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Collaborative Learning

Science education, online publishing and networked learning

By Gabriel Flacks. The 3 May 2018

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Background

In the fall of 2017, Champlain College Saint-Lambert Biology teacher Justine Bell and Chemistry teacher Manlio Alessi attempted to integrate online writing and virtual collaboration into their coursework for the first time. Each had a unique pedagogical impetus to take a novel approach to connecting students in science classes to writing. They were encouraged to take on this challenge in fall of 2017 as Champlain Humanities teacher Gabriel Flacks was able to offer his support on this journey due to an existent ECQ project and this reduced their overhead and let them pilot a new pedagogical approach.

So, between July and December 2017, Flacks was able to support Alessi and Bell in preparing new course structures, navigating institutional complications, integrating online writing and collaboration into their classes in real time, and monitoring the outcomes of this pilot project throughout the semester.

Flacks arrived to this project with years of experience with virtual collaboration and online publishing in his courses. As the founder of the website newsactivist.com (now found at linkreducation.com), originally built to support his own students in online writing and via international collaborations, he has helped hundreds of teachers from dozens of institutions in integrating these pedagogical methods. So, VTE and Flacks were excited to be able to support science teachers in this effort, allowing VTE and its readers to learn about the benefits and challenges of online writing and collaboration in this context.

This article summarizes the semester experienced by both teachers and students across these two courses in hopes that others can find the benefits of online writing in science, and also suggests challenges to be considered prior to the implementation of such pedagogy

This semester’s experiment strongly illustrates the positive impact that online writing and collaboration can have in science classes; it helps students engage with material, see the value of science on contemporary issues, and highlights the overall relevance and necessity of writing and collaboration for the sciences.

A Chemistry Teacher and a Biology Teacher ready to experiment (with pedagogy)

For different reasons, Alessi and Bell were ready and willing to try piloting some new elements in their curricula.

Alessi, a chemistry professor, has been trying for several years to improve students’ success in a course title offered to non-science students. He reports that this course, “has historically been a difficult course to teach… Despite the course title (Chemistry and the Environment), only very basic chemistry is taught in the B2A course because students enrolled do not have an interest (nor the necessary background) in learning the chemical concepts and phenomena that apply to the environment…”

To try to engage students in the course topics,  Alessi had tried many approaches: “oral presentations, debates and the preparation of a scrapbook of current articles on the environment have been used as a way to engage students, with limited success. Only lab experiments have truly awakened the students’ interest, but the learning outcome of these experiments (which cannot involve the use of lab chemicals in respect to the safety requirements) is, in my opinion, quite limited. Through the course evaluation survey, students have always indicated that they enjoy the course, although this level of appreciation has never manifested in an enthusiastic participation in class. Overall, in my experience, B2A has historically been a difficult course to teach.”

Alessi was interested in trying a new approach and after hearing about NewsActivist, was willing to give it a try. “I learned about NewsActivist from a talk given by Gabe Flacks at the 2017 Saltise meeting. Following a conversation… we began planning the use of NewsActivist in the B2A course as the umpteenth attempt to engage students and improve their experience.”

Bell’s enthusiasm for Biology is infectious and there is little doubt that her students engage with course content very well in her courses. However, she has felt for some time that many of her otherwise engaged science students evidence little interest in writing, and very little recognition of the relevance of writing in sciences. So, she brought online writing as a new approach to try to show 36 science students in a third semester course why this is important. Justine wanted, “to give students the opportunity to write about science, and to link course work with current events at a political, ethical and philosophical level.” She also hoped to, “give students the opportunity to write for a real purpose, for real communication,” to “ give students the opportunity to view their coursework as something more significant within society than simply obtaining grades,” and to “give students the opportunity to interact with students from High School to post-graduate level in different institutions, in different countries, with different viewpoints.”

Given Alessi’s and Bell’s authentic and passionate reasons for experimenting with new pedagogy, they began to explore the administrative and curricular aspects of bringing online writing and collaboration into each course.

Administrative Challenges

While Champlain College, Saint-Lambert Academic Dean Anthony Singelis was extremely supportive regarding the pedagogy being undertaken by the teachers, the college has a very cautious stance about how it introduces students to cloud-based tools, based on provincial and ministerial positions on such issues, and based on institutional decisions to limit course requirements on students that would insist on the use of cloud based tools.  While current and temporary structures restricted some access to this kind of pedagogy, it was important for Alessi and Bell to be able to respect yet work around these limitations. Given that activities being considered by Alessi and Bell involved students sharing their work with a wider audience and collaborating with students from other institutions, using tools without a “siloed”-approach was required- having student-writing shared outside of Quebec was the only way to let students outside of Quebec connect with Champlain students.

So, during the summer of 2017, Flacks worked with the college’s administration to craft a clear way that students in both groups could choose to opt into the use of cloud-based tools. Each assignment involving this pedagogy clearly identified to students that “in Quebec, the different legislations make the use of these tools and applications, voluntary,” and thus students could participate in other ways if they chose. After preparing such consent forms and presenting them to students, it turned out that all students across both sections were willing to use cloud-based tools. This indicates that current barriers to teaching and learning related to cloud-based tools should be carefully considered, given the apparent incongruity between the concerns presented by administration vs. the concerns presented by students. While letting students know about this information is a good moment to introduce some conceptual depth around the nature of online work in general, when students are using such tools without being required to enter any personal information apart from an email address, and when tools provide students ownership of the content they submit to the platform, it seems to all involved in this project to be disappointing to face these challenges. Flacks reduced the overhead for Alessi and Bell in this context, but such concerns could conceivably keep teachers and students from benefitting from online writing and collaboration.

Champlain is not the only college taking such caution in their approach to integration of such platforms and the College itself has continued to be supportive of teachers who are working with new technologies to bring students’ learning forward.

Curricular Shifts

Once the college had agreed to the structure by which we could bring such tools into the classroom, each teacher had to consider how much of the course could be devoted to this work. Alessi had more freedom in this context than Bell, who only had 5% of the marks as a “discretionary budget,” to be used as she saw fit. Alessi was able to focus 25% of his course on student work related to online publishing or collaboration.

They chose to use NewsActivist as it allows teachers to offer students the ability to easily share their writing with a large audience, while maintaining ownership of the content, with the possibility of using pseudonyms, and without fear of trolls. Further, while students can make their writing visible to the world (some pieces of writing have been viewed over 40,000 times!) only students within the safe and protected NewsActivist network can comment on content.

Students can be asked to write original content as an assignment, or students can be tasked with giving constructive feedback to original writing hosted at the site in the form of comments on already submitted content.

Bell asked each student to share one original article on NewsActivist. This assignment was to, “Convince someone from the NewsActivist site to read a recent science article that you have found… This has to be a recent (2017) science article that is relevant to the Biology 101- NYA course at Champlain College. That is, it has to be about something that demonstrates the importance of biological research as a significant force for change in our society (affecting policies on health, agriculture, ethics, law etc.), and that the general public should be aware of and understand. ”

The second task Bell provided was to participate in a feedback assignment. She asked each student to read, “someone else’s science-related post, explain to them how you thought their commentary was useful for convincing you to read that article, and suggest a relevant follow up article that might also interest them.” Like the first assignment, this was worth 2.5% of the course.

Alessi, “assigned 25% of the course mark to work posted on NewsActivist (4 article summaries and 2 comments for an overall mark of 16% and a “Superpost” worth 9%).” He explained to students that they would, “engage in discussions through an online forum called NewsActivist… to present, reflect on and defend… positions on environmental issues.”

Outcomes for Students and teachers

Surveys were provided to students offering them a chance to share how the experience worked for them. The most interesting (and methodologically stable) outcomes of these surveys came from qualitative reports.

Bell reports that, “During a quick poll of the class at the end of the course, students said that they found the activity interesting, and that I should do it again with another class.”  Further, in end of semester surveys students reported, voluntarily, comments such as the following:

The class was EXTREMELY useful to understand how biology connects to other disciplines, and it became much easier to understand how science directly affects contemporary issue

It is more motivating to post an article that hundreds of people can read than to give a text to the teacher only

It was the first time I "published" a text accessible to anyone (with a computer), and it motivated me to do similar projects.”


Based on her experience, Bell suggests that, “I will do this again. I believe it did achieve some of my goals of challenging students to think about why exactly they were doing the course, and how important it is to be able to communicate and write well. The class was also very happy to see how many views they got for the articles they posted, and I think this gave them some validation to see that their opinions were interesting to others – even strangers from other countries… I would modify my pitch to the students to make it more about expressing their opinions on something that they feel passionate about in Biology. There was one comment that said that two posts were not enough to get a meaningful exchange going, but I think that it was sufficient – given the fact that students were pressed for time and trying to take shortcuts by reviewing each other’s posts. It was also time consuming to mark, which is an important factor for me when planning to include this in the course.”

On Alessi’s side, over the course of the semester, he realized how much of a challenge reading and writing about science is for students in this course, so his assignments shifted as the semester unfolded from consideration of journal articles to magazines and newspapers articles, which let students have more success in completing assigned work. A concern discovered while navigating this in-class pedagogical structure for the first time was that using the computer lab for these activities did not always guarantee students were working hard on them. However, the use of the platform was a success, in his eyes: “Overall, I was glad to have used NewsActivist. It certainly makes students explore the vast array of environmental issues and encourage them to analyze in depth problems and the creative solutions scientist have been proposing. It also gives them an opportunity to learn outside the topics in the syllabus.”

He suggests that, “I would like to use NewsActivist again after reflecting on how to address the following problems: work overload resulting from the teacher's need to read the original articles, the challenge to keep students on tasks when working in class on an assignment which is not due at the end of the period.”

His students also had some positive qualitative feedback about the activities involving online writing:

“… this exercise made me pay more attention to what I read online and how I read it when scientific articles surface on social medias. “

I became aware of the consequences of my actions such as driving”
I also learn the importance of good communication in my other classes”

“it helps exercise awareness of events in the world. “

“I wanna hear things from perspective of people who live in different places and grew up in different environments”

 

To the Future!

This experiment gave Bell, Alessi, and Flacks an opportunity to learn a lot together. They saw that many students found this pedagogical approach to have a very positive impact and a large majority of students saw a lot of value in online writing and collaboration around science courses. However, the challenges faced are not insignificant and the support both Alessi and Bell obtained from Flacks throughout this project was very important. For both, they suggest it will be easier in the future after the support they received this fall, but for both teachers, who had very different experiences, one piece is particularly significant that needs further attention as each teacher moves forward: marking strategies and student feedback.

Bell suggests marking can be time consuming and giving feedback was also challenging. She also thinks that students and faculty can be inherently distrustful of innovation like this. So, faculty and administrative support helps in that regard. Having release time would be helpful, especially for her to be able to “take the time to seriously develop marking strategies and curriculum design.” Finally, she suggests that students should be able to make their work visible not just generally, but to students around the college, to make them feel they are part of something special.

For Alessi, similarly, it was the marking of new assessments that proved most demanding. Release time would help in that regard, and being able to consult with people like Flacks remains something of great potential benefit. Alessi suggests that, “teaching this course will be progressively less demanding and more effective thanks to the lessons learned during the past semester.  I understand now what type of articles these students can handle and can direct them towards resources more aligned with their level.  The students will find their task less intimidating and the teacher will find the marking less daunting.  So, I think, overall, this change will set a better atmosphere.” However, in this semester, like Bell, the most time-consuming part of this project was in the areas of marking and student guidance.

Final Thoughts

After monitoring and supporting the classes of Bell and Alessi this fall, one thing is quite clear. Technology capacity and ease of use have evolved to the point where possibilities for integration of online writing and collaboration are endless. Neither Bell nor Alessi point to technology as the challenge to innovative pedagogy, rather, it is the alignment of curriculum and development and marking of assessments that take advantage of these new possibilities that remains most difficult to overcome.

We are seeing the beginning of a revolution in higher education. Students are ready, teachers are ready, now, teachers need to be able to evaluate and update curricula and assignments to take advantage of the new possibilities the new landscape affords.

It is an exciting time to be a teacher and if you are lucky enough to be a student working with innovative teachers like Alessi and Bell, it is an exciting time to be a student as well. If you are curious, we invite you to visit the new and improved version of new activist. linkreducation ! You will find easy ways to easily integrate networked learning and online publishing into your courses and you will likely find Flacks, Alessi and Bell, and their students ready to collaborate.

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