By bioramaxwell

I am an academic professional in the Department of Biology at Georgia State University, in Atlanta, GA, USA. My position involves both academic and administrative duties. Currently, I lecture in General Biology, Microbiology and Public Health, Major's Microbiology, and Medical Microbiology. In addition, I am responsible for coordinating all microbiology and genetics labs taught through the Department of Biology. I currently serve as the adviser for the Bachelor's in Interdisciplinary Studies in Environmental Science.

Affordance & Limitation of Letter Grades (Part 2)

As part of the affordance & limitation of letter grades module (#beyondlettergrades), I’m spending some time comparing one of my old syllabi with a more current one.  Both syllabi come from BIOL 2107 – Principles of Biology I.  The course is intended for individuals majoring in biology or working on requirements for Pre-Med.  Though many don’t get it until it is too late, students really need to get an A in this class if you have hopes of going to Med school (this is from our Pre-Med advisory board and talking to Med school admissions).  More important than the grade is the idea that this is a foundational class for all of our other biology courses.  The material that students are exposed to will appear again in every course they take, and I have had far too many seniors that did not remember the basics reviewed in this course.
I mentioned the grade because this is a driving force for students that want to get into medical school.  They will take easier classes, get good grades at first, but then over their undergrad, they start having problems with higher level classes.  One of my goals for about five years is to work on ways of getting them to stop focusing on grades, and instead focus on learning.  But 40 can’t tell 20, and 20 won’t understand until their 40.  (so I started tricking them).

The first syllabus is from 2007 Spring Semester.  The document is a PDF in Google Docs with public access.  It was originally a single web page that was loaded into our LMS (hence some strange format issues).

As a state school, there are a number of things we have to put into our syllabi.  Not everyone put them in, but over the last few years there has been a concerted effort by the administration to make sure all required areas are in the document.  One area that is required are the “Course Learning Objectives”.  Most of these I got from other instructors, and some I decided upon.  The issue though is that they really never directed the course, for me or the colleagues I talked with about the course.  Instead, we just tried to make it through all of the chapters of the textbook that were assigned for this class (about 25 chapters).  The textbook is a TOME.

About four years ago, I realized that the textbooks for general biology had become unwieldy.  They were reference books, not instructional books.  Everyone crams too much in without regard for what is critical for students to learn; hence my renaming them as reference books instead of textbooks.  What got me more though as the idea that I was letting a publisher (who may not even have a degree in biology) decide what was important to teach students.

Students see course objectives as meaningless, because teachers have a tendency to down play them.  Each semester, I’ve asked students if they ever look over then.  I’m no longer surprised when they say no.  As for this 2007 syllabus, the learning objectives play no role in how the students will be assessed.

Next stop is with the class policies.  The first is about assignments (think mini-papers), and you will see No Late Assignments Are Accepted.  Of course, this is tempered with reason.  If someone is sick for three weeks (and it has happened), then I’ll work with them.  The one thing I don’t work with is someone waiting until the last minute.  Should make a note here:  our campus assumption is that all students have access to the internet.  It is part of the student handbook that they can either use private access or school access (many computer labs).  Even in 2007, internet access was not a problem.

I’ve come to realize that for many educators, the idea of work at your own pace has become important.  One problem I have with that concept is that we also need to train people to be successful.  Most of these students want to either be in medical school or research.  Medical doctors don’t have the luxury of waiting a few weeks before they get a patients file over to a hospital for a critical surgery (with the doctor’s notes on the patient).  If you do research with industry, your on a time line.  If a meeting is called, and your suppose to show results, then you need to quickly make a presentation about those results.  I always give time limits on assignments in order to help them learn to work in what can be high pressure fields.  

Next comes the exams, and you will find that there is a cut off for when you can start the exam.  This policy was based on a few ideas: 1) I don’t want to give out an exam after people start leaving the exam, and 2) you don’t get to come late to a pre-professional exam. 

(I’ve been trying to finish this post for nearly six days, so I’m going to jump down to the grade breakdown)  The grade distribution is based on a 1000 point scale that is easily converted to a percentage system.

25% of the grade is determined by their lab.  The lab is taught by Graduate Teaching Assistants, and is coordinated by a separate faculty member.  I have little say in the grade that is given to me regarding their lab performance (and little to no influence over the lab).  When it comes down to performance in my class, it counts as 75% of the grade.

Three exams constitute 30% of the grade, so 10% of the grade is determined by a single exam.
The final exam counts for 20% of the grade, so exams in general count for 50% of the grade.

25% of the grade is determined by formative assessments and projects, with 18% of this counting for pre-lecture quizzes.  These are online quizzes that students take prior to the topic section, and are meant to gauge the students understanding of their reading (they get to take the quiz multiple times, and the highest is kept).

I kept looking at how I was designing the course, and how I was assessing the students.  One big question I had on my mind was: “what do I want these students to look like when they finish my class?”  In other words, where do I want their competencies (this was a thought that finally matured when reading over information from the Bologna Accords and the participating in a Lumina Degree Qualification Profiles evaluation).

My next post is regarding my current syllabus, and the transformations that have taken place.

Affordance & Limitation of Letter Grades (Part 1)

As I finish inputting grades for the minimester Freshmen Learning Community, I’ve been thinking about the Affordance and Limitations of Grading module for #beyondlettergrades.  The module asks us to look at a syllabus, but what I really want to do is a look back at my teaching and how I’ve viewed grades; a retrospective as it were.

I started teaching after finishing my Masters of Science degree in 1993.  My Master’s experience was HORRIBLE.  The one ray of light was that I loved teaching labs.  I got a job at Darton College in Albany, GA.  At the time, it was a two year community college, and I loved it (I think my love of teaching Freshman came from there).

As with most science teachers, I had no formal training in education save for the experience I gained from good and bad professors.  I was in my early twenties, and a little out of my depths.  My chair, who was a biologist, gave me their syllabi and copies of their tests.  No homework assignments, just tests.  Three tests and a final to be precise.  My chair also coached me a little, and would observe my progress over the next few years.  I did exactly what I had gone through:  lecture, test, lecture, test.  Over the years I started to change things up.  I built PowerPoints (new technology at that time), animations, and even HTML and Hyperstack based quizzes. 

The most amazing thing about Darton College was the president.  Dr. Peter Sireno was above the curve when it came to vision.  He was eager for us to embrace new instructional technology.  I always felt the campus to be an encouraging place to experiment with education.  During my time there, I was even given the opportunity to go to a series of digital training workshops sponsored by the GA Board of Regents (our higher ed governing body).  Unlike most administrators I’ve known since, Dr. Sireno would listen to us when we talked about the benefits and drawbacks of instructional tech.  If we said something didn’t work, he wouldn’t push it.  Instead, he would let us look for other options.  (Of course, I know that some colleges from back then will have different impressions.  For me, it was an encouraging environment).

It was during that time that I started experimenting with different ways of assessing students.  In the end, exams were still the mainstay, but I was branching out.  I tried quizzes, worksheets, and projects.  As reference, the main classes I taught were Anatomy & Physiology and Microbiology for nursing students.  I had great success during October when students would buy a cheap skeleton and build muscles on it.  Still, the main focus of the class was lecture.  I was still clinging to the idea that if I did not address all of the topics, the students would not feel they needed to learn it.
In 2000, I left to finish my Doctorate.  My head was clearing from my Masters degree, and I found I wanted to do research again.  I still loved teaching, but decided to finish this degree.  While completing my doctorate, I helped some of the faculty with instructional technology.  I built online quizzes for labs as well as tutorials.  After my doctorate, they needed someone to take over a class, so I agreed to come on board as a PTI.  This quickly changed to visiting lecturer, and then I got a job as an academic professional (Faculty/Administrative) in charge of microbiology and genetics lectures/labs (really it is the labs, but I work with the lectures to make sure we’re all on the same page). 
When I first started, I wanted to bring new ideas to the classroom.  Nothing extreme, but I had the students do quizzes before lecture based on their reading (heck, I wanted them to read).  The first semester was difficult.  It was Anatomy and Physiology, and I didn’t lecture.  I started the class seeing if they had questions about their reading.  We went from there (OK, only three students ever had questions).  Half the students were not doing the quizzes, even though the online assessments were a significant part of their class.  They were not interested in actual cases, and even when I did lecture on difficult topics, most people slept.  It was heart breaking, but an instructive lesson.  Every semester I adapted, altering assignments, altering feedback systems, changing lecture modes.

At this point, I should mention a few things.  I started using digital presentations back in the 90’s.  I even taught a Continuing Ed series on Power Point.  I even did informal experiments where I would use Power Points in one class, but the chalk board and overhead acetates in another.  I realized that PowerPoint dumbed down my students.  If I gave them the slide ahead of time, they zoned out.  If they had to copy them in class, they stopped listening.  The classes were I didn’t use PowerPoint always did better.  I only use PowerPoint now for images/art/cartoons, and that is so I don’t have to draw out every structure.

The second thing are clickers.  Back in the 90’s we did a number of things that involved clickers.  Heck, one classroom was rigged so that there were buttons on the desks that corresponded to A-E.  Even when I started teaching again in 2005, I used analog systems (e.g., index cards)to do classroom polls.  I HATE THEM.  I HATE CLICKERS.  Yes, I said it.  I have yet to get meaningful results back from students; instead, I’ve found that they focus on the question, and not the concept.  Most are utterly confused when they see a different example of the same concept.  It just goes hand in hand with all multiple choice:  the answer is here, just pick it.  I’ve had better luck getting them talking about the concept, and then letting them dissect the examples.

A moment about multiple choice:
I realized a while back that I want to train my students, not just in the discipline material, but in being successful.  Most of the courses I teach have either a large number of pre-nursing (pre-allied health) or pre-medical students.   Both groups have to take multiple choice pre-professional exams.  Most of these students don’t know how to effectively take multiple choice tests.  Yes, they have done them for years, but do they do it effectively?  No.  They make common mistakes, like comparing answers to each other and not the question, or more importantly, they don’t read the question.  Multiple choice for me is a chance to help them learn where they make mistakes on “objective” tests (NOTE:  I really don’t think they are all that objective…we just say it to make ourselves feel better).

At Georgia State University, I continued to “experiment”.  I made the labs I teach writing intensive, and in most cases rapid turn around (nursing and med schools are brutal…finish a clinical and have 10 page paper ready the next day).  My “lecture” classes had a large number assignments for the students, and I was regularly marked down on end of the semester student feedback for “expecting too much” or “being hard.”  My goals for my students evolved during this time:  Instead of teaching them, I wanted to help them be better learners.

In 2010, I started to hear about MOOCs, and started to join some of the ones being offered.  I slowly but surely kept changing things in class.  #change11 changed everything, and it was during 2011 that I yanked the bandage off my classes and changed everything.  They are still a work in progress, but I am far happier with the outcomes.  Happily, our administration (especially our Provost, Dr. Rita Palm), was very supportive of faculty exploring new methods.  We even have a “Digital Champions” program to help encourage people to break out of the old school instructional box.

In 2012, our system changed our LMS to D2L.  I had been exposed to D2L, and was initially happy with the switch.  Then I discovered that our system was using the old D2L (not the current), and had either not purchased or locked down the functions I was happy about.  I frequently say that the current LMS has pushed us back a decade.  I had established external portals before the switch, and have returned.  One lesson learned:  Bureaucrats who don’t involve educators can seriously screw up educational innovations. 

In the next blog, I’m going to look at a syllabus from 2006 and my current one.
If you’re interested in some of what I’m doing, you can visit my course portal at:


Assessment: Our Cultural Love Affair with Standardized Tests

The Chicago Teacher’s Union strike this week has brought to mind again our culture’s codependent relationship with standardized tests.  I specifically chose to describe this relationship as codependent to emphasize how standardized testing controls and manipulates our educational systems.  Instead of being focused on learning, standardized tests focus students on memorizing unrelated and disparate facts in an attempt to prove knowledge and intelligence.  What’s worse is that they give an illusion to the rest of the country that there is one acceptable knowledge, that which the exam creators decided to emphasize.

The desire to have some type of knowledge test is easy to understand.  American’s are by cultural indoctrination pragmatists.  We want to see the “results”.  We want the “evidence”.  We hate nebulous answers.  The problem is…learning is not cut and dry.  People learn in different ways, and we process information in different ways.  For example, multiple choice logic problems are easy for some people, but difficult for others.  Sometimes it  is individual, and at other times you can see cultural trends at work.  Standardized tests are ultimately a HORRIBLE way of showing that students have LEARNED.  They do not show the effectiveness of teachers, unless you are looking at how well the teacher taught the test.  I often wonder, have we ever really looked (as a culture) at whether the tests reflect what we think students should be able to do?  Even most of the reading comprehension and math standardized tests seem to miss the mark when it comes to discovering what students have learned.

The prime problem with these exams:  They are easy to administer and grade.  Most of all, they provide wonder numbers which can then be turned into graphs.  Let’s ignore the ability to manipulate that data.  Instead, let’s just focus on the idea that it is easy for administrators.  A district can just order the tests in bulk, give them at an assigned time, then bulk process them.  The computer then shoots out lots of number….YEAH…Evidence!  But is it good evidence.

One thing I emphasize with my students is that you must look at the underlying assumptions.  What follows are two core assumptions I see in standardized testing.  There are more, but I’m going to start here.
Assumption 1:  All people of the same age (grade) have the same ability to process information.

  • This is a bold assumption, and does not hold very well.  Even adults have different abilities to process information. 
  • This goes back to the industrial model of the American public school system.  All children of age X are sorted into grade Y.
  • But do all children have the same capabilities?  NO.  Some may be better in math than others, some stronger readers, others stronger writers.
  • Core Issue:  Each human being is unique (unless you have an identical twin).  So we each have unique capabilities.

Assumption 2:  All ethnic groups have the same mental models when they enter school. 
I remember one seminar on this topic where the speaker was talking about different thought processes (models) that African American students can come to school with.  It was dealing with what would see as a simple question:  draw a line between two point.  The children’s answer was:

It is a line between two points.  Of course, teachers and standardized tests would count this as a wrong answer, but it does satisfy the paramaters of the question. 

  • Children come to school with preconceived ideas (notions) based upon their familial and cultural upbringing.
  • This changes the lens though which they receive information.
  • Again, no two children are alike.

For me, the greatest problem with these exams is that they are attempting to standardize human intellect and knowledge.

In regards to teachers, it is absurd to relate the effectiveness of a teacher to standardized exams throughout primary and secondary schooling.  The exams are not giving us clean data, but instead, data based upon the illusionary concept of a human norm.

NOTE: When you get to specific knowlege (i.e., discipline specific knowlege), I can see using standardized exams a little more (such as the American Chemical Society’s collegiate exit exams). I just don’t think the general education exams are really giving us the evidence they say they are giving.

How do I like to teach?

Wow, what a loaded question.  It came from Week 2 tasks of  #potcert, specifically the getting started chart.  This may be one questions very few people ask themselves.

Most people are comfortable in the way they teach, but do they like it?  I was very comfortable with the lecture style, and I was good at it.  Since I love storytelling, and have an acting background, it was easy for me to stand up in front of a class and just churn out information.  But did I like it?  It was comfortable.  Was it effective? NO.  When I saw the same students as juniors and seniors, I could tell that most of them did not remember the material. 

At this point, I should differentiate students.  It is ultimately all about the audience, and with the classes I teach, I have different audiences.  First there are my college freshmen who are majoring in biology.  There are a number of challenges with them, not the least of which is deprogramming how they have learned to game the educational system, i.e., get good grades without studying. 

Then there are my pre-nursing students.  They’re taking biology to satisfy the requirements to get into the nursing program.  Here you have two types, the hyper motivated who take the initiative to ready and study daily, and those who have no idea how to study.  This second group has a high tendency to fail or withdraw because the class is “too hard.”  Never mind they never came to talk to their instructor, or in many cases, showed up for class.  Still, these pre-nursing classes tend to be very bimodal in grade distribution.

In both cases, I was comfortable with the lecture format.  With the majors, I saw that it was very ineffective.  The students thought all they had to do was come to class and listen.  They never sat with the concepts, never did practice problems, or anything.  They passed the exams by cramming, but they never learned.  The good pre-nursing students studied like made, but all they learned were pieces; they rarely saw the whole picture.  The unprepared pre-nursing students most of the time fell away before I could intervene (larger class sizes).  In both cases, I saw that moving to more online assignments, such as quizzes and papers, helped.

But I realized that more was needed.  That is when I moved to a more involved online presence.  One of the things that seems to be the most effective is daily newsletters, but I realize I’m on a tangent.

Back to my original thought:  How do I like to teach is an interesting question, and one that I don’t think many people consider.  It gets confused with issues of comfort and ease.  The problem is, is what I like to do effective?  This is the second question we have to ask ourselves.  It may be easy to lecture, but is it effective?  It may be easy to record a lecture and distribute it, but is it effective?  I may like case studies, but are they always effective?

It is a great question to ask yourself. 

To blog or not to blog…

I was reading Vanessa Vaile’s reflection on a Facebook discussion about “why blog?”, and it got me thinking.  In teaching, I’ve used blogs and forums, as well as Facebook and twitter.  While I may have likes and dislikes among the different forms, the one thing that they have in common is that they get people talking.  That for me is the most important thing.

Life sciences are conceptually heavy.  Unlike chemistry and physics, where you are doing a fair amount of math in the introductory classes, biology focuses on having the students build conceptual models.  It helps to talk these models out.  It helps to have feedback so that you know your going in the right direction.  It’s important to start communicating these.  If it starts the students talking about their discipline, then it’s a good thing.

Personally I like blogs.  They are a space in the digital world that I can call my own :).  Where I can put my thoughts down, and let people come in and discuss them.  But, they can also be unwieldy for the novice.  Getting my freshmen to set up blogs and use them can be rewarding and frustrating.  Realizing that they won’t use them once the semester is over; really frustrating.  The larger the class, the harder it is to get them to really make their blog a learning environment.  But the worst is getting them to visit each other’s blogs.  It amazes me sometimes how resistant students can be to click on another link for class.

Even with a centralized RSS feed, I found students reluctant to go to each other’s blogs and post comments.  So I started using other tools.  The first was the social framework called Oxwall.  It worked wonderfully.  Each student had a blog space that they didn’t have to decorate and customize (like WordPress), and it built a Facebook like feed.  The problem was that it was hard to build other activities. 

So this year, I’m trying Moodle.  It is a great LMS platform, and highly customizable.  Instead of blogs, I’m using forums for their daily challenges.  Strangely, I’m getting them to respond to each other more though this system than I did in Oxwall.  I think this is because each daily challenge has an independent forum.  They don’t have to hunt for things to comment about.  That I think is the ultimate key, novices have not learned to effectively hunt for information and learning opportunities.

OK, they have also never been taught to appreciate and take advantage of learning opportunities (i.e., the grade is all that matters mentality).

I’m not a great fan of Facebook when it comes to undergraduate learning.  There is far too much signal to noise.  Students either never go there (because it’s boring) or it takes on a life different than the intended community function.

Twitter is better, especially if you want to get students to start thinking about their discipline outside of class.  I love sending students tweets asking them to think about how knowledge of X (genetics, metabolism, etc…) affects how they look at things.  I also get some great feedback from them.

Like so many things, the audience is what you have to look at first.  Having focused forums seems to help my freshmen.  They can focus on their challenges without having to try to figure out how to build and maintain a blog.  Now, if our school began emphasizing ePortfolios, I would revisit having my freshmen maintain blogs.  Until then, using forums seems to be a great middle ground.

Joining the Pedagogy First Discussion

This week, I started picking up messages on my feeds about Pedagogy First!, a year long open course dealing with online teaching (and learning).  I commented on some of the blogs I follow, and then started looking at some of the conversations that have started during this first week of the course.  Enjoying a good challenge, and looking forward to inspiring discussions, I decided to join in.

As reflection is a great way to analyze your experiences, I decided to reflect on my foray into hybrid online/face-to-face teaching.  My discipline is biology, which is a very content heavy subject.  Traditionally the introductory levels are focused on low level Bloom’s objectives, mainly remembering and some understanding.  In teaching college seniors, I started to see a problem; they were not remembering foundational concepts, and they really didn’t understand their supposed major.  As with so many disciplines, there is an overall picture of life science that is made up of individual jigsaw puzzle pieces.  We use to start with having students memorize the pieces, and then later they would see where the pieces fit until they saw the whole picture.

Unfortunately, our society started changing the goal of education.  A common meme is that all you need is an AWhile a good grade is important when applying to medical school, so is understanding your discipline.  “What are you going to do when you get to med school,” I once asked a student who had horrible study skills and time management.  Her replay, “I’ll start studying then.”  My response, “when will you learn how to study?  Do you expect to miraculously change?”  Over the last few years, I’ve realized that my A students, the ones who I’m suppose to consider as my best students, were cramming and flushing information.  When I saw them as juniors and seniors, they could not answer simple questions that I know they had answered when they were freshmen.  I was despondent about teaching, so I decided to start at the ground floor and reconsider my teaching goals:  “what did I really want them to leave my freshmen class with?”  While content is always important, I realized that I wanted them to start putting the puzzle pieces together.  I wanted them to learn how to learn.  I wanted them to realize that they were building a mental framework, a foundation, where they could hang further, deeper information about biology.  Ultimately, I wanted them to be active learners.

So I started to transform my classes.  I originally used the term MOOC, but as Lisa Lane pointed out in her blog, the term MOOC really does not apply to what I’m doing.

For seven years, there had already been a heavy set of online activities for my students, and I had tried to get them to participate in discussions, forums, and even group papers.  I’ve done active learning and case study exercises.  Each had high points and low points, but I was still missing the important piece, getting the students to sit with biology, explore the concepts on their own, and really work at learning.

When I started my Biology MOOC, the goal was to have students blog daily about topics in biology.  I sent them out a daily newsletter to keep them focused, and each newsletter contained a challenge they were to blog about.  Three times during the semester, they would compile information they had been writing about, and build a Milestone paper.  At the end of the semester, the three milestone papers became a Learning Reflection paper.  At each milestone, they also had an online test, with an in class comprehensive final at the end.  As for points, very few things were high/punitive point values.  Most of the points were small, and there were variable pools of points so that students had multiple ways of earning some points.  The goal was to get student working throughout the week on biology, instead of the day before the exam.

It actually worked better than I thought it would.

I’ve been working on a new platform, and with the help of our University Relations department, there is now a logo and badge system.  The current open courses can be found at .  More information about Project BOLO (Biology Online Learning Opportunities) can be found at

Looking forward to interacting with everyone throughout Pedagogy First.

Rethinking MOOCs

Lisa M. Lane wrote a elegant post on Three Kinds of MOOCs on her blog the other day, and it has me thinking and reconsidering.  She organized current MOOCs into three categories: Network-based, Task-based, and Content-based.  The brilliant part of this classification scheme is that all three principles (network, task and content) are part of all three types of MOOCs; it is just that each type has an emphasis on one of those principles.

Why do I like this?  Because it is at the heart of my attempts to adapt MOOC elements into my courses.  As I’ve said before, the MOOC is just a stepping stone.  It provides us with a new educational paradigm.  Not all courses have to be massive or open to take advantage of the ideas that have been sparked for the MOOC.  I also contend that the MOOC is not for all people or learning levels.  With Lisa Lane’s classification, I need to refine the last thought a little.

The network-based MOOC has an emphasis on the evolving conversation and learning networks, and is indicative of the first generation of MOOCs.  My thoughts regarding the level of the learner/student is most focused on this type of MOOC.  Last week’s #MOOCMOOC seemed mainly focused on generating conversation, even though there were tasks involved.  The building of a learning network was critical.  But this type of MOOC requires some level of understanding, life experience, and intellectual maturity.  The full format does not work well with most undergraduates, especially when you are trying to help them build up the mental framework of a discipline.  Putting a Freshman into such as situation would only add disconnections (but this may well change in the future).

The task and network-based approaches are more in line with helping students build up their intellectual strengths.  This is where I’m focused.  Adapting the tools and principles of the original MOOCs to build courses that help students tackle content, build mental frameworks (content in context), and recognize the importance of the learning community/network.

Now, I would not call what I do as MASSIVE.  First, I’m really bad at publicity, so most people don’t know about project BOLO.  I do want the course and materials to be open, because having other people come in adds perspective to the discussions.  My primary focus though is going to be the students I have in class (I will comment to everyone, but my commitment is to those enrolled in the campus course).  These are reasons I see what I’m doing as based on MOOCs, but not an actual MOOC.

Learning Objects and MOOCification

During #MOOCMOOC last week, someone coined a new phrase (at least for me):  MOOCify.  Basically the idea of turning a current class into a MOOC.

While I love the term, I’m not crazy about the underlying concept.  It’s not that I don’t think it can be done, and it is not because I “distrust” MOOCs.

The reason I’m not crazy about the word MOOCify is that it misses out on a critical point: the MOOC is not for all audiences.  Instead, I would rather talk about adapting the MOOC model.  More specifically, I talk about taking the connectivist foundation of the MOOC, and the tools commonly used in a MOOC, to build a stronger (and more distributed) learning community revolving around a class.

Let me break my thought down using my class as an example.
To start with, the class I’m talking about is a College Level Freshman Biology class.  These students are not ready for a MOOC (and yes, I’m sure about that assessment), and at most, they come in with a “NOVICE” level understanding of the topic.  The course is therefore content heavy.  None of this so far sets up a good MOOC environment.  And the concept of a mechanical MOOC being used is just frightening; this class requires that context be woven with content to build a cognitive framework for higher level biology classes.

So, you have a group of students who require some “instruction”, but need more to build their own learning and frameworks.  So, taking the concept of blogs, discussions and feeds, build a learning network among members of the class.  Open this network to the outside so others who are interested can join in the discussions and activities.  Add to this a daily newsletter to keep the conversation going.  I took tools from my MOOC experiences, opened the discussion to include new perspectives, and facilitated the discussion.  It may be MOOCification, but I think of it more as adapting components that work for my goal.

Now we come to learning objects.  Since this is content heavy, and I want outside participation, I have to include learning objects.  For a little tangent…

During #MOOCMOOC I came across a common refrain of the MOOC being “organic” and needing no “central” space.  I have no idea where this idea came from.  All of the “successful” MOOCs I’ve either participated or lurked on have all had what I refer to as a touchstone, some virtual place where information, objects and artifacts can be found.  Perhaps a centralized feed of participant comments, but always with a calendar of activities and some general guidelines.  The connections made may be organic, but as we learn from biology, you need to have a scaffold to produce any useful form.  So I firmly believe that you need to have some central virtual location.

So, learning objects.  For some reason, I feel that this has become a dirty words.  What is wrong with a vetted learning object, something which a facilitator/mentor/instructor can use to explain a concept, or even more importantly, start a discussion?  Heck, I build learning objects, and yes, I’ll open them to everyone (when they’re ready).

Enough for now…

Bid a fond farewell to #MOOCMOOC

The the chaotic networking of #MOOCMOOC has come to an end.  Final reflections:  Like any MOOC, what I took away was inspiration and clarity.  Yes, sometimes I also get new skills, learn new tools, or start thinking about things in a radically different way.  This one helped to firmly establish my feelings on some things, provided some insights, and gave me some inspiration.

Like any MOOC, I also learned some things from negative examples.  The first one is organization.  I feel better in a MOOC when there is a touchstone that the community or networks can center around.  I don’t mean a concept, but some point in virtual space where we can organize things.  #change11 was a good example of this.  The Canvas LMS system seems like it would be good for some things, but it didn’t seem to work for #MOOCMOOC.  Part of this could have been the organizing framework, but part is also limitations in the system (I’ve tried building things in it, but it lacks some functions that I really like for my classes).  I think the single biggest problem I had was finding the central platform where all of our comments/blogs/tweets etc… could be collated.  Finally found that one Friday…it was under the Dashboard icon which was at the bottom of icon pool.  It also wasn’t something in Canvas, but an outside link.  All that was there were the blog and twitter feeds.  I also kept getting random announcements from Canvas, but no central daily newsletter that made sense to me.

Again, I’ll go back to #change11.  One thing that really helped me there, both when I was actively participating or lurking, was the daily newsletter.  It told me what was happening that day, if there was a webinar, but then it had a brief rundown of blogs posted in the last 24 hours.  I could use that to go look at what someone said.  This time, I really felt like I had to hunt for that information.

The other thing that this showed me was that twitter has a point where there are too many people using one hashtag.  There were times I could see people’s tweets getting lost, and some were actually interesting points (which I either favored or replied to…I’m bad about retrweeting).

The attempt to use different tools each day to carry out discussions was novel, but sometimes I again felt that connections were missing.  For example, Google Docs doesn’t work for me when you are there with people you don’t know.  It works better for me when I can see their comments and have an idea of where they’re coming from.  I’m sure others had better experiences with that than I, but for me it felt very disconnecting, not connecting.  I much rather get into a chat, so I can start feeling out the person’s reasons, instead of getting snapshots that don’t always relate. 

As I said up top, I did leave #MOOCMOOC with some new ideas, fresh inspiration, and some more solid footing.  It goes to what I’ve said about MOOCs here and in tweets, what you get out of a MOOC is what you put into it.  Further, no MOOC will match your expectations; each one has surprises and annoyances.  We don’t all fit the same mold, so not all things will work equally well for everyone.

How to build a MOOC

This post came from discussions in #MOOCMOOC today.  There was a brainstorming session about MOOCs, and a live twitter discussion at #digped.  Among the many things that came up was a discussion as to the scale of a MOOC, and an assertion that they had to be MASSIVE.  This was followed by a concept that the only way to make a course sustainable was for it to be massive so that it could accumulate revenue.  There was also a discussion of how to keep people motivated.  So, after a little bit of reflection, I decided to tell a story.

About two years ago, I came to a realization that biology students were not learning biology.  What were they learning, no idea.  This epiphany came when I was teaching a senior level course.  I asked them to define translation, which for biologists is the genetic process where RNA is used by a ribosome to construct a protein; it is the translation of the nucleic acid code into an amino acid code.  They couldn’t do it.  Well, at least not at first.  I spent nearly an hour coaxing the definition out of them.  They were all upset that I did not just tell them.  It may be the first time that I really blew up at a class.  For those who are not biologists, this is one component of the CENTRAL DOGMA of biology.  Let me say that again, CENTRAL DOGMA.  It is something taught in freshman classes, and nearly every course we teach covers it again in more depth.  They have come across this term every semester, but none of them could give me a definition of it.  One of the students actually said “well if we saw it as an answer choice I could have told you.” 

This was disheartening, and was a real blow to my desire to teach.  I suffered burnout after that semester, and started looking at any alternative I could find (even different careers).  It was as bad as my first bout of teacher burnout, which occurred when a student said to me, “you can’t fail me, I paid for the class.”  That is when I came across MOOCs.  They were an incredible adventure.  It was not about passing a test, but instead, about actively taking part in learning.  NOT active learning, but actively taking part in your own learning.  BTW…I find most of what is called active learning little different from the instructor playing a game with the students; it rarely makes them an active part of the class.  I knew I had to find a way of doing this with my freshman students, but that was the problem.  These were not sophisticated learners, they were not actively engaged in their own learning.  How to do you get a student to actively become engaged?

My answer was to do certain things in stages, but to make them working on tasks daily a major function of the course.  Why?  If you are a biologist, then you live with biology every day.  The paradigm colors how you perceive the world, as it does with any discipline.  Becoming engaged with your discipline is ultimately the only way to master it. 

So, I built a structure I originally called a pseudo-(or petite)MOOC.  Since then, I’ve just started calling it Biology Open Learning Opportunities (BOLO).  What I did was adapt elements of the MOOC for my audience.  I built a structure for their learning, and provided a central virtual place for them to meet (not just the LMS).

The course content was divided into 15 week long topics.  Each day, students received a Newsletter that went into depth about an important concept linked to that week’s topic.   As part of the content, there was a daily challenge for them to blog about.  These blogs became the background research for their milestone papers (about 5 weeks worth of material) that were peer reviewed.  The three milestone papers became the foundation for their semester end reflective learning paper, which I graded.  Along with that, each week had an online quiz that lead to a milestone quiz, which led to an in class final exam (multiple choice, as that is most likely what they will see later).  There were other elements as well, but these were two major components of the framework I set up.

Was there resistance?  Yes, but by the end, I could actually tell just from the questions being asked and how rapidly my questions were answered, that they were picking up more than any previous semester.  It was incredible.

Now, back to what prompted this.  An open online course does not have to be massive to use the foundations of a MOOC.  A massive class is something that happens, and it does not really work for anyone to try to engineer it.  Trying to build a MOOC from the top down, that is, from the administration, does not work.  I have yet to see an example of a mandated MOOC that actually worked.  MOOCs occur when an instructor opens their class, not when a University VP or Dean decides the school needs one.  MOOCs are built by the faculty, and only those that want to go through the effort. 

As a continuation of the story, I was invited to an Admin meeting by our Provost (it was a group of us doing “new” things in the classroom).  One of Admins said that no one on campus was doing anything with MOOCS.  When my turn came, I stood up, turned on the social network I built for my class that was entitled “BIOLOGY MOOC.”  I looked at the admin and said, “some of us are working with MOOCs.” 

To Sum Up:  the concept of a MOOC can be taken and reworked for your audience.  You don’t have to keep everything; instead use the tools that best fit your audience.  Be courage enough to fail (because something could easily go wrong), but be ready to be surprised by a success.  Effective MOOCs can’t be built from the top down.  It has to come from a faculty member that is ready to open their class.  Mandating a MOOC is sure to kill it, because it will not be based on a legitimate learning goal.  BTW  a legitimate learning goal comes from an instructor that knows their audience.