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!

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