Social media in higher education: a teaching and learning project

This term I will be spending some time with Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) at McGill: instead of doing my normal winter teaching, TLS is offering me a home for 2-3 days a week to work on projects with them. This is an outstanding opportunity as it provides real and significant time to work on teaching innovation. In my opinion, teaching in higher education should constantly be evaluated and re-assessed, and all Professors (regardless of career stage) should be supported and encouraged to improve, change and innovate their teaching. However, I would argue that many institutions put more attention on research productivity rather than supporting teaching innovation.  This is not to say that Universities don’t value teaching, but rather an argument that promotion is often weighted more towards research productivity than developing innovative approaches to teaching. There is also sometimes a culture by which Professors are unwilling to change anything about their teaching because of fears related to how this might affect teaching evaluation scores.  I have written previously about barriers to teaching innovation, and another barrier is that Professors aren’t typically supported to take time away from other duties to work on projects related to teaching and learning. Sabbaticals, for example, are mostly about re-inventing or re-tooling a research program and less often about pedagogy.  Over the past several years I had these kinds of discussions with various TLS colleagues, and the result is that I now have meaningful support to invest some of my time and energy towards teaching innovation. Bravo, TLS! I’m delighted to be spending time with you this term! (and a sincere thanks to my Chair and Faculty for supporting this endeavour).

It’s fitting that I’m using a blog to discuss the main project I’ll be delving into this term, because it will be all about the use of social media tools in teaching and learning. The way that we teach is changing, in part because there are countless new tools to use; tools that may help with interactions among students or between instructor and students, or tools that help us interact with dynamic, ever-changing content.  It can, however, be overwhelming. There’s an onslaught of technologies (….clickers, video-conferences, tablets, smart-boards and more) as well as countless on-line tools (… Facebook, Google hangouts, blogs, twitter, on-line discussions, etc). How do we make sense of this? How do we incorporate the correct tools into our courses in an effective and productive manner? What ethical or privacy issues must we understand when using some of these tools in the classroom?

My project will try to make sense of all of this, and over the next several months, I will be reading, talking, tweeting, blogging, seeking, sending, writing (and more).  I will be looking to the literature to assess the ways that social media tools can be used effectively in the classroom; I will survey current practices at various institutions, including McGill. At the end of the day, I hope to produce a dynamic ‘document’ to be shared and used by all those who are interested. This document will cover best practices, provide some case-studies and examples, and provide some guidelines about effective use of social media tools in teaching and learning.

Now I shall ask for help: Please let me know about the sorts of social media tools you use in the classroom. Drop me an e-mail, or comment (below), or tweet at me. I hoping to gather examples from a range of disciplines, using a range of tools, in a range of settings (small seminar classes, large courses, field courses, labs). Send me papers you might have written, or links that I’ll need to look at. The products from this project will only be strong if a community can be involved in its development, from the start.

Thanks everyone: this will be a terrific project, and thanks again to TLS and McGill for supporting this project..

Social media, mobile technology and an outdoor classroom

Last year, my field biology course took part in an amazing project – we used mobile technology in a field setting, and combined that with social media tools.  This was done in collaboration with Teaching and Learning Services at McGill, McGill Libraries, and the tablets were generously provided by Toshiba.  I am immensely thankful for the support and an truly honoured to be able to explore these adventures in teaching and learning.  More specifically, Laura Winer, Adam Finkelstein and PhD student Crystal Ernst helped make this project a success.

One of the ‘products’ of this pilot project is this 5 minute video about using social media to engage students in inquiry-based learning:

We are continuing with these kinds of initiatives, and a Brown-Martlet Foundation grant has allowed my Department to purchase some of the tablets originally used last year. This is terrific, and as the video illustrates, the students end up benefiting.

This term, the course is again using social media, and you can find details in this post, and follow along with twitter using the hashtag #ENVB222.

Tweet tweet, twitter twitter: linking natural history and social media in a field biology class

Last year I used twitter and blogs in my field biology class at McGill, and it was such a successful experiment that I shall do it again!  Last year, students sent tweets to promote their blogs about natural history in the St Lawrence Lowlands, and the tweets were one way to disseminate information to a broad audience. This assignment also gave students an opportunity to write in different ways, and to distill information down to the most important facts.

This year things will be a little different: Students will again be completing natural history projects in the course, and will be doing so after assembling in groups early in the term. Projects will be focused on specific species found in our region, from trees to beetles, to mushrooms and mammals. Each week, students will be tweeting facts, anecdotes, and observations about their study species (and some of these tweets should come directly from the field)

Tweeting from the field!

Tweeting from the field!

So, this raises the question: why Twitter? 

1. Open. Twitter allows the conversation to go out to the world, to whomever is interested. It allows ANYONE with an interest in the topic to follow along, reply, interact and collaborate. It provides an opportunity for experts on the topic to comment and improve the quality of the content and information. As an instructor in a general field biology course, I cannot be an expert on all things, and thus twitter can bring in the experts.

2. Collaboration: Twitter is terrific at fast, easy collaboration. It allows quick commentary, discussion, and is immensely user-friendly. I am especially fond of the reply features in Twitter that allow a conversation to maintain some elements of open-ness for all to see, but the direction and flavour of the conversation can be  focused. Experts external to the course can quickly view the conversation and take part regardless of their geography. The quality of the ideas and content are what matters, not whether someone has a PhD, or attends a certain institution. Its requirement of 140 characters is an asset, making sure that users get to the point quickly, and thus allow opportunity for the careful construction of a sentence. It’s more difficult to write concisely and twitter presents an extreme example of this.

3. Tracking: The use of a hashtag allows easy archiving of content, including conversations, and it’s also possible to track who (outside of the course) engages with students, and has an interest in the topics. Students can monitor the activity occurring in other groups, and can learn about who to follow, who to engage with, and that can improve the quality of their own twitter use.  They can track related hashtags, and find content more specific to their own project.

4. Academic value: In my experience, twitter is not fully appreciated for its academic use. Twitter has serious value, and in some circles, twitter is embraced as a teaching tool (e.g., see this & this). Education is about people, communication and collaboration as much as it is about facts and content.  ANY tools that help us better connect, discuss and debate are good tools, and when we can engage a community beyond the institution’s boundaries, everyone wins. Sure, twitter can be fun and social, but its value is much deeper and more significant.

5. Validation: we all need to feel that things we do are valuable and valued.  In most University classes, students write for a Professor or Teaching Assistant, sometimes for peers, but seldom for an audience beyond the institution’s walls. Last year, one of the most significant ‘A-Ha!’ moments was when students talked with delight about how they interacted with people from other countries about their natural history projects – interactions facilitated by social media tools such as twitter.

A tweet from one of last year's groups.

A tweet from one of last year’s groups.

So, are you sold, now?  Make a twitter account and follow along!  Carly Ziter (incidentally, a TA for the class this term!) wrote an excellent ‘how to’ guide for social media (accessible from this page).  Follow the hashtag #ENVB222 and take part in this class, whether you live in Brisbane, Medicine Hat, or Dublin. If you like Natural History, you’ll enjoy the experience.

Hear This! Podcasts as an assessment tool in higher education

It’s the week before classes start at McGill University. Professors are getting course outlines ready, and thinking about ways to assess students. In this post (first published over at the Inquiry Network Blog of McGill), I explore the idea of using podcasts as an assessment tool… 

As a University Professor, I’m always experimenting with new ways to assess students in my undergraduate classes. This can be a significant challenge with larger class sizes, especially since I’m not a fan of multiple choice style questions. It’s nice to be able to assess students on the basis of how they are integrating and synthesizing course content, and traditionally this is done with longer-format essay-type assignments.  These long-format assignments are great, but do take a tremendous amount of time and energy to grade, and I seldom feel I can give enough time to each written assignment.

This past winter term I was faced with an increased enrolment in my undergraduate ecology class at McGill. I had a TA for the class, but I certainly didn’t have enough TA hours to include a large individual written assignment. I started to think of new and interesting ways to grade students, and I was looking for a way to test how students might be integrating content from different lectures in the class.

This got me thinking about podcasts.  When I mow the lawn, or when I am on a long road trip I listen to a lot of podcasts, and This American Life or RadioLab have become go-to places for me to hear new and interesting stories, from science through to art and culture. A good podcast entices the listener, is creative, informative, and overall, makes learning fun.  Bingo: Makes learning fun.

Podcasts as an assessment tool seemed a perfect fit with the challenge I was facing in my ecology class.  Together with my amazing TA, Carly Ziter, we brainstormed and came up with a podcast assignment.  We assigned students to groups, and handed out the assignment. Here are some of the details, as provided to students:

The learning outcomes for the Ecology Podcast assignment are the following: (1) expose students to ecological stories in the news, (2) explore the ways that ecology is portrayed in the news media, (3) link these stories to ecological content as delivered during lectures, and (4) to communicate (orally, and as a group) the story and the ecological concepts linked to the story.  Podcasts are an exciting way to communicate science, and can be an effective tool in helping to find a deeper understanding of ecological concepts.

The Ecology Podcast is done in groups, and is devoted to exploring the portrayal of ecological concepts in the news media and linking concepts to course material. Groups are required to get approval for their topic in advance of commencing the research and recording. Within the first 10 seconds of their podcast, each student in the group is requested to clearly state their name. Introductions should be followed by the title or concept that they  discuss.  The remaining time is  spent introducing the story / concept, explaining it to the audience, and linking the story to more fundamental ecological concepts, including those discussed during lectures.  It is expected that each group member spend approximately the same time speaking on the podcast.   Students are encouraged to be creative with the podcast – to have fun, and find ways to provide an informative and entertaining podcast.  Students are encouraged to interview other experts on the topic, and find other content to bring into the podcast. Podcasts are to be between 3-4 minutes long.

The podcast assignment is worth 15% of the grade in the class, and is graded using the following rubric:

Each of the following criteria is graded between 0 (poorly done) to 5 (excellent, above expectations) for a total out of 25 points:

  1. Format & Quality (length of podcast, sound quality, all group members given equal time)
  2. Broad coverage of ecological concept (introduction and explanation of broader topic, overview of portrayal in news media)
  3. Link to fundamental ecological concepts (links to lecture content, links to other course materials)
  4. Synthesis, integration (all parts of podcast linked together, evidence of deeper critical thinking about the topic, opinions presented and discussed)
  5. Creativity (effort to make podcast interesting, fun, entertaining; evidence of creative thinking)

Carly and I also did a sample podcast (ours was on Orca whales stuck in sea ice in the Arctic). This was really fun to put together, and allowed us to refine/adjust the assignment details to ensure it would meet the learning objectives.

We also provided a list of ‘model’ science podcasts out there (e.g., Scientific America’s 60 second science podcasts, and NASA’s earth audio podcasts), as a way to encourage students to make their podcasts high quality, interesting, and effective.  Students used McGill’s Learning Management System for uploading their podcasts, and then Carly and I sat down and over the course of a day, graded the entire set of podcasts.

Overall, the students rose to the challenge and produced truly amazing and high quality podcasts. You could tell they had fun with the idea, and in many cases, the groups found ‘experts’ to interview about their topic.  Here are links to two of the podcasts, and in both cases, the students sought out and interviewed another Professor in my Department, Dr. David Bird.

This one is about cat predation on birds, and this second example is about snow geese.

From an instructor’s perspective, podcasts were a true delight to grade, and it was a refreshing change from grading essays or tests. It also allowed students to exhibit creative talents that they otherwise would not get to explore in this ecology class.  I believe the podcasts were effective at assessing how students were engaged with the course content.  Explaining ecological concepts is difficult, and requires a deep and intimate knowledge of the content. “Teaching” in the form of a podcast, is an excellent way to learn.

Podcasts were an effective form of group work. In some cases, groups could not find time to work together, so individuals were able to record sections separately and merge them together after the fact.  It’s also important to note that students had no complaints or technical issues with this assignment. They all were able to access software and hardware for this assignment, and uploading assignments to our learning management system was smooth.

In sum, podcasts are ideal as a student assessment tool, especially when class sizes make written assignments unmanageable. Podcasts are fun to put together, enjoyable to grade, and because they force an explanation of content, they can truly test content in all the right ways.

I encourage instructors to try it out — You’ll like what you hear.

Social media for academics

Earlier this week Steven Hamblin wrote a blog post requesting help as he develops a presentation on social media use in Academia.  This has prompted me to put a presentation up on Slideshare; one that is related closely to this topic. This presentation was something I put together back in March, and looking further back, it evolved from discussions with my PhD student Crystal Ernst, and from a presentation given at the Entomological Society of Canada’s annual conference last autumn.  It’s far from perfect, a bit outdated now, but hopefully contains some useful information. Enjoy! (and please share and comment!).

Expiscor (6 May 2013)

Welcome to May! Expiscor is still going strong, and thanks to everyone for the continued support and interest. I’m certainly thrilled about this, and will continue to post weekly links about entomology, arachnology, natural history, biology and a dash of the curious and odd.

  • Silk farming and biotechnology: the future is here. This paper describes some things that I don’t fully understand, and I am partially fascinated by, and partially terrified about, the idea (anyone read Margaret Atwood‘s book, Oryx & Crake?).
  • On the death of a bug blog? Ted MacRae posts about waning interest by readers, and perhaps by him, with his fabulous Beetles in the Bush blog. Ted will keep posting (phew!) but less regularly. Actually, I have noticed that over the past six months or so quite a few bug blogs have been less active.  This saddens me – high quality entomology blogs are an important way for this discipline to reach a wide audience.  Come on, folks – keep them going!
  • Palpal action. and check out this stunning photo from Chthoniid!  Yes, Harvestmen are among the most lovely of the Arachnida.
A charming harvestmen. © Chthoniid, reproduced here with permission.

A charming harvestmen. © Chthoniid, reproduced here with permission.

  • Worried about the decline of bees and colony collapse disorder?  Read this –> an important message (thanks Bug Girl for posting this)
  • On-line reading – I have been enjoying Nautilus this past week. Here’s their motto: “Nautilus is a different kind of science magazine. We deliver big-picture science by reporting on a single monthly topic from multiple perspectives. Read a new chapter in the story every Thursday”.  Definitely one to follow. And it’s a lovely site to look at.
  • Avoid that mumbo-jumbo.  Here’s Alan Alda’s take on scientific jargon.  Here’s a great quote from him:  “There’s no reason for the jargon when you’re trying to communicate the essence of the science to the public because you’re talking what amounts to gibberish to them“.  He’s right.
  • Think you’r a pretty big deal? What to think about your place in the Universe? Think again. (thanks Sam Heads for tweeting that link!)
  • Kids have an interesting fashion sense. Here’s a photo of my 9 year old, en route to school.  I wish we could all worry a little less about whether or not things might clash, and just be happy that we have clothes to wear and food to eat.
Fashion. That is all.

Fashion. That is all.

  • Unless you’ve been off the grid for months, you have probably heard of the great Canadian Chris Hadfield, up on the International Space Station. He and Barenaked Ladies frontman Ed Robertson teamed up a while ago to write and perform a song (yes, Chris was in SPACE during the recording). Well, this was all leading up to MUSIC MONDAY, which is today. A fabulous celebration about music – all the details are here.  And the video of the Hadfield/Robertson song is below. Worth a listen.
  • ….on a related note, Chris Hadfield has more twitter followers than Canada’s Prime Minster (and for good reason).

Ten fun facts about Daddy Longlegs

Animals with many names: Harvestmen, Daddy longlegs, Shepherd Spiders, Grandfather Greybeard, Phalangids, Opiliones.

Cousins of other Arachnids, but an Order all to their own.   Over the past 11 months, I’ve been on a journal of discovery about these amazing creatures.

After nearly 300 tweets, and over 600 pages of text in Pinto-da-Rocha et al.’s book on Harvestmen, the Opiliones Project (in the way it was originally conceived) is over.  To recap – this was a twitter-based project in which I shared content from that weighty textbook with anyone who cared to follow along (using the hashtag #OpilionesProject).  Many folks followed along, notably my twitter friends Derek Hennen, Jaden Walker, Matthew Cobb, and many, many others…

A lovely Harvestmen - photo by B. Valentine, reproduced here with permission

A lovely Harvestmen – photo by B. Valentine, reproduced here with permission

I learned a lot along the way – and will take this opportunity to highlight ten fun facts about Harvestmen – all of these were part of the Opiliones Project.

Did you know that…

1. Salvador Dali featured Harvestmen in his work!  It’s true – check it out: “Daddy Longlegs of the Evening

2. Harvestmen can breath through their legs!  Spiracles in harvestmen are located just posterior to the coxae of the 4th pair of legs and this supply of oxygen to Harvestmen legs (e.g., after they are removed) contributes to the duration of twitching

3. Harvestmen have been around for at least 400 million years!  Phenominal!  And Harvestmen from the Rynie chert have an extensive tracheal system – the oldest record of such tubes of ANY arthropod

4. Harvestmen are NOT venomous! They don’t have venom glands!  A common urban myth.

5. Over 60 chemical compounds have been isolated from Harvestmen secretions (e.g., the secretions that are often used in chemical defense)

6.  At least a dozen species of Harvestmen are known to be parthenogenetic (females lay eggs that produce only females)!

7.  Harvestmen often show aggregation behavior, and the largest aggregation recorded is 70,000 individuals on a candelabrum cactus!

8. Unlike other Arachnids, Harvestmen males have a penis!

9. In some Harvestmen species, males use their chelicerae to offer oral secretion to female – a type of nuptial gift!

10. In some species, Harvestment moult even after they are have reached adulthood!

So there you have it.  Many fascinating and fun facts about Harvestmen (and there are many, many more) – you can access all the tweets from the Opiliones Project here (all 24 pages of them).

There were some other notable Harvestmen events over the past year, and it was fortunate this project coincided with these events.  For example, the Taxonomy Hulk burst onto the scene, and highlighted an article depicting a mix-up between a spider and a Harvestmen (a common mistake…).  Also, a truly HUGE harvestmen species was discovered – this sucker had a 13 inch legspan.  As May Berenbaum said over twitter…that’s a Daddy Loooooonglegs!

So, to finish – a big THANK YOU to everyone who followed along.  I hope this project was a fun for you as it was for me.

Screen Shot 2013-02-26 at 4.05.02 PM

Another lovely Harvestmen, photo by B. Valentine, reproduced here with permission.

A special thanks to Brian Valentine for permission to use his Harvestmen photos on this blog!