From Biology

Foundations of Student Engagement

Whenever I start looking at a new learning object, assignment or assessment, there are a few questions I ask myself.  One of the questions focuses on student engagement.  Before looking at another example of student engagement from the BOLO project and other classes I’ve taught, I want to take a moment to talk about what I see as the foundations of student engagement.

If you start looking into student engagement literature, you will find a plethora of models and terms that have been used to frame questions about engagement.  Sometimes the models may look different, but they are dealing with the same underlying concepts.  Same is true for some of the terms.  My foundation for discussions about student engagement goes back to a paper I came across a number of years ago: Educational Leadership:Strengthening Student Engagement:Strengthening Student Engagement: What Do Students Want. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2014, from  Yes, it is an old article, but it really helps keep me grounded when I start to think about why I want to change something.

The article gives four goals that are common to people who are engaged in their work:

  • Success (the need for mastery)
  • Curiosity (the need for understanding)
  • Originality (the need for self-expression)
  • Relationships (the need for involvement with others)
    • I add to this interactive digital objects or artifacts.  An interactive tutorial requires the student to actively participate, and so is engaging.

I keep these four goals in mind while working on learning objects, assignments and assessments.  How does the activity help them master the material (this is more than just learning content)?  Does it help the student further understand not only the discipline as a whole, but also previous material?  Does it help them connect to a learning community?  Does it allow the student to express their understanding in their own words, or in their own way?  It is not about a one way interaction: teacher lectures to student, or student responses to questions on an exam only seen by the instructor.  It is about breaking down traditional barriers and creating a dialog, a learning network or community.

I see engagement as the cornerstone of all forms of blended learning.  A “flipped” class in which an instructor provides recorded lectures without interaction has not engaged the student.  It is still a one way interaction, and the student is a passive observer of the lecture.

Don’t get me wrong, one way interactions still have their place.  An interactive learning module that walks students through course material is a one way interaction, but it does snap the student out of passive learning (it is interactive, it requires student responses to continue).  My concern is with passive one way interactions.

When I talk about what I’ve done with colleagues, one thing I emphasize is “why are you wanting to blend/flip/hybridize your class?”  This is where the four goals (SCORE) above come in handy.  If you don’t want to encourage success, curiosity, originality or relationships, what is the point of changing the way you teach?  People who are doing it “because it’s expected” or “admin is telling us to do this” are going to have a tough time creating effective, innovative classes.  Why, because they are not engaged; they are not vested in the new class models.  What has to be done is to help them change their thinking, and start thinking in terms of Success, Curiosity, Originality and Relationship (i.e., how to engage students).  Heck, it’s a win if a teacher stops think about change as something expected, and starts thinking about helping students succeed.

Plagiarism (Why I MOOC)

Yesterday I was mired in a project, so I didn’t join in the #MOOCMOOC discussions.  Today, the facilitators have assigned everyone to work with Storify.  I’m only a marginal fan of Storify, as I haven’t really gotten good submissions from students (they are overwhelmed in most of life that this was just a little too overwhelming).  In general I see it as an alternative route for people it speaks to.  Since I’m not really in that group, I’m going to hold off on this leg of the tech tour that is #MOOCMOOC.

Ultimately, the reason why I MOOC is to listen to what other people are thinking and talking about, and then reflect on that.  It is the alternative perspectives, the conflicting views, and the stray thought that leads to a revelation.  The facilitators at #MOOCMOOC have not really added to the conversation (articles and tools have been out there for a while), but what they have done is provide a time point where people interested in open learning connect.  That is ultimately the story that I want to take part in this week.

Today in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffery R. Young presented an article entitled Dozens of Plagiarism Incidents Are Reported in Coursera’s Free Online Courses.  The interesting item from the article is that people will plagiarize in an online course even when it is for no credit!  The author further discusses how some view this as a teachable moment (some cultures see copying as a way of showing honor and esteem for the work’s creator), cautioning people from being over zealous or flaming the offender.

The part I loved the best was when a student claimed that they did not know that copying was wrong.  I had a student tell me that recently (a senior).  I asked him if he had read my syllabus (which discusses academic honesty), or the section on plagiarism on every assignment, or the tutorial that was posted on plagiarism.  He avoided the questions, saying that he did not know copying was wrong.  This conversation kept going on and on until he finally admitted that he did not read the syllabus or take the tutorial, and only glanced at the assignment instructions.  The teachable moment here was a little more basic (read what you are assigned to read, and read instructions).

I try to make plagiarism very simple for my students.  We are in the biological sciences, and it is extremely rare for anyone to use quotes in scientific papers.  So the first thing I tell students is that they may not quote or copy from any source.  The next thing I emphasize is that they must use their own words.  That one phrase, their own words, is repeated throughout the semester.  If they come and ask, I tell them that I’ll sit down and help them; I never give them the sentence, but try to help them work out what they want to say.  But, this is where the reflection begins…

Today, I started really asking myself what I consider plagiarism in the world of web 2.0.  When is it sharing, remixing or plagiarism?  There are posts in facebook, and even twitter, that I know were taken directly off of a website with no citation or hyperlink (which I’m starting to see as a form of citation).  Would I consider that plagiarism?  No, not really.  But why?

We have the distinction between formal and informal writing.  A facebook post is considered informal, as is twitter and any other form of social media.  In the informal setting, we don’t use all the formal rules of English.  It is in this social setting that we can hash out our thoughts, put them out there for people to comment on, critic, or just to return to for reflection.

Back in high school, when I had to write a term paper, I had to sit there and make note cards that would be turned in for a grade.  There was a formal structure for making these note cards, and a formal structure for organizing them so that they could be linked to my formal outline.  All of the instructions were codified in my textbook and had been presented to me in lecture by my teacher.  We all had to follow that structure.  As you may be able to tell, my mind did not work in that formal structure.  I bowed under the academic pressure and did it, then threw them out before I started to write the paper.  It actually amazes me when I see colleagues using that system; my mind just does not wrap around that structure.  (Actually, let me just say that HATED writing high school term papers, mainly because they were so fragging structured).

The reason for that story is to reconsider how people can use informal settings to work out thoughts.  On those pesky note cards, you were suppose to copy “QUOTES” from the book, as well as make notes.  Well, can’t those also be done in some form of digital setting (and no I don’t want digital note cards).  What if you could allow others to comment?  In other words, what if informal writing assignments are used as a way to help students hash out their thoughts. 

I didn’t realize it at first, but this I think was the reasoning behind the blogging leading to milestone papers I do in my classes.  The idea is simple, and now I’m seeing it as more powerful.  The blog is a tool, open to others in the class or world, where you work out a specific concept.  You then bring the blogs together in constructing your paper.  The paper is FORMAL, thus it must follow the formal rules of English, be cited, and free of plagiarism.  The blog was where you took the work of others and converted it into your own words.

I’ll leave this for now, but I would love to hear your thoughts on this idea…

Adapting the MOOC model

Tonight I joined the Twitter intro social for #MOOCMOOC.  It got me thinking that I needed to really spell out what I did last year in my biology course.  While doing this might help some people, I realized that I needed to do it for myself.  Being somewhat absent minded, I need a little space to reflect on what I did, what worked, and what went wrong.

To start of, the course I am speaking about is Principles of Biology I here at Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA.  This is the first biology class for those majoring in biology (or pre-med), and is generally considered a Freshman level course.  Spring semester is actually when we get most of the Freshmen to take it, so it was my big course for the year. 

While in #change11 mooc, I decided to take a leap of faith and do my spring 2012 course in a new way; call it a petite mooc.  For years I’ve had my students do online quizzes, discussion boards, lists, and even blogs, but in my mind I never got the assignments to gel the way I wanted.  Ultimately, I wanted the students to form into one large learning community (that was the idea I got from #change11).  So, I completely restructure my course.

Now remember, these are mainly freshmen.  They are not yet adult learners.  This may change in the next 10 years, but they are not coming to college (at least not GSU) with the motivation seen in most adult learners.  They are also still very much novices when it comes to biology.  They may know some content, but they don’t understand the context.  While I consider myself a mentor, I also recognize that I am still a teacher.  There is a need to explain what I mean here, and it spans pedagogy to andragogy.

The simplest way of saying it is that a teacher is one who TEACHES; meaning one who is going to provide content and context for a student in a given subject.  This does not necessarily mean a “Sage on a Stage,” but it does mean that the teacher (the Master) is helping to build an information framework for the student (the Novice). 

I really like the model of situational leadership in helping to explain what I mean about the role of the teacher at this point.  I know that situational leadership has been modified for education, but I really like some of the simplicity of the original model, especially when it comes to hybrid pedagogies and MOOCs.  Put simply, there is a development curve (learning curve) when people start something new; novices need direction, then coaching.  More advanced students then need support.

So my role as a “teacher” is to help them build the mental framework they will use in their chosen discipline, BUT it is also my role to help them develop into more adult learners.  That is the part I think many people leave out.

As I work with a class, I need to provide ways to help them move from novice to journeyman; from being passive recipients of knowledge to active seekers of knowledge.  That takes us to the mentor.

A mentor then is one who takes on the Coaching and Supportive roles.  This is also where we enter the realm of andragogy.  You are not dealing with passive learners who are in it just for a grade, but with people engaged in the material.

That brings me to what I did in my last class.  First off, here is the syllabus for you to look at:  Hybrid BIOL 2107.  There are things that I have changed from this, but it will give you an idea where I started. 

Each week of the semester had a broad topic to cover (like Energy Harvesting).  Each day of the week students received a newsletter that gave them specific information on the topic and a Daily Challenge.  Here is a copy of one of the first newsletters: Daily Newsletter January 10, 2012

Students were to blog about the daily challenges.  Sometimes the challenge was content based, and at other times it dealt with context.  Students got points just for submitting a blog (minimum 100 words) that was on the topic.  I could go in and find students who were having problems with information, and correct their errors kindly without a grade being hung over their head.  I also didn’t have to sit there and try to “figure” out a grade.  I could skim, read, rate.  I could also bring feedback into the classroom.

Three times during the semester, the students had to write a milestone paper.  Many students quickly realized that they could “steal” from their blogs to write the paper, and that was the idea.  To use what they had already written about, and bring it into a logical format.  These were graded by peer review, and students were told that this would be the basis of their final paper.  I got to go in again and give feedback that was not linked to a grade. 

At the end of the semester, the students combined all of their milestone papers into a learning reflection paper (and they were required to reflect on what they had learned).  This was graded by me through a rubric built from their peer review work.  It worked amazingly well.

There was one student who complained that she did not learn anything through this process, and that she felt that she wasted her time.  She said this to me the day I was putting grades in from their comprehensive final.  One thing she said is that she knew she failed the final because the blogs and writing didn’t help her.  I showed her the final and her jaw hit the floor.  We went through it, and I asked her if she had know (some content point) before the class.  Jaw still on the floor, she shook her head.  Yes, she had gotten an A on one of the toughest finals I had given.  She looked at me and said “I take it all back.” 

She was not alone.  Over the summer, I had students come to me and ask when they could take me again.  They all commented on how writing had helped them, and how they had built friends and study buddies through my course.  Most also said that even though other instructors didn’t require it, they were still trying to write out information as if I had given them challenges.

I said I would mention failures.  The biggest one was my badge idea.  Not because it was bad, but because I could not implement it in a way that didn’t distract from other things.  We’ll see how it works this year.