Why I wrote an #OER textbook #amwriting #highered #onlineed

26 09 2015

I’ve been interviewed a few times about the OER textbook I wrote last year for my Concepts of Biology course.  In each interview, I’m asked some version of the question “aren’t students excited when they find out they don’t have to buy a textbook?”. Like most things, it depends.

In my experience, students see new commercial textbooks as an unnecessary expense that they forego if possible.  They expect access to low-cost options and free internet resources, and they will seek them out. Back in the day, when I was in college, the internet as we know it did not exist in an accessible form and the main ways to obtain information were from printed materials and/or lectures.  In those days, textbooks were often seen as a long-term investment, a start to building a personal professional library. That is no longer the norm. Bibliophiles will most certainly always exist, but I have found them to be the minority among today’s current generation of college students.

My decision to write the open textbook for my course was the result of increasing numbers of students asking me for website recommendations that they could use in lieu of purchasing textbooks.  For today’s students it’s not so much a matter of saving money (although that is a part of it) as much as it is that they view the internet as a more convenient and up to date source of information when compared to print materials.  As digital natives come to dominate the classrooms, they bring with them an increasing attitude that textbooks are stale, heavy, and expensive whereas the internet is fresh, free, and always accessible.  Unfortunately, what these students often lack is the experience to establish the accuracy of the sources they are using to access information.  Choosing to write the textbook was the result of a mixture of all of these things.  By writing the textbook, I was able to provide for my students a free, portable, resource I could ensure contained accurate and scientifically reliable information.

From a personal perspective, the book was an experiment in writing – to see if I could successfully complete a book.  Having now done so, I am excited to proceed to write books for my other courses.  It is my hope that, over the next five years, I can convert all of my courses to open resources.  Along those lines, I’m currently working on my next project – an open textbook with open interactive Articulate Storyline review and self-assessment resources for my pharmacology course.  My graduate work was in physiology and pharmacology and those are the areas of my deepest interest.  Writing for those subjects is a more in-depFreshPaint-0-2014.10.24-03.35.47th project than writing for general biology, but the general biology book was a great place to gain practice writing a textbook.  In writing the pharmacology text, I am working with the nursing staff at my college and within the Dakota Nursing Program, to make sure the book I develop meets the needs of our students as they progress into clinical coursework.  Nursing program books and materials can easily exceed $1000 per term.  Reducing that burden, while maintaining access to quality information, is my ultimate goal.

The sands are shifting.  The baby boom generation bought textbooks and kept them proudly in their offices after graduation for reference, and for a bit of showmanship.  The millennial generation, in general, isn’t as focused on attaining an office lined with bookshelves.  Their office is more likely to be global and mobile.  Heavy, expensive, outdated textbooks simply don’t fit into that lifestyle.


Learning pyramid – myth, fact, or somewhere in between? #learningpyramid #onlineed

19 09 2015

When I asked my incoming high school science students to describe their favorite activity in science class,  the majority said “labs” (specifically, labs that involve fire and/or chemical reactions).  A handful of students each year, however, said “taking notes”.  In explanation of why they enjoyed that activity, they nearly always replied “because it’s easy – you don’t have to do anything”.  Yikes!

This week, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an essay in which a researcher claims that learning by lecture is “an illusion of learning”.  I completely agree. [1]

I taught high school for seven years.  I’ve also taught college for 25 years, split relatively evenly between online and traditional course formats.  During my high school teaching years, I made it a point to rarely lecture for more than 15 minutes in any class period.  When teaching college, my face to face courses had a heavy lecture component and my online courses contained lecture videos.  The majority of my face to face college years were spent teaching non-traditional night courses – typically in 2.5 hour blocks.  It was not unusual for me to lecture for 75-90 minutes for each course, two courses back to back each day.  The students expected it, I was used to it – that’s the way college works?  Right?

No.  So much no.  I am a talented lecturer with an entertaining manner and a soothing voice (so my course evaluations say).  But, still – so much no.  Researchers have repeatedly claimed that passively watching lectures is the least effective way to learn.  It is truly just an “illusion of learning”.  We know this.  It makes intuitive sense. So, why do we do it?  Money is one reason – colleges can maximize income by putting a few hundred students in one room with one lecturer.  Another reason is “that’s the way it’s always been done”.


Learning Pyramid. Creative Commons License attributed within blog.

So, what works?  Those opposed to lecture as a primary learning tool typically use the “learning pyramid” to support their position. [2] The learning pyramid contains a variety of teaching and learning methods arranged hierarchically.  The pyramid claims that the least content retention occurs as a result of lecture and the most content retention occurs from teaching others.  However, the picture is not that clear cut.  The amount of retention, as determined by studies, depends on too many variables to give a strict percentage value for every situation.  Retention in a given situation depends on age, subject, prior learning level, and a host of other factors.

Some researchers have found that practice tests and distributed practice allow for the best method of retention.  [3] That would make sense if teaching to a test.  But, what about applied, long-term, retention?  Additional research supports the idea that repetitive practice also helps to facilitate long-term learning. [4] Perhaps that contributes to the “teaching others” portion of the learning pyramid?  After all, teaching others is, at its core, a form of repetitive recall of information.

During my time in grad school at the medical school at the University of North Dakota, the basic medical curriculum was switched from a lecture-based to a problem-based learning environment.  After graduation, I worked for a term as a facilitator in the 2nd year med student program.  That learning environment, born from research and maintained through a record of continued academic success, cemented my belief that a lecture-heavy curriculum was not the best learning environment.  However, I did continue to lecture in my own courses throughout the 90’s – primarily because of a pervasive “just tell me what I need to know” attitude among my students and evaluators.  As an adjunct, I was dependent upon student evaluations for my continued employment, and students of that time were fully invested in the “illusion of learning” that lecture provided.

Now, as the Millennial generation tide rises within higher education, the attitude towards lectures is beginning to change.  Millennial students have been raised on cooperative learning and “just in time” instruction.  If they need to learn to change a tire or bake a soufflé, they go to YouTube.  They have choices, and they want experiences.  Educational institutions that don’t meet their needs and work to their strengths will be sitting with empty lecture halls within the decade.

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”  The Socratic method of learning is at least as old as, well… Socrates. And, although, lecture didacticism can also trace its roots back to Ancient Greece, didactic presentation, in the Victorian era, came to be known as insulting – essentially, boring.  [5] So, why, all these years later, do so many schools still default to lecture halls holding hundreds of students?  Primarily, maximum bang for the buck.  Lectures aren’t about education – they are about money.  The best of them are highly entertaining – they pack in the students (and their tuition dollars).  During my undergraduate years at the University of Illinois, there was a lecture course commonly referred to as “silly civ”.  The highly entertaining professor of that three credit humanities course was able to pack in over a thousand students.  Although I didn’t take that course, I did take biology in the same auditorium – with 700+ other students.  That’s some big bucks right there.

So, how do we do it differently?

A couple of years ago, I went through the process of taking a long, evaluative look at my curriculum and content.  I wrote an OER textbook for my Concepts of Biology course, switched the bulk of the points to discussion and the midterm and final to short answer format.  I made all of the unit multiple-choice quizzes short and repeatable – low stakes.  This year, my fall enrollment in that course more than doubled from last fall. It actually maxed out and went into overload.

This year, I am writing another OER textbook, this one for introductory pharmacology, also in combination with revised content.  Currently, my content in that course is presented through reading assignments and in batches of lecture videos, each 15-20 minutes in length (too long).  I am working through eliminating those long videos and converting the content to a series of shorter videos, animations, and interactive Articulate Storyline self-assessments.  It has become a massive project, but it’s an exciting one.  It’s time for a change.

Educators have known for decades that personalized, scaffolded, integrated, “just in time” instruction is the key to learning and retention.  The Millennial generation won’t just expect that type of education, they’ll demand it.  As they should.

  1. Wexler, Ellen. In Online Courses, Students Learn More by Doing Than by Watching. http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/in-online-courses-students-learn-more-by-doing-than-by-watching/57365
  2. Atherton, JS. Learning and Teaching; Misrepresentation, myths, and misleading ideas. http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/myths.htm  (with Creative Commons license for image)
  3. Dunlosky, John et al. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology. http://psi.sagepub.com/content/14/1/4.full.pdf+html?ijkey=Z10jaVH/60XQM&keytype=ref&siteid=sppsi
  4. Karpicke, Jeffery D. and Roediger, Henry L. III. Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention. http://memory.psych.purdue.edu/downloads/2007_Karpicke_Roediger_JML.pdf
  5. Repp, Charles. What’s Wrong with Didacticism? http://www.academia.edu/2940819/Whats_Wrong_with_Didacticism

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].

On writing #OER textbooks – moving ideas from simmer to boil #amwriting @ScrivenerApp @mindmeister

29 08 2015

mind map pns

Last year, I published an OER textbook for one of my biology courses.  Writing the book was a linear project.  I started with an outline and sat for a few hours a day a few days a week to pound out the words.  I inserted simple pictures I had drawn or photos I had taken.  When I wrapped one chapter, I moved on to the next.  I composed the book in Word and distributed the final project to my students as a .pdf.  Linear progression.

This past spring, I started my second book – for my pharmacology course.  I wrote the outline.  Then, I stalled.  Pharmacology is an entirely different beast than is general biology.  So many pieces… so many interlocking threads… an exponentially larger project per page.  I turned to my old standby organizational tools – OneNote and Excel.  I made a bit of progress.  And, stalled again.  Summer term began – through the roof enrollments and the grading demands that go along with full classes.  Still, the “how will I…” and “what if I…” book construction questions simmered on the back burner.

August arrived.  Professional development season.  I attended a conference week followed by a week of faculty inservice.  Energized and motivated by the interactions and connections inherent in bouncing ideas around with colleagues, I pulled together the bits and pieces of outline from here and spreadsheet data from there.  I assessed my progress.  I realized the old ways just weren’t going to work this time.  I had to move beyond the Office sandbox.

I needed something fluid – so I headed to Target for the biggest pieces of paper I could find.  I started to draw out connections.  And, realized I was mind mapping – and that there were probably apps that were more flexible than my big pieces of paper could be.  Once I found MindMeister (www.mindmeister.com) I lost an afternoon to med math map development and was encouraged by the progress.

But, I was still stuck with the transition from map to paragraph.  Yesterday, I found Scrivener.  (www.literatureandlatte.com/) Where has this program been all my life??  It even has index cards!  Color coded ones!!  Spending an afternoon with the program I was completely hooked.  Did I mention the index cards??  The more I played in the demo, the more sure I was my free trial period was going to be just the start of a long, productive, writing union.  I bought the program.  I started setting up my notes.  I’m thrilled to take the book off the back burner and to have the ideas bubbling up again, my brain firing at full boil.

And, for the times my sentences run on and my words get too pedantic? There’s an app for that too… Hemingway will be there to gently remind (in bold red highlighting) that perhaps the writing would be improved with a few tweaks here and there.  (www.hemingwayapp.com)

Excited to be writing again!

25 years as an introverted teacher – finding my niche

22 08 2015

I am an introvert. Most definitely an introvert. Content to walk through life on the beach or in the park, alone with my thoughts.
So, on some levels, it seems odd to me that I became a teacher – odd that I have always looked forward to meeting a big new crowd of students each term.
This year I mark my 25th year of teaching. I’ve taught college, I’ve taught high school, I even made it a point one year to sub at least one day in each grade pre-K through 12. One semester I taught second year med students. Standing up in front of a classroom doesn’t faze me – a hundred adults, a room full of four year olds. No problem. But yes, I am most definitely an introvert.

When I taught in the classroom – I loved it, but it exhausted me. After every session, I was completely drained. When I held full time positions, I was beyond drained – I ran at a deficit. In those years, I would stay up far into the night just to get some peace and quiet – some alone time. Turns out, sleep deprivation doesn’t really help with the recharging process.  

Fifteen years ago, I started teaching occasional online courses. Three years ago I left the face to face classroom and went entirely online. The timing happened to coincide with my youngest son moving away to college (his brother was already there). The nest was empty. The classroom was virtual.

Online teaching, contrary to popular perception, does involve a large degree of student contact. The difference is the quality of the contact. Instead of addressing a sea of faces from the front of a room, you put yourself out into the ether in words, images, and videos. Students pull those resources as they need them. Then, they email. They text. They call. Sometimes, they Skype. The contact is (or can be, if you let it be) 24/7. New online instructors can quickly become overwhelmed. For an online teacher, the interactions shift from addressing large groups to one-to-one conversations. Requests for clarification and assistance arrive at all hours. There is no longer a natural “class time” versus “not class time” boundary.  

As an introvert, adapting to this boundary dissolution was a challenge. To adapt successfully, I adopted technology that allowed me a combination of flexibility and access that kept both my students and I happy. I tried set office hours for two years, but found them to be restrictive both for me and my students. I learned to be comfortable with the “do not disturb” feature of my phone and I learned that it’s okay to let a call go to voicemail if I’m in the shower or chasing the dog down the street because someone left the back gate open. I learned to be comfortable with spontaneous phone calls (not always a strength for introverts). And, I learned that sometimes the best thing I can do for a student is just listen.

I am still an introvert. A strong introvert. I still need to close the door and to turn off the phone once in a while. But, being an online instructor has also given me the freedom, as an introvert, to escape the mental drain I had after days, weeks, months, years in the face to face classroom. I can now be more present for my students when they need some one on one time with me. I can be a better teacher – better able to meet the needs of a new generation of students.

As a full time online teacher, I have the great benefit of working for an amazing employer. Through them, for two weeks in August, I can extrovert to my heart’s content, knowing that I will be able to introvert for the other fifty weeks of the year. During those two weeks, I find myself striking up conversations with strangers and joining ongoing conversations – things I would have never done in the past. Having the time to process and evaluate (and introvert) gives me the energy and the motivation to jump into those professional development weeks with both feet. As those weeks draw to a close, I am sated with contact and content, and looking forward to the time to ponder and program what I have learned to make my courses a better experience for my students.

It also allows me to recharge, and to look forward to those one on one phone calls so I can meet my students where they need me to be, regardless of my status as an introvert.

Bring on the new school year!!

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