to add to the team. Yes, there are costs, in dollar terms but also in terms of the time taken to set up a rigorous project with benefits for all involved. But there is potential for those benefits to be significant.

R.Bonney, C.B.Cooper, J.Dickinson, S.Kelling, T.Phillips, K.V.Rosenberg & J.Shirk (2009) Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. Bioscience 59(11):977-984

J.Silvertown (2008) A new dawn for citizen science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24(9): 467-471

September 23, 2013

teach creationism, undermine science

This is something I originally wrote for my ‘other’ blog.

Every now & then I’ve had someone say to me that there’s no harm in children hearing about ‘other ways of knowing’ about the world during their time at school, so why am I worried about creationism being delivered in the classroom? 

Well, first up, my concerns – & those of most of my colleagues – centre less on whether teaching creationism/intelligent design is bringing religion into the science classroom1, & more on how well such teaching prepares students for understanding and participating in biology in the 21st century. For example, if a school can make statements like this:

It is important that children and adults are clear that there is one universal truth. There can only be one truthful explanation for origins that means that all other explanations are wrong. Truth is truth. Biblical truth, scientific truth, mathematical truth, and historical truth are in harmony2.

and go on to list the “commonly accepted science we believe in”, then their students are not gaining any real understanding of the nature of science. And the statements regarding the science curriculum that I’ve linked to above indicate that it’s not just biology with which the school community has an issue. Physics, geology, cosmology: all have significant sections listed under “commonly accepted ‘science’ we do not believe in”3. (Did you notice the quote marks around that second mention of science?)

Science isn’t a belief system, & while people are entitled to their own opinions they are not entitled to their own facts. Any school science curriculum that picks & chooses what is taught on the basis of belief is delivering (to quote my friend David Winter) “a pathetic caricature of actual science, … undermin[ing] science as a method for understanding the world and leav[ing] the kids that learned it very poorly prepared to do biology in the 21st century.” Or indeed, to engage with pretty much any science, in terms of understanding how science is done and its relevance to our daily lives. And if we’re not concerned about that lack of science literacy, well, we should be.

 

although I do think this is a problem too.

2 with the subtext that the first ‘truth’ takes precedence.

Taken to its extreme, the belief system promoted in teaching creationism as science can result in statements such as this:

We believe Earth and its ecosystems – created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence – are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing…

…We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth’s climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of miniscule changes in atmospheric chemistry.

This does not look like a recipe for good environmental management to me.

 

September 20, 2013

charter schools can teach creationism after all

I first wrote about charter schools just over a year ago. At the time I was commenting on statements that such schools would be able to employ as teachers people who lacked teaching qualifications, wondering how that could sit with the Minister’s statements around achieving quality teaching practice. But I also noted concerns that charter (oops, ‘partnership’) schools could set their own curricula, as this would have the potential to expand the number of schools teaching creationism in their ‘science’ classes.

Well, now the list of the first 5 charter schools has been published: two of those schools is described (in the linked article) as intending to “emphasise Christian values in its teaching.” By itself that =/= creationism in the classroom – but yesterday Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint program (17 September 2013) reported that the school’s offerings will probably include just that.

In addition the prinicipal has reportedly said that the school will teach “Christian theory on the origin of the planet.”

And today we’re told (via RNZ)

The Education Minister has conceded there’s nothing to prevent two of New Zealand’s first charter schools teaching creationism alongside the national curriculum.

Two of the five publicly-funded private schools, Rise Up and South Auckland Middle School, have contracts that allow a Christian focus.

The minister, Hekia Parata, said on Tuesday that none of the five schools would teach creationism alongside or instead of evolutionary theory.

But on Thursday she told the House two of the schools will offer religious education alongside the curriculum.

Ms Parata did not specify how the two would be differentiated in the classroom.

South Auckland Middle School has told Radio New Zealand it plans to teach a number of theories about the origins of life, including intelligent design and evolution.

Point 1 (trivial, perhaps?): South Auckland Middle School needs to look into just what constitutes a theory in science. (Hint: a theory is a coherent explanation for a large body of facts. “A designer diddit” does not remotely approach that.)

Point 2 (not trivial at all): Why do people responsible for leading education in this country think it acceptable for students to learn nonscience in ‘science’ classes? After all, the Prime Minister has commented on “the importance of science to this country.” Evolution underpins all of modern biology so how, exactly, does actively misinforming students about this core concept prepare those who want to work in biology later? Nor does teaching pseudoscience sit well with the increased emphasis on ‘nature of science’ in the NZ Curriculum.

This is really, really disappointing. We already have ‘special character’ schools which teach creationism in their classrooms (see herehere and here, for example). It’s irking in the extreme that state funding will be used to support the same in the new charter schools.

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