Expanding boundaries and increasing diversity by teaching with technology

“As teachers, technology encourages us to be more creative, more influential, and more mindful of the implicit and explicit impacts our words have on students, and to explore new ways to make our classrooms more diverse”.

That’s a quote from a paper by Josh Drew, published last week. In this paper, Drew provides some fascinating case studies about how teaching with technology can help break down some strong barriers in higher education, with a focus on STEM disciplines. For example, students from the LGTBQ community, visible minorities, and other marginalized groups are often at a distinct disadvantage in a university context, whether it’s lack of access, finances, support, or mentorship. Drew argues that teaching with attention to this problem, and in a way that embraces diversity, is critically important, but is also a challenge. Technology can be a potential facilitator for this, and help overcome the challenge. To help other instructors, we need creative ideas, approaches and case studies, which is what Drew provides.

In the first case study, Drew gives an example of a marine conservation course that pairs students from a poor neighbourhood of Chicago with students from Fiji and through online resources, student learn content together, and do group projects with their peers. I was most impressed with how the capstone project in this course meant the students needed to problem solve with other students who were from entirely different cultures – something that is very difficult in a more traditional classroom setting. Typical courses in STEM seldom embrace a learning context that literally connects students from around the world.

The second case study focuses on how Drew used Twitter to continue teaching at Columbia University after hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, and many students could not get to class. Students were given access to class notes via Figshare, and lectures were delivered in 140 character packets. Given the open format, the tweets could be viewed by anyone in the world, which created an inclusive learning environment for everyone, whether registered in the class, or not. Although this is a more indirect way of teaching with attention to diversity, Drew argues that Twitter is an effective tool to help break down barriers and can be used effectively to increase student engagement. (The Twitter course was, by the way, how I got to know Josh Drew on Twitter, and his example helped me shape my own teaching with Twitter).

Active Learning: Watisoni Lalavanua (l) and Josh Drew (r) [tweeting!] at the Suva Fish Market, identifying species and talking about the best way to manage fisheries based in their life histories.

Active Learning: Watisoni Lalavanua (l) and Josh Drew (r) [tweeting!] at the Suva Fish Market, identifying species and talking about the best way to manage fisheries based in their life histories.

The third case study was a hands-on marine conservation workshop in Fiji, held jointly by Columbia University and the University of the South Pacific. The “real world” aspect of the course was facilitated by simple and inexpensive scientific equipment, and had a focus on open-access data by the participants. Of note, the students in the workshop were from six different countries, brought together to work on conservation priorities of relevance to the South Pacific. This case study certainly resonated with me, as I try to have my students tackle projects in the field (with all its challenges) as this provides a rich learning opportunity for all. However, unlike my course in Montreal, Drew’s example includes a very unique cultural experience for the participants. Teaching and learning in different places certainly embraces diversity in STEM, and although not always practical or feasible, such opportunities should be sought and supported.

In sum, Drew’s paper resonated strongly for a few reasons. The case studies are themselves great examples for all of us involved in teaching in higher education. The technological aspects are relatively straightforward and inexpensive, and many of tools highlighted are accessible. I appreciated his arguments at the end of the paper about ensuring accessibility; instructors must pay attention to ensuring class participants are able to get and use the tools, especially when thinking about students access to computers, smartphones, data plans and WIFI.

Perhaps the part that spoke to me the most was thinking about how technology can be a facilitator for increased diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom. I must be honest in saying that I don’t typically consider my own teaching with technology thought this lens, but I am now starting to look at this differently. Not all students from all communities will face a traditional classroom in the same say, and the “podium style” of teaching and learning in higher education may really marginalize some people more than they already are. Online classrooms, Twitter and active learning in partnership with peers are great examples of ways to open up our universities regardless of potential constraints, whether they be economics, race, culture or gender identification.

Thanks, Josh Drew, for making me pause and reflect, and for giving us all some good ideas.

Reference:

 Drew, J. Using technology to expand the classroom in time, space and diversity. Integr. Comp. Biol. (2015) doi: 10.1093/icb/icv044

How to become an Arachnologist

So you want to be an Arachnologist?

You just need to immerse yourself in the world of eight-legs: read, watch, connect, share & study.

I recently did an interview with a high school student from Indiana, who wanted to be an Arachnologist. This is not a common occurrence, in terms of a high school student expressing interest in this field of study, and because there are actually relatively few Arachnologists out there to act as role models!

I Tweeted about the interview, and a few people were quite intrigued by this, and asked me how they could train to be an arachnologist: a question worthy of a blog post! So, here are some thoughts and ideas, separating into three categories: elementary school, high school and finally, students entering college or University.

The younger years:

Kids like bugs. Children are naturally fascinated by arachnids: often not exhibiting as much fear as adults. They are curious, keen observers, and sponges for neat factoids about spiders and their relatives. At this age, responsibility for fostering arachnophiles really falls upon parents and teachers. Within the classroom, teachers should be encouraged to take kids outside, think about doing units/projects about natural history, and see about getting special activities into the classroom that focus on ‘biodiversity’. To me, it matters less that these activities are about spiders (or insects), but that they are celebrations of the natural world. It’s about keeping kids keen on the natural world continually engaged and interested in the natural world.

Parents can do a lot outside of the home – connecting with local naturalist clubs could help connect youngsters with some mentors and experts. Getting kids out to “Bug shows” is also a great idea – these are sometimes done through local museums, colleges or community centres. I always like to scroll through photos from these kinds of events: you can really see the enthusiasm on kids’ faces! Birthday parties could also be an opportunity to bring in biologists instead of clowns or princesses. A few quick web searches will reveal a suite of amazing workshops out there.

Bug shows: keeping kids exciting about arthropods. Photo by Sean McCann.

Bug shows: keeping kids exciting about arthropods. Photo by Sean McCann.

The teenage years:

I currently have two teenagers in my house, and this is a very interesting age: an age where habits get set, interests develop, and passions for hobbies either solidify or disappear. In the classroom setting this is where some students can really get turned on to science and biology, and for those keen on natural history, most students find the curriculum doesn’t satisfy as they are looking for a lot more. The high school student who interviewed me is a good example: she wanted to take courses more related to insects and spiders but such courses just don’t exist at high school – if lucky, they may just show up as part of the biology unit.

For those teenagers wanting to become arachnologists, some work is required. It may be possible to connect with local naturalists, or perhaps the nearest museum or college/University. These places may help facilitate the interests, and may even allow opportunities to have volunteers work with an insect of arachnid collection. Getting into an actual lab or research museum could be a positive life-changing experience for a teenager, but certainly isn’t an opportunity available to everyone.

I think during the teenage years the Internet and social media are invaluable tools. Heaps of information is available thought organizations such as the American Arachnological Society, or the International Society of Arachnology. Facebook groups or Twitter can also be a great way to connect with other Arachnologists: I personally use Twitter all the time to discuss spiders with colleagues from around the world, and these networks can also help spread the news about exciting discoveries in Arachnology.

Unfortunately it is rather difficult to recommend specific “spider courses” for teenagers wanting to become arachnologists. Instead, becoming an arachnologist at this age is really about learning what you can, wherever you can, and trying to connect with other arachnologists. For those wanting more academic pursuits, the best advice I can give to aspiring arachnologists is to become a good naturalist: observe, record, and be fascinated about the natural world. Good things will always come from this! In school, take the sciences and maths, especially biology, and when it’s time to head to College or University, think about selecting one that offers some courses in entomology.

Arachnologists get to study these cool things... Photo by Sean McCann.

Arachnologists get to study these cool things… Photo by Sean McCann.

Off to college!

There are virtually no Arachnology programs at colleges or Universities, and instead college student should look to the sister discipline of Entomology. Many (most?) Universities offer some introductory entomology courses, and in these courses it may be possible to get some exposure to Arachnology. The instructors of these course can probably help point to other resources or local people with additional expertise or interest in arachnids.

When seeking an undergrad program, I do advise aspiring arachnologists to take a strong Biology or Zoology Major: this will give a great grounding and foundation and be perfect for a springboard to graduate school. It’s certainly worth considering selecting a University that has an entomology program, or at least a Department or solid offerings of insect-themed courses, and has some arthropod-themed research happening.

If time and money permits, there are some “spider courses” out there and perhaps it’s worth taking one of those (although I have never taken one, I have heard they can be quite worthwhile). At the very least, do LOTS of reading, including books like The Biology of Spiders and field guides like Rich Bradley’s (for North America), and stay active on social media.

Becoming an arachnologist is about finding good mentors: these people may or may not be arachnologists, but their encouragement and support is so important and can change lives. This was certainly the case for me, and an entomologist at University of Guelph helped facilitate my interests in Arachnids and gave me a desk to work at, and offered plenty of encouragement. My independent undergraduate research project about spiders set me on a path to becoming an arachnologist.

It’s a bit of a shame, and a bit of a mystery that Arachnology just doesn’t show up on the radar for very much of K-12 nor does it show up in undergraduate programs: becoming an arachnologist with a deeper level of training really happens at graduate school, so for those who are really passionate about arachnids may need to take a long view and plan on moving on to a Master’s degree. This certainly doesn’t mean you can’t be an arachnologist in other ways! (Some great Arachnologists I know don’t have advanced degrees). However, the more advanced training can help formalize and structure the learning process.

Meet Catherine! She's an Arachnologist, and is searching for spiders... Photo by Sean McCann

Meet Catherine! She’s an Arachnologist, and is searching for spiders… Photo by Sean McCann

How do you know you are an Arachnologist?

This is a great question, and a difficult one to answer! There certainly isn’t a certificate or plaque that you get once you become trained as an Arachnologist. As you accumulate knowledge you will also realize that there is so much we don’t know about Arachnids. New species are described all the time, and we continually hear amazing stories about their natural history. Expertise is all relative, and once some expertise is acquired, the limits of our knowledge become exposed.

You don’t need to publish in scientific journals or do experiments on spiders to become an Arachnologist. You do have to learn some biology and arachnid natural history, and do your best to share what your know with others. Bottom line: once you have acquired enough knowledge about Arachnids, and people start looking to you for advice and answers to their own questions about our eight-legged friends, you can probably call yourself an Arachnologist.

So, to sum it up: to become an Arachnologist you need to read, watch, connect, share & study.

But..

Are there jobs for Arachnologists? That’s a topic for another post…

 

Robb Bennett: a most exceptionally wonderful person (and Arachnologist). Photo by Sean McCann.

Robb Bennett: a most exceptionally wonderful person (and Arachnologist). Photo by Sean McCann.

 

 

Do students do better when they write exams faster (or slower)?

As I was grading my final exams last week, I wondered about ‘quantity’ of answers to written questions as opposed to ‘quality’ of the answer: in other words, some students write a lot of stuff for an answer, but could have received full points on a question without filling a page with tiny handwriting. Here’s what I tweeted about this.

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 12.09.46 PM

The students that fill the page certainly take longer to complete an examination, and this reminded me of a little project I did many years ago* about the speed at which students write their exams relative to the grade they received on that exam. For one of my larger undergraduate classes the final exam is meant to be about a two hour exam, but some students finish in just over an hour, and some students wait until we take the exam from them at the end of the three hour exam period.

One year I tracked the order that students forwarded me their exams and after the course was over I plotted their grade on that exam relative to the time it took them to complete the exam**. I’ve always wondered whether or not students who finish quickly are the ones that really know the material, or whether the ones who take the longest are so careful to check and re-check everything that they tend to do better than their peers. Here are the results:

A grade on an exam relative to the order in which that exam was handed in.

A grade on an exam relative to the order in which that exam was handed in.

Bottom line: there is NO relationship.

Some students write an exam quickly and do very, very well. Some students simply do not know the material, and write the exam quickly and hand it in early. Some students stay to the bitter end and do very well. For some students, staying to the end doesn’t help their grade. And, of course, a lot of students are in the middle.

This was a good little project to do, and actually helps me as an instructor. It helps me to NOT judge a student by the speed at which they write the exam. It provides a reminder that everyone works at their own speed, and will do poorly, or very well, even if they write quickly or slowly.

The other lesson this teaches me is that it’s important to have an exam length that aims for the middle ground. A three hour examination that takes the ‘fastest’ students three hours just isn’t fair. Every student is different and need different amounts of time to read, digest, think and answer questions. Assessments are always tricky business, but one overarching goal of assessments is to test about how well a student may be able to recall content, integrate that content, perhaps do calculations, and think about the material that was discussed in the classroom. Assessments shouldn’t be used as a means to weed-out poor students, especially when the ‘tool’ for this is the length and size of an examination.

Good students write exams quickly or slowly, and should be allowed the time to do so.

—–

*To preserve anonymity around this project, I will not comment on what class it was, or where I was working at the time, and the data are presented in relative terms (i.e., the actual scale is not presented)

**The order was tracked by writing a small number in the top corner of the front page of the exam as students handed in the exam: I did not look at or see this number when I graded the exam, to ensure I would not be biased or influenced by that number when I was grading. The scatter plot was done weeks after the final grades were submitted.

 

© C. M. Buddle (2015)

The effects of Twitter on student engagement and learning

There are lots of ‘feel good’ stories about using Twitter in teaching, and I’ve long been a supporting of using social media in undergraduate classes. But does it work…? What effects does Twitter have on learning?

An example of a student Tweet, used to promote their blog post.

An example of a student Tweet, used to promote their blog post.

This was a question we decided to tackle in my field biology class, and recently, in a collaboration with Lauren Soluk (as part of her graduate work), we surveyed students about using Twitter in the classroom*. Here are the take-home messages from the work:

  • Students Tweeted over 200% more than what was required as part of the course work
  • Students used Twitter in many different ways, from informal communication, to promoting their own blogs, to asking questions of each other or of the course instructors and TA.
  • Students used Twitter to communicate with their instructor or TA 56% of the time, with their peers 27% of the time, and with people external to the course 17% of the time.
  • 94% of students felt that among-group communication was beneficial (i.e., either ‘yes” or ‘somewhat’) to their learning, and 78% of students surveyed felt Twitter increased this among-group communication.
  • When asked whether Twitter had an impact on how they engaged with the course content, 67% of the students answered ‘yes’ or ‘somewhat’.
  • When asked whether Twitter is a good tool to help student learn in the classroom,  78% of the students answered ‘yes’ or ‘somewhat’.
A learning community: One student group Tweeting at another student group, to ask them a question.

A learning community: One student group Tweeting at another student group, to ask them a question.

Interesting, most students surveyed said they wouldn’t continue to use Twitter after the class was over. They certainly preferred other tools (e.g., Facebook) to Twitter. Despite this, the students felt Twitter useful in the context of the field biology class, and could see its value independent of their own personal views.

Overall, the results are impressive, and suggests there are good reasons to consider using social media tools such as Twitter, in a University class. It’s certainly not a tool for everyone (and there are important guidelines to consider), nor would it be useful in all contexts, but it clearly serves an important role in my field biology class. Twitter allows students to engage with different audiences, and helps create a rather novel learning community: a community that can include experts from around the world.

A question asked by students, over Twitter

A question asked by students, over Twitter

The answer... from an expert from a different country.

The answer… from an expert from a different country.

Reference:

*Soluk, L & CM Buddle Tweets from the forest: using Twitter to increase student engagement in an undergraduate field biology course [v1; ref status: awaiting peer review]

Note: this paper is currently awaiting peer review – please consider reading the full paper and providing a review! 

 

Student for a day (Part 3): operation dissection

This is the third and final post about going back to the classroom: you can find the first post here and the second one here.

We rushed from the lecture hall to the basement of the main teaching complex on campus. I walked down the hall towards the lab, that old familiar smell was in the air: it was the “face-muscle dissection day” in Comparative Anatomy. This took me immediately back to my undergraduate days at the University of Guelph.  There were just over a dozen students in the lab, and the ‘specimens’ (I shall NOT mention what they were!) were sitting on stainless steel lab tables, with the dissection gear at the ready. Scalpel? CHECK. Forceps? CHECK. Scissors? CHECK. It was operation: dissection. I was nervous…. then I was handed rubber gloves and a labcoat. I was WAY out of my element…

The instructor started with an extremely detailed 45 minute lecture, providing an excellent overview of the game-plan for the dissections: the expectations of the students was exceedingly clear, and the instructor’s own deep expertise was obvious.

Checking the notes before the dissection commences...

Checking the notes before the dissection commences…

And then the music went on (yes, music! One of the TAs always picks a lovely selection to work to) and the clang of forceps, scalpels scissors started: the students were off, peeling skin and searching for ever-elusive face muscles. It was hard and tedious work: after 30+ minutes our team had only just begun to expose the first layer of muscles. The students expressed how tough the class was, and how it took an incredible amount of time to study their notes after labs. In addition to their own notes, the textbook, and the laboratory notes, my team was taking photos with their smartphones, and taking some videos to use as future study aids. They have a test coming up soon, and were working hard to remember the content and link the ‘thing’ to the ‘name’. I asked the students why they were taking such a challenging course… surely it was required for their program? It turns out that the course wasn’t required, and the students were taking it because they wanted to. It was one of their favourite classes because it involved ‘doing’ things and involved experiential learning on a topic they were deeply interested in (animal biology). The act of dissecting was how they were learning, and the act of dissecting allowed them to really understand how animals work: from the shape and size of salivary glands, to why certain muscles were more developed than others, or how whiskers are embedded deep under the skin surface.

At one point I looked at the clock and was amazed that a full hour had already passed. I looked up from our specimen (and yes, my lab partners had given it a name…) and did a scan of the laboratory: everyone was hunched over, smiling, and now and then you heard ‘COOL’ and ‘WOW’. They were learning together, learning by doing, and loving it. They loved the challenge of the class and they weren’t watching the clock.

I had to leave and get back to my office, and the instructor came up afterwards to say thanks. I was told that never before had another instructor or Prof stepped into the classroom to see what they were doing. That’s a shame.

With my lab partners.

With my lab partners.

I come away from my “student for a day” experience with some vivid memories, new perspectives, and the following take-home messages:

  • There’s a lot of material! Wow, there was a lot of material! The students are learning a very high volume of content, and this happens day after day after day. No wonder they are sometimes stressed and fall behind. As Profs, we need to perhaps better recognize and respect work loads.
  • Different teaching styles are valuable: from lectures to discussions to hands-on laboratories, the variation was much appreciated. It would be tough sitting through six straight hours of lecture, but varying it between different formats works very well. Education is not, and should not *ever* be uniform. One shoe doesn’t fit all, and there is incredible value to ensuring our students get the variation in educational styles.
  • Spaces are important, perhaps more so than I appreciated before: the physical space itself had a great influence on my time as a student, from the angle of the screen to the placement of the door. The little things matter and the space is a key partner in learning. Variation in available spaces must match variation in different types of courses and instructors. We need big and small lecture halls, well-equipped laboratories, and collaborative learning spaces.
  • Students are bright, motivated, serious, and have high expectations: this is good to recognize. I already felt this about students on my campus, but seeing this first hand in three different classes confirmed my suspicions. We should maintain rigor and approach each course with an expectation that the audience is ready to learn and ready to be engaged.
  • Instructors always rush around from class to class and meeting to meeting, but we sometimes forget that students need to rush around too! There isn’t always time in their schedule to eat, line up for the washroom, or physically get from one classroom to another. This is a reminder for me to end class when it’s supposed to end, and be a little more forgiving when students come in a little bit late.

In sum, I will do this again, and would urge my colleagues to do the same. It’s important to see what students see, learn about different approaches to the classroom, and be sensitive to a full timetable and to the high workload that students experience.

A very special thanks to the students who allowed me to tag along: you were patient, kind, and made the experience extra-special.

Student for a day (Part 2): the lecture hall

This is the second of a three-part series on going back to the classroom: check out the first part here.

So far I was enjoying shadowing students for a day: I was excited after my exposure to the research project course, and was fuelled up on coffee as I checked the schedule, wolfed down my lunch and met my next chaperone. We walked together to a different building and to a more traditional setting: a lecture hall. The class was about animal health, and the content was about a retained placenta in cows, and how this affects bovine health and how the retained placenta might lead to other uterine diseases. The instructor, after setting up the Powerpoint, first took 5-10 minutes to ask the class questions from the last lecture. It was clear that this was a normal start to each lecture as the students had dutifully prepared questions for the instructor, and time and care was taken to address each student. This is a great approach, and although I sometimes do this with my own lectures, I don’t do this consistently at the start of each class. I think the students really appreciated devoting this time to discussion at the start of each of their lectures.

The instructor had carefully prepared slides, and had a very nice pace for the entire 90 minutes lecture. I learned a great deal, from Freemartins, to how to treat a cow with a suspected uterine infection. I was deeply impressed by the depth of knowledge of the instructor: research from peer-reviewed papers was used throughout the lecture, and many anecdotes were used to ground the content. There was a lot of content, and it was also clear that the instructor has high expectations of the students. The instructor was also passionate about the material, and this helped keep my interest.

The view from my seat in the lecture hall.

The view from my seat in the lecture hall.

One of the most interesting experiences for me was being able to view the students’ computer screens from the vantage point of a student! I could see about 6-7 screens, and I had some expectation that Facebook or cruising on web-browsers would occur. To my surprise and delight, students were using their computers largely to take notes: some students had the lecture slides (provided by the instructor before class started) on half their screens and a word processer on another part of their screen and they were moving with ease between the two. This was the definition of effective multitasking. My chaperone had a different approach, and was writing in a spiral-bound notebook. She told me that later on she looks at the lecture slides and cross-references with her hand-written notes as an effective way to study. I was impressed: these students are serious, and have given a lot of thought to the best way to take lecture notes and study. I have previously offered some rather strong opinions about instructors posting Powerpoint slides on-line, but what I was seeing in the classroom was certainly causing me to reflect and reconsider my opinions.

There were three important take-home message for me during this lecture:

  • start each class with questions and answers from the previous lecture
  • bring examples from peer-reviewed literature into lectures
  • recognize that students with laptops in class are using these laptops for class.

After lecture we had to rush (10 minutes between classes is not much time!) through melting snow and mud-puddles to get to the basement of another building for the final adventure for the day…

Student for a day (Part 1): spaces for discussion

Yesterday I went back to the classroom and shadowed undergraduate students for the day. I did this because I just don’t really know what happens in classrooms. As an Associate Dean, I feel a responsibility to be aware of what students face throughout their day. I think this will help me gain perspective in my administrative role, and allow me insights into other instructional styles and approaches to teaching and learning in different contexts. After all, I really only know my way of teaching: I’ve not been an undergraduate student for a very long time.

Due to a bit of poor planning on my part, and since we are nearing the ‘end of term madness’, I wasn’t able to get a schedule for the whole day, and instead attended only three classes, with two different students. These students were my chaperones, and took me under their wing as they went to lecture or lab. By pure chance, I ended up seeing three different kinds of classes during my day, and have reflections about each of these experiences. In the first of this three-part blog series, I will share my experience taking part in an independent research project course.

The first classroom: a conference room

The first classroom: a conference room

This was a very small class in which a few students were working on an independent project: their supervising Professor had recently given the group feedback on their written work, but was not present for this meeting. Instead, it was just the students and me (as a passive observer). Their project was centered on re-thinking environmental education with a goal of developing a framework or plan for teaching 9-12 year old kids about sustainability. The students were taking a very interesting approach in which their framework was focused on facilitating discussion around the values associated with teaching about sustainability: values such as respect, self-worth, respect and compassion. During our time together, the students edited a Google-doc together, and had deep and meaningful conversations about pedagogical principles. This was a wide-ranging discussion that was insightful, thoughtful and fascinating. To be honest, these students knew more about educational principles than most of my colleagues! They were in a science-based program, yet were reading literature from education journals, and were applying high-level thinking to a practical problem about how to create a learning opportunity based not on silos of knowledge, but on ways to approach sustainability from truly interdisciplinary perspectives.

The discussion also moved into a conversation about teaching spaces: for this class, we were actually situated in a conference room, with a couple of chairs, a computer and one of the students was attending virtually, over SKYPE. This learning space was important to them, and at one point one of the students said “You get the most learning outside of the classroom”. Their ideal University is not one of lecture halls, but one of open spaces, whiteboards and WIFI: spaces for debate and discussion about big projects and problems that rely on multiple disciplines. The students expressed frustration that very few of their classes approach problems from interdisciplinary perspectives (or if they do, it barely moves beyond lip service) yet this is what they want from their education. They want a learning community that draws upon all the silos of knowledge at the same time, and they want spaces to facilitate this kind of learning.

A learning space for discussion and collaboration: computer, SKYPE, coffee & notebooks.

A learning space for discussion and collaboration: computer, SKYPE, coffee & notebooks.

These students amazed me with their insights, thoughtful commentary, and clear ideas about education, learning spaces, and expectations from a University experience. ­

My “Student for a day” project was off to a great start. Next up, a traditional lecture hall…