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).

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011

    How to handle a big fat lab?

    Deshelled eggs in solutions
    Early on in my anatomy and physiology class comes a chapter with some of the essential concepts of cell biology: the cell membrane, and its transport and signaling mechanisms. In my early days I (wrongly) assumed that students knew the basics of this from previous classes, and I would quickly move forward to the deeper topics related to body systems. With time I realized the importance of spending extra time with this chapter: otherwise students will struggle the rest of the course to understand nutrient transport, membrane potential, effect of drugs and hormones etc. The lab exercises that usually accompany this topic are diffusion labs: filling small dialysis bags with different solutions, measuring their weight and testing what crosses the membrane or not. I got excited around a year ago when I saw a protocol involving deshelled eggs. Eggs left overnight in acid (can be simple vinegar) lose their hard shell as it dissolves, leaving them slightly gross and spooky. However they are a great and very realistic tool to show what happens to cells when placed in a hypotonic or hypertonic solution (swell or shrink). I remember the first time actually testing deshelling eggs at home, as I was not sure about their consistency. 
    The official lab (from the manual we use, Marieb's lab manual), includes several activities besides the dialysis bags and the eggs. Add a class of over 30 students (many of them not knowing what a beaker or measuring cylinder is), and you realize how complicated it gets. Over time I made short videos describing each procedure and specifically directed students to read the instructions, but as we all know, only few do that.
    The first time I set up this experiment, it was crazy. I explained what it was about, divided them in groups, and let them go. For the next 2 hours, I had a restless and confused mass of students running around with dripping dialysis bags or eggs in their hands, looking for reagents and asking questions. However, when we collected the data I was elated: the numbers actually made sense. We had sets of weight data in function of time. With so many groups, we could do basic statistics. We could make graphs. The numbers just looked beautiful. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to process the data in depth. 
    I ran the third iteration of this lab yesterday. As far as I know, I am the only one of my fellow instructors who teaches this lab, and I don't blame them. It is pretty intense. Luckily I have an angel in a lab tech who likes challenges and has been steadily improving his part of the equation (setup of materials, labeling). Yesterday I felt quite content with the results, and would like to share with you what we did.
    Inquiry based: I did not lecture the cell transport part before the lab. I wanted them to figure out what happens and why, so I merely introduced the fact that we would be exploring some parameters that affect membrane transport in the cells. Of course some students had previous knowledge, so I heard them talking to others about what was going on.
    Active-interactive learning: I experimented this group managing technique for the first time in the Critical Thinking workshops by Joel Levine, a charismatic Dean at Southwestern College. Once students are divided in groups, they choose "specialists" among them for different tasks. The tasks may be different aspects of the same topic, or in this case, different experiments. Then I have the "specialists" for each experiment come together, discuss, and check with me if they understand the procedure. When they return to the original group, they have the responsibility to explain the others and clarify any questions. This way they take responsibility for their learning process, reinforced by teaching the others. 
    Data collection: I projected a big excel table and directed students to record their data as they collected them. As the numbers unfolded in real time, students were paying attention, comparing their numbers to others', questioning if their numbers were very different, and already comparing their results with their expectations. 
    Processing and data analysis: after the lab we came together for actual lecture time. Now it was the time to talk about passive and active processes, diffusion, and osmosis. But instead of abstract examples, now I referred to what the students did and observed. Students deducted what happens when cells are placed in hypotonic versus hypertonic solutions. Then we went back to the numbers, and checked if the results corresponded to what they expected. Explanations for discrepancies were discussed. My hope was to include graphing/statistics, but we ran out of time. 
    I have always loved playing with numbers- making huge tables of numbers understandable through graphs was one of my joys as a researcher. When I look at this simple bar graph, based on a group of students who did this procedure the first time in their lives (and indeed, for many this was the first wet lab of their lives), I feel really proud of them. And what really made my day (or evening) yesterday was the student who in the middle of the lab exclaimed, with a big smile: "This is fun!"