Saturday, February 4, 2012

The importance of a storyline (and embedded videos)

I have been away from this blog for a while. I did some traveling in Europe, then have been (and am) dealing with some unexpected renovation issues (thanks to a leak). Luckily I did not plan a lot for the month of January, so it was not as hectic as it could have been. But it is February now and in two days I start a quickie course, one month Intro to Biology course for non-majors.
This is itself perfect, as I can use some of the tools learned and material prepared last semester, while contributing to Carnegie-Mellon's OLI initiative adapting a Biology course for non-majors. The first version of the course is a pilot now, and having the experience of a storyline with the well-defined learning objectives makes my work much easier.
As I started setting up the website for the course, I had one of those small epiphanies about how important is to "tell a story" when teaching a class. A long list of amazing links and resources do not really work for students if there is no thread linking them together.
Last semester I took an online course related to accessibility. There was an incredible rich array of materials on the website, which I seldom looked at, except if it was required for a quiz...a quite typical attitude of today's students. My starting point was always the link that would walk me through that week's assignments and readings.
For this intro Biology course I received a beautifully designed course shell, intended for online students. It is full of interactives, animations, and a lot of great resources. I have probably deleted or hid half of them, because I know most students will not even look at them if it is not absolutely necessary, and if they look they will be probably overwhelmed. 
On the other hand, instead of links I have embedded a variety of videos interspersed with the lecture links (I provide them as powerpoints, pdfs, and podcasts). For instance, after the lecture that deals with protein structure I have embedded a short Nature video introducing the game Foldit. Or after the metabolism lecture, a musical adaptation of glycolysis
I spend a lot of time looking for good videos to illustrate my classes. Besides the classic ones (such as Paul Berg's translation movie) there are lots of new material using imaging techniques. But I also like to lighten the atmosphere with fun or quirky ones. 
I know it is a commercial- but the BioRad PCR commerical (shown above) really makes everybody smile after a DNA structure explanation...
My goal is to make it a story- introducing the topic, then showing an application of it, or maybe breaking the monotony with something funky, moving on to the next etc. 
And again, presenting it as a story- I doubt my students would spend the seconds required to click 3 times to see a video if I only provided them the link. I embed it, colorfully, in the middle of the page with the lecture, so the color will attract them to watch it. 
Glad to be back, folks!

Monday, January 2, 2012

What you do the first day of the year...

...will determine how the year goes. That was one of the many New Year's Eve traditions I learned. When you put them all together it becomes quite a long list to fulfill. In Cuba, you ought to wear something new on New Year's Eve, and do no chores January 1st. You also have to throw out some water exactly at midnight to get rid of “bad stuff.” If you add the eating 12 raisins according to Spanish traditions, plus kissing your loved one(s) at the same time, it can be hectic. In Hungary, you are supposed to eat lentil soup after midnight with lots of sausages inside, as the little circles resembling money will bring good fortune.
Years of trial and error have clearly shown the lack of correlation between those traditions and the actual performance of the coming year. However, what I do the first day still retain some magic- somehow it sets the stage for the year. I have done New Year's plunge in the freezing waters of the Pacific, gone bodyboarding, and this year it was skiing. Which is itself, a major achievement.
I did not try skiing until I was 40. Neither Cuba nor Hungary are known as skiing nations, and during my years in Sweden I was too busy with research and too poor to get into it. Skiing is not a cheap sport, when you count gear, lift tickets, and the actual travel.  
Years later, as a postdoc, I found myself at Snowbird, Utah for a Keystone conference. Distinguished scientists were showing up at plenary sessions in ski pants, there were options of discounted tickets and a long time gap in the middle of the day. I just had to try. "There goes my apoptosis project!" my then PI, a black diamond skier cheerfully commented. But he did not need to worry. I paid for a lesson to learn the basics, and spent some time on the bunny slope the first day. I spent some more the second day, and decided I was ready for a green trail the next day. All went well until I arrived to a real slope. I looked down and quietly exited through a shortcut.
I forgot to mention a minor detail. I am afraid of heights.
Not really of heights- I have no problem standing on a cliff and look down. My fear is of the sensation of going down fast. When I was 9, I tumbled and fell down the stairs of our apartment building. I managed to escape with minor bruises. But since then, jumping off trampolines, bike downhill, and certain rollercoasters freak me out.
I tried skiing again a couple of times. I guess I would have stopped there, had I not met my future husband, who gushed about Alta and powder during our first date. A native Vermont guy who jumped from the crib into ski boots, skiing is his passion. I quickly realized, that if we were to have a life together, I would have to make peace with the slopes.
During the past years, I have been progressing slowly from the bunny slope to blue trails. Nothing major, nothing epic. I am still scared to death of going downhill on steep hills. There have been many times that I have skied down looking steadily at the tips of my skies because if I look up I panic.
That's why I am so proud of it. That in spite of my fears I still do it. And that I am actually getting better at it. This has been a recurring motif in my life: attempting something that seemed very scary, doing it, and getting better at doing it. 
As Eleanor Roosevelt said:
"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along. You must do the thing you think you cannot do. "
And it feels so good to do it the first day of a new year! 
Happy 2012, dear Readers!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Kinesthetic learning: act your topic!

Several years ago I was teaching an Introductory Biology course for non majors at a community college. It was for sure challenging, with the majority of students being there only to get the GE science requirement, and therefore quite uninterested in biology. One of those students was a hopelessly hapless woman who was taking the course for the second time. Straddled with family and health issues, she would stay after class to talk to me, and in one of those conversations she referred to the day when the previous instructor made the class "play" chromosomes to illustrate mitosis. Her face lighted up as she listed the names of the phases of cell division (metaphase, telophase). I was fascinated. Here she was, the typical clueless F student, remembering that particular information. While acting mitosis out seemed like a childish act, it had worked for this particular student- so I decided to try this approach some day.
I am aware of the controversies about the validity of learning styles, but as far as I am concerned, they exist. Personally, I am what would be called a visual learner with strong kinesthetic bias- in order to learn I need to "do," even if it is only highlighting, drawing, or doodling. 
"Making up about 5% of the population, tactile and kinesthetic learners absorb information best by doing, experiencing, touching, moving or being active in some way."
My first experience was what became later the "Hemoglobin dance." Hemoglobin is the protein in the red blood cells that transports oxygen. Carbon dioxide is transported through different mechanisms, the most important being a chemical reaction:
CO2 + H2O <-------> H2CO3 <-----------> H+ + HCO3-
Carbon dioxide, helped by the enzyme carbonic anhydrase (in the red blood cells), combines with water to produce the weak carbonic acid, which immediately dissociates to bicarbonate and hydrogen ion. Ions move in and out the red blood cells, and this reversible reaction moves according to the gradient of gasses (very different in lungs and tissues). It is one of those dynamic processes that is hard to explain on diagrams. A year after that conversation about mitosis, I was facing a physiology class dozing off through my explanation of gas transport in the blood. I decided to act. I asked for volunteers and wrote a long list that included hemoglobin, carbons, oxygens, hydrogens, carbonic anhydrase, and the other molecules involved. Tempted by the possibility of extra credit points, carbons and other atoms joined hands to form molecules. A circle of students created a red blood cell. Carbon dioxides dissociated, oxygens bound to hemoglobin, and students were now wide awake and laughing. These days the Hb dance is a solid part of the chapter dedicated to respiratory system. Maybe, some day, we could make it into a prize winner video similar to the "Dance your Ph.D" ones.
Besides the Hb dance, other favorite candidates have involved meiosis (mitosis is ok, but not nearly as fun as meiosis, the cell division that gives rise to reproductive cells), and my absolute favorite, the immune system.
This year is the first time I have decided to make the Immune system play into a (small assignment). If you think about it, the immune response is very much like a Shakespeare play, full of interactions, violence, murders, and other interesting events. Immunology, the science dedicated to the defense mechanisms of the body, is one of the hardets subjects to explain. While most topics have a beginning and an end, and are therefore suitable for a linear explanation, explaining the immune response requires first a dissection of each of the components separately, and then putting them all together into a dynamic framework. By the time one gest there the students have passed out long ago.
So in the Immune system play, students are assigned roles of different components of the immune system. I plan to give them the roles in advance so they can read up and prepare. In the class, I make a general introduction and then the play starts. I usually break it down to different pathways. "What happens if a bacterium invades?" Neutrophils come to eat them. Lymphocytes develop an antibody response, Antibodies bind and kill or neutralize. I bring props (shawls, hats) to use as signaling molecules or toxins. As the action unfolds, I freeze the scene and explain and write on the board. At the end of the session, students would have seen most of the aspects of the immune response acted out.
Which reminds me, I should get started on the screenplay...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Eric Mazur, Physics, and my thoughts afterward.

I stumbled across Eric Mazur's (@eric_mazur) work a while ago, very probably through Twitter, where most of my education information comes from. I even applied to test his system Learning Catalytics, but have not used it (yet). When juggling multiple courses in multiple systems, and learning multiple tools at the same time, many decisions are based on the time needed for the learning curve. Looking at the system I realized I would need the most scarce of all my resources, what I call "brain RAM" or creative space. 
I guess most of you are familiar with what I mean. It is hard to be creative when drowning in a sea of grading, class preparation, student advising, and collaborations. Not to mention juggling family life. When I want to change a teaching paradigm, more than just implementing a tool, I need time and mental space to see the big picture: what I want my students to learn, and how can I achieve that.
In summary, I have had this corner of guilt for not exploring Learning Catalytics more. Then a friend I met at a clickers' conference in San Diego mentioned he was the key note speaker. And finally, from a tweet I landed on this page. The fact that it was over one hour long was a no-starter, but I kept the tab open for several days in my browser. Last night, while doing something mindless- posting content for an online course- I clicked on the video to at least hear the beginning. Well, I watched the whole thing and enjoyed it tremendously.
I think the overarching reason of my enjoyment was to realize that it can take many years of explorations, trials, and tribulations to achieve success in the learning process. So it is ok that I do not achieve my goals right away, that the first time that I implement a new approach there are stumbles and misunderstandings, and I will get comments such as "she has a very confusing teaching style." 
Then there were the small things that made me smile, starting with Physics. I confess to a complete lack of comprehension of Physics- I would have flunked each and every basic exam question Mazur showed. Sadly, I owe a bad teacher my dislike of it. I had my first Physics class in middle school (that was in Europe), taught by this very strict old bad-tempered lady. She accused me of talking in class, which I did not, and protested indignantly. To which she called me a liar. Deeply hurt, that was the end of Physics for me. For the rest of my education, culminating in three Physics courses in college, I survived using memorization. Just like Mazur described, I would look at the problem and solve it using procedures I did not understand. I wonder sometimes how is it possible that I am so color-blind to Physics when I loved Math and particularly Calculus. Maybe it has to do with the fact that my first Math teacher in middle school was young and energetic, and she was also the Bio teacher. And while I was a Chemistry person, it was this teacher who mentioned for the first time cellular respiration, which brought together my love for Chemistry and my interest in living things.
But I am digressing, which happens often when going down on Memory Lane. 
At the end of Mazur's talk I felt validated both in my quest of better learning and in the fact that it takes time, effort, and data collection. "The plural of anecdote is not data" was a great phrase, and I have to focus more in collecting hard data to validate the effectiveness of new approaches. I was specially pleased that I am already doing several of the approaches he mentioned- peer instruction, group work, and even open book exams- although I prefer open notes, to avoid reading pages copied verbatim from the book.
None of the colleges I teach for has clickers, but I learned a much cheaper alternative to clickers from MiraCosta Community College professor Rica French. It is based on a printout (A4 size) like the picture, ideally made on a sturdier material. They can be given to students at the beginning of class and collect them at the end. To answer MC questions, students will fold the printout to show their choice facing the instructor, who can have a quick visual evaluation of how many have it right and wrong, and proceed accordingly. While not quantitative and recordable as the clicker version, it does do the job of engaging students. That said, I am not sure if I would follow the clicker route. I guess it is very useful in huge classes, but I have the luxury of having smaller classes, usually around 30 students. 
So at the end of the day, what did this talk do for me? Basically it made me feel much better about the journey I am in, from the traditional lecturing to that ideal interactive/peer/social process resulting in real palpable learning. And the measure of learning would be, as Mazur states, "students applying what they saw in the classroom to a different context."
Amen to that. And still working on it!
What do you think, dear Readers?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

From boring to blogging part 3

Wordle: wiki project insructions
Wordle of the instructions
Well, it has been a while. I was expecting to finish the third installment of this wiki assignment story earlier. I got delayed for several reasons, some of them really good reasons. That includes being included by one college in an "academic leadership something" committee to encourage the adoption of innovative approches to education. I was also asked to submit a list of examples of those approaches in my classes to be showcased in a video in a faculty technology website. In another college I was asked if I would give a webinar on use of wikis and blogs in online courses. I have been learning about online teaching and pedagogy quite intensely for the past year or so, so starting to see some results feels really good. 
I finished the Designing Effective Online Assessments course in a typical clueless student frenzy. The course had assignments of increasing complexity: generating SLOs (Student Learning Outcomes), designing traditional and non-traditional assignments for them, and finalize with a complete roadmap of SLOs and the assignments with a timetable. Drafts were to be posted on Wednesdays, we would give and receive feedback from other students by Friday, and revised assignments were due by Sunday. Last week's assignment instructions said to post the roadmap of at least one SLO, which I did, wondering why my team mates were posting all their SLOs. Sunday around 8pm I realized that the final submission indeed involved ALL SLOs...oopsie! Luckily I am really good at working under stress and I managed to submit the completed document just before midnight. That gave me some insight of being an online student, and why there is no such as too many warnings and reminders about deadlines. 
With the draft of my new wiki developed I moved on to a fuller version. I decided to try it on a f2f class with high enrollment as a group project. I established a set of rules in order to preempt situations I had seen in group projects and used some of the advice given by Tori Bovard regarding online debates. In her presentation during OTC2011 she emphasized the need for group agreements regarding group work, such as clearly assigning responsibilities within the group (submitter, spell-checker), as well as procedures if students are MIA. Those agreements were to be submitted before the beginning of the actual project, providing not only a framework to handle future issues, but also an an exercise in collaboration and consensus. I also included requirements for group and individual postings (basically establishing that each student had to post something on a regular basis), content and quality of the wiki postings, quality of feedback to others, and possibility for extra points. It became a 3 page document and I am curious to see how it works. I will keep you posted as the assignment is planned for October this year. For my completely online course where this idea came from, I will probably use a similar rubric except that it will be an individual assignment, and it will include regular blog postings as well.
I will not bore you with the 3 page document, but here is the grading rubric:
Aspect evaluated


Max Total Points
Content (group)
Covers less than 3 aspects of the content (see above)
Covers at least 5 aspects
Covers all aspects
Content (quality)
Content is incomplete or incorrect
Content is not up to date, or incomplete
Content is up to date, detailed, and relevant
Presentation (group)
Only uses text
Uses 2 types of content, but it is hard to read/observe.

Uses 2 types of content

Uses 3 or more types of content (text, pictures, video etc)
Fonts and pictures are easy to read and observe.
Correct spelling and grammar, good text flow
No references.
Less than 3 references, or 3 but incorrectly formatted
3 references, correctly formatted
Participation (group)
Only posting on week 7
Missing one
All required postings
Participation (individual)
Only posting on week 7
Missing one
All required postings
Feedback (Individual)
No or irrelevant feedback provided
Provides helpful feedback with some suggestions
Provides thoughtful and insightful feedback given with clear suggestions for making significant improvements

Timeliness (individual)
No or late submission for original post and feedback
Late submission for either original post or feedback
Timely submission for both original post and feedback
Total possible
Extracredits (individual)
Weekly participation (2p), creative/WOW effect (2p)

Dear Readers, what do you think? I would love to hear your advice and/or comments. I am still in time to change it...:)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

From Boring to Blogging: An Educational Experiment, part 2

In the first of a series of 3 postings (see here) I related my idea of implementing a performance assignment through a wiki and blog in an online Microbiology course. This post describes how did it work.
What worked
Regarding blogging: three students became regular and sometimes passionate bloggers. Two students only posted the one graded post, and the last  two never posted.
Wikis: Except the expected formatting issues in the beginning there were no major difficulties creating the wiki pages.
The “learning journey and reflection” idea: of the seven students, one changed her original topic completely, from antibiotics to an African parasitic disease. She attributed her change to a Discussion Board thread about neglected tropical diseases that seemed to be an eye-opener for most students. While the others worked on their original topic, there were changes in how they approached it. This was particularly true for the blogging students, who also tended to be the ones who sought most feedback and advice from me and the others. Interestingly, while several students stated in the beginning they were to write a paper on their topic, all went for either a wiki page or a powerpoint presentation.
What needs improvement?
  1. Having to log in and work in two different sites was probably confusing and cumbersome for students.  Although I had a Discussion Board for general questions in the official site, students would sometime request help/feedback in their wikis or blogs...and left waiting. I had to  monitor  all corners of the two sites regularly, and could still miss some postings.
  2. Grading rubrics that were not precise enough brought variable quality of both blogs and wikis. Some wiki pages had high quality content but could be too dry, with predominance of text, while other pages were more light-weight in content but visually attractive. 
The “social” aspects of collaboration.
I had a couple of issues with overzealous students editing other students’ wikis before the submission deadlines in spite of posted “etiquette” rules, and I could sense a generational difference.

And this is what students said regarding the assignment in their evaluations: 
The format of using discussion boards and class wikis to have the class engage with one another worked very well and the instructor provided excellent topics to encourage that interaction. I would have liked to have seen more timely feedback from the instructor on the discussion to guide class and raise the level of the discussion among some of the class members- perhaps some leading questions that would provide the opportunity for follow up and clarification among the group would encourage non-participants to engage; non-participants are always a struggle and so I am sympathetic with that challenge.   
Another student (one of the power users) said: 
It felt very beta for where the rest of the software for online publishing is now. The HTML coding is very limited and did not allow for common coding to make presentations clear and visually stimulating in a multimedia web environment. Not being able to embed from web sources is a major shortcoming.

In a summary, it was a good experience, with all the shortcomings included.  I am taking now a course on how to design effective online assessments, so I have some ideas as how to improve it (more on the next post). What are your experiences with online collaborative assignments, dear Readers? I would love to hear your comments and suggestions.

    Wednesday, July 27, 2011

    From Boring to Blogging: An Educational Experiment, part 1

    In the next blog postings I would like to share my experience with moving from an "old-fashioned" summative assessment to a formative assessment in an online Microbiology class. The first part will give a background of the change and my plan to implement it. The second part will relate how did it go. In the third part I will add some recent thoughts about the assignment, thanks to a course on effective online assessments that I am taking now.

    “Changing a boring assignment into a formative one w/ blog and wiki for my coming online #microbiology course @UCSD Extension”. This I tweeted on March 27th. I was fired up.
    What did I have in mind?
    As most academics who go into teaching, for many years I taught the way I was taught (lectures, exams, and let the students sink or swim). However, in the past year or so  I have been increasingly drawn towards novel educational approaches.  A course that changed many of my perceptions of education and social media was Building Online Community With Social Media (BOCSM) This course is part of California’s @One Online Teaching Certification Program. Among the many insights I gained during that course, one that stood up was the requirement of writing regular blog posts  and a final essay describing our perception of the course. I grumbled at the assignment mainly because of my lack of time, but when I finished it (a version of which can be found here) it brought a shift in my perception of blogging. So when the time came to refresh an online course I have taught for a couple of years, I felt strongly about introducing this kind of assignment.
    This particular Microbiology course has a heterogeneous student population, usually a mix of science professionals who want to learn about microbiology (often chemists or geneticists), some pre-med or pre-nursing students, and occasional lay persons interested in microbiology (lawyers, teachers). In order to bridge this diversity I aim at a middle level of basic microbiology knowledge (evaluated through quizzes), and make the assignments personalized. Students usually complete 3 individual assignments related to different topics, and the usual format has been “written project.”

    What was implemented?
    I wanted the course to include a mixture of summative and formative assessments. The idea of a learning journey with frequent feedback and advice, and occasional stops for reflection was very appealing.

    This was the setup:
    • Assignment 1 was a “current microbiology topic”  during the second week of class. Students were asked to pick a topic and create a wiki page about it, and collaborate with each other commenting and adding/editing information. My main goal with this assignment was to get students familiarized with the wiki format while doing research on microbiology. As grading guidelines, I posted that grading would be based on 1) participation (new page, or more than 50% of an established page), 2) variety of sources (at least 2 types of contribution, text and something else: pictures, videos etc, 3) interaction (editing and/or commenting on at least 2 other topics).
    • Assignment 2 was about a microbial disease. Students chose a disease from a list (although if they had a personal preference they could discuss it with me), created a personal wiki page dedicated to it. Grading was dependent on the content of their page and comments on other students’ pages.
    • I considered Assignment 3 the “jewel” of my formative idea. I asked the students to post during their first week of class a topic that really interested them in microbiology  and why. I wanted them to reflect on how their understanding of that topic changed during the course, so I encouraged them to write weekly blog posts about the class, but required only one in the last week (which was graded). I also gave them the chance to choose a format for their assignment, such as wikis, articles, porwerpoint presentations etc. In my enthusiasm for the assignment I made the mistake of not writing a precise grading rubric stating the expectations of the assignment (more of this in the next post).
    Some practical issues
    Finding a platform to place the assignments was harder than I thought. The official course used a version of Blackboard lacking collaboration tools. I wanted to have the blog and wiki options in the same place. After some searching the solution came in the form of Coursesites, a website by Blackboard that allows educators to create up to 5 courses using the functionality of Bb 9.1. I adopted a Project-based course template and created 3 wikis and a blog.
    I had a very low enrollment, seven students, which in hindsight was probably a blessing. In early April, the course went live.
    (stay tuned for the next part about how did the experiment go, and what was the student feedback).