Through the Google wormhole – In support of mobile devices in the classroom

10 10 2015

SSPX0049Sit back sometime and observe millennial generation young adults using mobile devices.  They don’t spend more than a few minutes in any particular app.  A message may lead to Google which may lead to YouTube and on to Snapchat.  They follow a thread of interest wherever it leads.  They rarely sit and watch a video for more than a few minutes (or seconds) at a time, and most articles are TL;DR (too long; didn’t read). They may watch a longer video if it teaches them to do something (complete a video game level, learn a guitar technique), but they tend to watch only long enough to gather the specific information they need.

If this happens in the classroom? The knee jerk reaction is to ban the distraction and lock up the cellphones.  Are mobile devices a distraction in the classroom?  Yes.  But, that’s not the question we should be asking.  The real question should be:  Is what is happening in a lecture-based classroom worth 50 minutes (or more) of non-distraction?  Is 50 minutes (or more) of complete attention to a lecture even humanly possible?

I left the face to face classroom in 2012 to move fully online.  From 1991 – 2012 I taught science to students ranging in age from high school freshmen to second year medical students.  The bulk of my classroom hours have been spent with community college pre-nursing science students.  The years I was in the traditional classroom aligned with the movement of cell phones from rare car-based devices to ubiquitous pocket-based devices.  Each year I watched the devices become more common, more capable, and more distracting.  The reaction of the high school was to ban them (a ban that was removed the year after I left the classroom).  I never banned them in my college classrooms, except during tests.  As an online teacher now, I have no way of banning them – nor would I ever want to (not even during tests).  Banning a powerful learning tool of any kind seems counterintuitive to me as an educator.

But, they are a troublesome distraction from learning, right?  Maybe. Maybe not.  If, during a lecture, I mention “brain eating amoeba” Naegleria fowleri infection and that leads a student into the Google wormhole to emerge with an understanding of the anatomical relationship between the olfactory nerve, frontal lobe, and the attraction of the protist to neurotransmitters – but missing the portion of the lecture where I went on to cover malaria – what is the impact to the student?  Did they learn something valuable?  Absolutely.  Will it be on the test?  Probably not. Is the problem then the mobile device, or is it the test?

When I first started teaching college anatomy and physiology, in the early 90’s, I felt tremendous pressure to cover every topic a future nurse might need when she or he entered clinical classes.  I taught at night so I my class sessions were generally 2 1/2 hours long.  I talked fast, and I crammed in information as a monologue presentation for at least 90 minutes of each session.  The next session always started with a quiz over what we had covered the prior session.  The book and my lectures were the content.  Students kept their notebooks for years.  It was the days of pre-consumer-internet.  Although the “content is king – cover it all!” method of teaching and learning made a sort of sense in the early 90’s, twenty-five years later why are we still teaching that way?  Why are we still expecting students to learn that way?

Over the past few years, I’ve realized just how ineffective the cram and recite method of education is.  I’m working to change my online course format – progressive ten years ago with its 20 minute lecture videos and randomized, timed quizzes – into something more educationally relevant for today’s students.

Research, using millions of MOOC video sessions, shows that students stop watching content videos after an average of six minutes – regardless of the length of the video.  Research also shows that the attention span of students in lectures is widely variable and that lectures themselves vary in their ability to convey content effectively.

In my online classes I have never had a student tell me “I learned so much from taking that multiple choice quiz!”  But, at least once a week, one of my students says to another student in a discussion area something along the lines of “When you mentioned xyz, it got me thinking and I did some more research and found…”.  In the balance of breadth vs depth of learning, breadth controlled the late 20th century, but depth is showing its value today.  So, why are we still cramming in content?  What students really need is curation, and the chance to explore further the topics that interest them.  But… don’t pre-nursing students need to know about both malaria and brain eating amoebae?  Sure, but will lecture get them there?  Or, are there more effective options?

So, what do these things have to do with cell phones?  Mobile devices have reached saturation.  In most schools, most driving age and older students have smartphones.  The phones are tools, they are no longer novelty devices.  They aren’t playing Farmville or Candy Crush during lectures (millennials don’t meet the demographic for those games).  They are communicating, and – yes – they are even learning.  They are looking up things they are curious about and they are going deeper into content.

If students are drifting off during lectures, maybe lecture isn’t the way to go.  If students are using phones to look up information for 100 question multiple choice tests, maybe it would be more effective to assess using 10 short answer questions instead.  Even better if the student can pick the questions they wish to answer from a list of options.  Banning mobile devices isn’t the way to go.  Instead, wouldn’t it make more sense to put such a powerful tool to work?

Some of my courses are still designed the “old way”, with lecture videos and heavy reliance on multiple choice assessment. But each term I tweak them to move more away from breadth, and towards depth.  Mobile devices may have been the impetus for the change, but I’ve realized how much of a growth experience it is to move out of the lecture/quiz rut and into a more student interest centered approach.  Education shouldn’t be about how much the teacher knows… it should be about how much the student learns.  Whatever tools help the student learn should be maximized to the extent possible.

Next week:  Apps to help teachers teach and students learn


Teaching #anatomy online – constructive vs deconstructive modeling #onlineed

5 09 2015

I teach anatomy online – I have for eight years. Prior to putting anatomy online, I taught it in the F2F classroom for seventeen years.

I teach anatomy but, no, I don’t mail out dead cats (I’ve been asked that question more times than I can count). Instead, I use a constructive, rather than a deconstructive, model. I have nothing against dead cats. Some will say it is inhumane to use them. That’s not why I don’t do it. Our supplier used euthanized shelter cats. Some were fat cats, some scrawny, one even had a flank of healed up buckshot. I oversaw the dissection of hundreds of cats in my F2F days. Over the years, I came to realize that dissecting cats is, at best, a minimally instructive practice. In the eyes of students, it’s mostly just gross. Sometimes, it can even be traumatic. And, it bears little correlation to what a student would see in a live surgery. Those hundreds of cats? I performed several dozen rat kidney surgeries in grad school.  Want a graduate degree in anatomy or physiology?  Guarantee: there will be animals involved – or at least animal tissues.  Computers aren’t there yet for graduate level work.  For undergrads – yes, they are feasible for physiology.  The tanks of frogs that filled a wall of the physiology lab when I was an undergrad?  No longer necessary.  Whew!

So, if we have replaced the experience of pithing frogs with interactive physiology simulation programs (I use PhysioEx), why is the silver standard of undergrad anatomy instruction still the cat dissection?  Maybe it’s a gateway “get over the gross” pre-nursing activity?  Could be.  But it’s a whole different kind of gross than nursing students will ever deal with in real life.

What we want students to learn in the anatomy lab are the interactions and associations of the major body systems and organs.  There is another way to do this – construction of a realistic model.  In the eight years I have been teaching anatomy online,body example I’ve had several hundred students build anatomy models.  I require that they build them from scratch.  That can be a load of work.  But, the conceptual transfer allowed for by designing and building a model is demonstrated by each student. Over the span of a semester in my A&P I course, each student builds a life-size three-dimensional model of the bones, muscles, and nerves of the body – attached to a labeled body area tracing.  Each step is documented by photos (with student faces included to verify participation)  and submitted at each intermediate construction stage for grading. Students are allowed the freedom to use whatever materials they have on hand to build their models.  Bones must be anatomically accurate, with projections and depressions labeled. Each muscle must be individually constructed, of proper size, and attached at the correct origin and insertion. Through student feedback, and my assessment of their models, I am certain that they are absorbing far more about muscular anatomy than my previous students ever learned from dissection.

Often, those who advocate for a use of preserved animal dissection are those who have years of experience dissecting preserved cats, and far less live animal surgical experience.  I do have live animal experience. Knowing how different the structures of a live organism appear when compared to a preserved one, I firmly believe that cat dissection is no longer necessary for a valid undergraduate anatomy learning experience, particularly for muscle structure.

Yet, I must admit that there is some dissection benefit that a model cannot replicate. There is certainly value in the visual examination of the organs.  Quite the impact can be made on pre-nursing students when they feel the difference in the lungs of a cat from the house of a chain smoker versus the lungs of a cat not raised in that environment. That is an eye opening experience.  But, that isn’t enough for me to advocate mailing out preserved cats.

I have been teaching college anatomy and physiology for 25 years.  I’ve taught in cat dissection labs, as well as in human cadaver labs (the gold standard).  I’ve taught using model building and using anatomy quizzing apps.  Feedback from students on model building activities is extremely positive.  Course evaluations of my online anatomy courses regularly mention how valuable the students found the model building activities to be in their learning process.  I’m a definite convert from the cat lab to model lab system.  If, in the future, I return to teaching in a F2F environment, my model activities will be coming with me.

So, no – I have never mailed out a dead cat to an online student. There are better ways to learn anatomy.

[Model picture is used with the permission of the student who designed and constructed it].

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