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).

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