From Uncategorized

New start to an old blog

I migrated my LearningReflections blog over to this site as my focus has been more devoted to what I have been doing with the BOLO project. BOLO started in 2011 when I started experimenting with MOOC concepts in my biology classes. It may be more accurate to describe the process as adding connectivist constructs to my classes. I generally described this a MOOCification of my courses.

After three years, I want to spend time reflecting on the classes, assignments and assessments. So over the next few weeks, I’m going to write about various aspects of the class, some evidence, and what I want to do moving forward.

Reflection of Fall 2013: Reaching a limit

Fall 2013 is where I met my limit to how much I can do.  Our campus move to D2L was anything but seamless, and the administrative decisions left the system outdated for what I needed.  In frustration, I decided to take all of my classes and labs to my old LMS (Moodle Based).  I made the decision late, and ended out  building things all semester for 5 different classess affecting >350 students.  

This semester is going better, but I reached the point where the changes burdened me and affected my instruction.  Nothing was particullarly new (except how final grades were calculated), and individual components had been used before; the burden came from transferring and building the various activities.
Now I have the answer for people about when does flipping/hybridizing a class become too much.

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.

New Projects

It has been a while since I last posted, but it has been a productive (and frustrating) summer.  Doing the mini-MOOC with my biology class last semester taught me a great deal, and I’ve had to go back and reconsider/revise some of my tactics.  I also started working with our university’s public relations arm to brand my new project (one day our tech people will let me use .edu with my domain…but I won’t hold my breath).

The project is Biology Open Learning Opportunities, or BOLO for short.  The home for the project can be found at  The BOLO Project website is ultimately a gateway to a site constructed using MOODLE.  From here, I have a platform where I can deliver open content for my courses.  Anyone who participates will have the opportunity to earn badges (I have the start of this system, but will continue to work on it), and there will be a final badge for course completion.  Since this is linked to the courses I teach at Georgia State University, the course will correspond with the GSU semester.  Hopefully though, the information, assignments and extras will be of help to anyone with an interest in biology.

If you visit the BOLO project site, you will find a message saying that it is still under construction and that the opening date will be August 10th.  That is my general timeline to open things up to the public.

Well, here’s hoping it works the second time around.

Grade Focused v. Learning Focused

Currently, I am participating in the BONKOPEN MOOC.  This weeks discussion of R2D2 (Read, Reflect, Display, Do) got me thinking about some of the issues that came up with my course redesign in biology (GOALS).  My students worked through concepts, wrote about what they learned, reflected on what they learned,…they WORKED.  One of the biggest stumbling block though was getting the students to realize that their work was not about the grade at the end, but the learning opportunity. 

Apart from the grumbling, many of the students admitted that they actually learned.  Some didn’t believe that they had learned anything, then they saw their comprehensive final.  After the surprise abated, they looked at me and admitted that all the writing had put something in their head (i.e., they had learned).

What is surprising is that most of these same students would spend hours learning about something that “interested” them.  They would look things up, explore, read, etc….  When I asked if they were interested in biology, many of them said, YES.  When I asked if they independently studied biology, they said….wait for it…NO.  There is a disconnect in their mind between “academic” knowledge and what they find as interesting.

Add to this that most of our students are trained that they need to achieve a certain grade in a class, and we have a problem.  It doesn’t matter if you learned a subject, only that you got an A in it.  One strange thing that happened this past semester, those students who were good “test takers” (i.e, they had learned to cramp and dump) did not excel.  They became the average student.  They did not participate in the learning opportunities, and it showed.

So my question to the general audience:  Do you want your students to be grade focused or learning focused?  How will you change your class to switch them to being learning focused?

Research, or why I let students start with Wikipedia…

Yes, I let my students start with Wikipedia.
Yes, there are controversies over Wikipedia, but students use it.  The general population uses it.  Heck, most of the faculty I know use it when they need to understand a new topic.

So, the goal is to help them use it as an appropriate resource, or tool.

In my last blog post, I discussed the Digital Literacy Disconnect.  The post deals with my growing realization that students don’t know how to filter information and build a personal information architecture.  Where my generation learned to use card catalogs and annual abstracts, my have learned to go to Wikipedia.  Is it so horribly bad?  As long as they use it as a research tool, no.  If they think it is the end game, then yes.

At the beginning of the semester, I asked the students why Wikipedia was not an acceptable academic resource.  The answers were as expected:  too many editors, it is open for anyone to edit, not reliable, because the instructor said not to use it.  Afterward their answers, Usually someone in the class pipes up and says that it is not a “Primary Source”.  This is when I get them to realize that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and as such is not a valid academic source for quotation or citation.

So, if it is not a valid academic source, why use it?

As I tell my students, when they answer my daily questions and build their blogs, Wikipedia is a fine place to start their research.  In biology, the information in Wikipedia is rather good.  Yes, there are some exceptions, but overall for general biology, it is a good starting point.  The most important aspect of the Wikipedia pages is that they have references and external links.  Both of these are an excellent resource for students.

Think about it.  How many times have you used a peer reviewed article mainly because of the references the author used?  Think about review articles; how many references did you look up after reading the review?  If you think about your own research, don’t you back track from one article to another?  If an article is referenced many times, do you see it as something valuable?  Something important?  Maybe something you should know for your discipline?

We may start by doing an initial search, or maybe it was a paper recommended to us.  Sometimes we come across it from journals we read monthly, but the process is using one article to look for other “informed opinions”.

Have you ever tried to teach this to students?  Did it work well?

I’ve found it a struggle to teach this to students, but when the student has used Wikipedia for this purpose, the transition to using journal articles is easier.  It is just a matter of back tracking references.  Gaining inspiration or methodological ideas from other authors.  What is important is the research skill.  Does it matter whether it was learned from Wikipedia or trying to instill in them our pre-digital research skills?

I’ll leave you with a graphic that was sent to me.  There are parts of the graphic I don’t like (including the plagiarism comments), but it is eye opening.


Digital Literacy Disconnect

In the #change11 MOOC, the concept of digital literacy has appeared numerous times.  Usually as a call for an increase in digital skills among students. 

The concept of the Digital Native seems flawed.  While most of our students were born during or after the information tech revolution, most do not understand the concepts of the technology they use.  They may be highly skilled in areas such the use of social networks, email and texting, but does this show an understanding of foundational concepts of such systems?  The Digital Native is a user of technology, not necessarily a partner or innovator.

I argue that the true digital natives were not those who were born after the information revolution, but were born before it.  We lived through the transformation, and adapted to it as it changed. Those that were born after seem to have a disconnect with what we would consider Digital Literacy.

An epiphany struck me a few weeks ago.  It may be something others have considered, but it was a major shift in my perspective.  When I was growing up, I learned how to use a card catalog and the purpose of the Dewey Decimal system.  They were not abstracts, but something read to my daily life (OK, maybe not daily).  When I got to higher education, I learned to use Annual Abstracts and other research references.  By graduate school, some of the first computer based Abstract searches were starting to be used, but I knew how to use other means to find what I wanted.

What I realized is that I had built an information architecture.  I had learned not only how to search to find relevant material (and read to confirm it’s relevance), but ways to filter and organize information.  I could remember most of the papers that I read (especially if they had impact), and I had a mental file system of relevant information.  I knew where I had filed the paper, so I could go back for specifics when needed.  In essence I had built a knowledge management system for my own learning.

When I talk with my students, I realize that they don’t have that.  Information is at their fingertips, and there is no real reason for them to memorize the wealth of knowledge we have available today.  The problem is they are not building the information architecture to support their learning.  They don’t see the difference between things that are memorized and the core concepts and perspectives that need to be mentally actualized.  If you can articulate the core concept, then you can hang any information off the structure you’ve built, but if you don’t have a solid understanding of the core, you will be rebuilding the structure again and again.

That is what I’m seeing with my students.  Though I tell them that this something like the Translation of RNA into a protein is a foundational concept, they don’t learn it.  Every semester after that, they have to relearn the concept.
*By learn, I mean understand the core concepts.  They don’t need to know every fact, just the core process; when they have that, they can hang the facts off of it.

Digital Literacy falls into the same problem.  Students use the systems, but do they understand the concepts underlying the systems?  This is not about being able to replicate the systems, or even innovate new ones (though it is hoped that could occur).  Instead, it is about building different perspectives, different models for how to view and interact with the world.

So, the question I’m now faced with is how to help students build these informational architectures?  You can’t tell them to do it, they’ll just balk at you while they roll their eyes (an extreme, but powerful image that many can relate too).  This is something that has to be woven into the class as a hidden Learning Objective (you can tell them after the fact).  But how do you do it?  One thing that comes to my mind is I have to first clearly understand what I mean by an informational architecture.