Dismantling the information silos: #integrate

16 01 2016

This past week our family reached a couple of milestones. Son 1 was awarded his certification and is on the road to professional employment.  Son 2 was promoted into the first rung of management. They are setting out toward successfully adulting. As they spread their wings to fly, momma bird is proud – and a bit relieved.  Twenty four of my forty eight years have been spent momma birding.  But then, momma birding never really stops – it just changes form. Just ask my own momma bird, her phone chirping away, signaling questions and updates – her nest of baby birds in her pocket.

Still, even before I had little family birds, I had students.  This month I’ve finished my 25th year of teaching college, and have started what I hope will be at least another 25 years.  As I look at my teaching methods and priorities now, I see how much has changed over the years.  When I first started, it was definitely a “sage on the stage” and “facts from the books” environment.  There was no convenient internet access.  No email.  No text messaging.

Ten years after I started teaching college, I was trained to be a medical school facilitator for the problem based learning curriculum.  “Sage on the stage” became a sort of academic insult – “guide on the side” became the in phrase.  I started developing my own case studies and implemented discussion groups in my community college courses as well.

Now, with mobile “always on” having reached saturation among students, I’ve transitioned almost fully away from my “sage on the stage” beginnings.  I also find myself moving further away from a reliance on books each year.  Students still need the guide on the side – they need someone to help them take a machete to the information overgrowth so they can find the path.  My teaching now is less about focusing on the facts – those can be harvested from books and other sources.  The purpose of teaching as I see it now, is the human connection – the lighting of the fire, the bringing the lens into focus.  To do that fully, I need to deconstruct the knowledge silos.  Moving forward, that is my focus, the “grand design of it all” – the linking of ideas in videos and animations.  The development of content that students want to learn.  The giving as much or as little as a student needs to reach mastery of the information.  To help build new nurses and trainers.  Not to obsess over points or quizzes or test banks – the “factory model”.  It’s time to move beyond that – to integrate the content. For, life is integrated – it is universal – to say “now we learn about the hormones of the stomach, don’t worry about the bacteria within it” and then to switch classes and say  “now we learn about the bacteria of the stomach, don’t worry about the hormones” seems silly somehow.  It’s all connected – life doesn’t separate one from the other.

My word of the year for 2016 is “Integrate”.  My goal is to extract the big concepts and 2016 integratebuild a core framework for all of my courses that shows the connection points and branches of the material.  It’s going to be a huge project, one that will take many years.  It will include a variety of tools – from OERs to commercial materials.  But, when it is finished, I envision a map – like a garden pathway – with points of interest and places to stop and explore awhile.  There will be starting gates, and some bridges to be crossed.  There will even be some challenging climbs for those up to it.  But, above all, it will be a place students feel safe to explore and learn.  Somewhere they will leave, having learned, but where they can always come back to learn more.

Through the past 25 years, I have never labeled myself with separate “teacher”, “mom”, “researcher” labels – I’ve always just seen myself as “me”.   It’s time to see students the same way.  They are not a series of blank notebooks to be filled with static writing, they are unique individuals, traveling the path in their own way and time.  If I could eliminate the semester structure, I’d do it in a heartbeat.  But, as long as I’m working within the confines of 15 week due-date laden Carnegie credit hours, at least I can make the journey more useful and interesting  – I can move it out of the pages, and into the world.





Moving toward content immersion

21 11 2015

Over the past 15 years, online learning has experienced a paradox.  As video streaming speeds have increased and bandwidth limitations have decreased, students are increasingly less likely to watch long instructional videos.  In fact, data gathered from the viewing habits of thousands of MOOC students show that the average time students stick with an instructional video is six minutes – regardless of the length of the video.

In 2007, advances in streaming speeds made it feasible for me to start creating and sharing “lecture tidbit” videos with my online students.  I had a (then) cutting edge (and expensive) home set-up with a microphone headset, wired Wacom tablet, white board drawing program, and Camtasia screencasting program.  My videos averaged 15-20 minutes long.  Students told me they watched them over and over.  Those videos are still accessible and active.  The last time a student told me they watched one of them “over and over”?  At least three or four years ago.

It’s time for a change.

I’ve started to replace the videos.  I’m shooting for concentrated bursts of information, no more than two minutes long.  I’m making the videos part of narratives – more of an immersive experience – embedded within storyline presentations, allowing for not only instruction – but also practice and self-assessment activities.  My first overhaul has been my pharmacology med math activities.  Formerly, the activities were static Power Point and worksheet based.  Now, they are dynamic.

2015-11-17 11.59.10The new activities use video and practice embedded into Articulate Storyline presentations.  Storyline is a pricy program, but Office Mix, a free Power Point add-on, has some of the same rudimentary functions (including self-assessment quizzing).  Other than Storyline, the tools of the screencasting trade have decreased in cost and increased in ease of use and access.  I record video on my phone, using the native camera app.  I have a small flexible tripod for demos.  For whiteboard videos, I use the Vittle video app on my iPad – no dedicated drawing tablet required.  Both Vittle feed and camera app videos upload seamlessly into Storyline. And Storyline, an HTML 5 publishing product, avoids the device limitations of Flash.

Once published, students can access the activities from both desktop and mobile devices. My old Camtasia videos, uploaded to the LMS, were only available on LMS-compatible devices.  Since my college uses an outdated non-mobile  LMS, that was a limitation.  Over time, I had transferred some of the videos to YouTube to increase accessibility. But, YouTube does not allow for interactivity. Storyline activities can be hosted both within and outside of the LMS.  I maintain my own domain and website for maximum flexibility, but most schools will also provide server space to host the activities.

Online education is a field where the only constant is change.  One of the things I love most about working in this area is exploring all of the ways to help maximize student learning.  Moving from text to video in 2007 increased student engagement.  I anticipate that moving to an interactive video/skills mix will provide even greater levels of immersion.





Fifteen apps for productive online teaching and learning #onlineed #OER

17 10 2015

Photo Oct 09, 7 26 05 PMLast week, I wrote in support of mobile devices in the classroom.  This week, I’ll explore some apps I use in my own teaching and learning process.  As I redesign my curriculum to emphasize depth of knowledge and decrease reliance on commercial textbooks, I rely heavily on apps that sync across all popular platforms.  Throughout the day, I move continuously between my PC, phone, iPad, and Mac so any app I use must either sync reliably across those devices or must offer cloud access.

Productivity and Organization:

  1. OneNote: My blog posts are composed in OneNote. The unit outlines for my writing projects, including my OER textbooks, are in OneNote. My grading rubrics and keys are in OneNote.  My semester grading checklist, curriculum revision lists, and committee meeting notes are all there.  My academic department started using it this year as a collaboration space.  I was a late comer to the OneNote party – I’ve been using it less than a year – but within a few days of starting it took over as my primary ongoing work tool.
  1. Wunderlist: To-do apps are my weakness – I have no idea how many I have tried – dozens for sure. When I got my first iPod touch back in the day, I tried app after app – eventually landing on Wunderlist.  Whereas I use OneNote for ongoing and long-form projects, Wunderlist is my daily task app.  With repeatable tasks, Wunderlist is what I use to remind me that my textbook order is due each October and that I need to email my students next Thursday to encourage them to start their project.  My grocery list, travel packing list, and Kindle pre-order release date favorite author list are all in Wunderlist.  The benefit to Wunderlist over OneNote is timeliness.  Wunderlist pops the task out to me, OneNote makes me remember to go to the task.  In theory, you can set due dates and reminders for OneNote, but my version doesn’t have the “Task” tab in the menu bar and I haven’t been able to figure out how to add it.
  1. Dropbox: When I was in grad school, in the 90’s, I saved my research data Excel files to floppy disks and snail mailed a backup to my mom.  I also gave a backup to a neighbor.  Later, when I needed to move files between my home and work computers, I used thumb drives.  Now, I use Dropbox – files, pictures, screen shots all go to Dropbox.  My camera roll uploads automatically from my phone to Dropbox. It’s is accessible from all of my devices – including my phone – so sending a file or example photo to a student is easy, even away from my desk.
  1. Sunrise Calendar: Like to-do lists, I’ve lost track of how many calendar apps I have tried. Sunrise is the first one I have found that fully and reliably integrates my work calendar, personal calendars, and Wunderlist tasks in one place.  Sunrise is available as a Chrome extension and as a mobile app.
  1. Pocket: I have a love/hate relationship with bookmark apps/sites. I use Pocket as my “read later” repository.  Unfortunately, it seems I rarely have time to actually “read later” so it’s become a sort of link graveyard.  But, I still send links to it regularly, most frequently from Twitter.  Pocket allows tagging and sorting, but I don’t use it to store active resources.  Items I have actually read and want to save for later are stored in Diigo.  Links I use daily are stored on my start.me homepage.
  1. Relax: My kids are in their 20’s and are at that in-between almost-launched stage. Since I work from home, a good pair of headphones and a relaxing noise reduction program is essential to my ability to focus productively.  On my phone and iPad I use the Relax app.  On my PC, I use YouTube playlists of either focus music or nature sounds.

Content Creation: 

  1. Paper by 53: I write OER textbooks and develop OER activities. Engaging content requires illustrations.  Although open photo resources are available through Creative Commons licensing, I’ve found that I enjoy drawing my own diagrams and cartoon pictures.  I am no great artist, but I’ve been scratching out teaching images since back in the days of chalk on the green board.  One of my fondest memories is of my first whiteboard and the amazing four colors of Expo markers with which I could suddenly draw.  As a science teacher, diagrams and images have always been the bulk of my lectures. The Paper app provides an easy way to include my sketches in my OER content.  Creating the illustrations saves me the time consuming step of explaining what I want to an illustrator, paying said illustrator, and/or spending hours searching through open source images for what I need.
  1. MindMeister: When I outline content, I use OneNote. When I move the outline to text, I use Scrivener.  But, before I get to the outline or writing stage I first need to brainstorm idea links and relationships.  I’ve found that brainstorming is most effective when I use a free-flowing mind map.  MindMeister is a bare bones mind mapping tool that is accessible from both a browser and an app.  Accessibility is key for mind mapping because I often let content simmer and play with organization and content relationships for days, or weeks, (or months) before I head to the outline stage of development.
  1. Vittle: I just discovered Vittle and haven’t used it for any large projects yet – but I intend to. I played around a bit with the free version and then almost immediately purchased the full version.  Vittle is an iPad screen casting app that does, for less than $10, what I used to use Camtasia to do.  Vittle has a whiteboard pad that records audio and video explanations.  As I move my content from long 20-minute ten-year-old videos into short 1-2 minute focused segments, Vittle will be my go-to whiteboard “lecture tidbit” app.
  1. WordPress: I started my blog over five years ago, but it lay dormant for most of that time. Recently, I’ve begun to write about my teaching process and the tools I use for that process.  I also have used my blog to write out longer-form answers for questions I’m frequently asked by students.  Having a blog post, with step by step pictures available allows me to point students to help without needing to repeatedly explain the same thing in multiple emails.
  1. YouTube: I’ve been teaching online for over 15 years. In the early days, it wasn’t possible to share video content because most students (and teachers) were on dial-up internet modems. In 2007 I started sharing my first video lecture content – as Camtasia uploads into my LMS shells.  By 2012, any new video content I created was going into YouTube instead of into the LMS.  Students can access YouTube independently of the LMS, giving them more mobility and freedom to learn in a time and place that is most convenient for them.  My end of term evaluations always  have requests for more videos and YouTube is where most of those videos land.  Moving forward, I’m using Articulate Storyline and Office Mix to integrate short videos with other content (particularly with self-assessment quizzing) but YouTube will continue to be my go-to for longer form materials.

Inspiration and Information:

  1. Feedly: I’ve always been an RSS fan and the discontinuation of Google Reader years ago left me in a bind. I tried a couple of different replacement readers and Feely is the one that stuck.  I’m not a fan of content aggregators like Flipboard – I always feel like I’m missing something when I allow a service to curate content for me.  I prefer to curate my own sources and a RSS reader allows that.  However, I have recently become a fan of the Skimm and NextDraft newsletters so my Feedly reading had dropped off a bit as a result.
  1. Tweetbot: I created my Twitter account over five years ago, and then promptly ignored it. Recently, at a conference, I learned about Twitter backchannels and I discovered a world of content and interaction that brought together like minds from around the world in collaboration.  I’ve had to back off of Twitter a bit recently because it was sucking me in for hours at a time, but I still find ideas and inspiration every time I check it.  For me, the key to using Twitter is to actively curate my lists.  If someone I follow tweets repeatedly off topic, or their main posts are those status things about how many followers they added that week – they’re gone.  I curate my lists heavily in favor of those who share relevant, timely, content.

Reference:

  1. America’s Navy Anatomy Study Guide: My focus is OER content and this Anatomy guide is the best free mobile app version I’ve found. It has multiple modes, including a quizzing mode, that allows students to drill the bones and muscles any time they have a few minutes to spare.  The key to retention is repetition and ongoing drill is beneficial.
  1. PubMed: Writing OER content requires constant fact-checking. PubMed is the go-to for up to date basic medical science research.  While most articles referenced are behind pay walls (grr…), the abstracts are generally sufficient for a quick fact check.  For deeper research, I’ll then go through Google Scholar to see if the relevant article .pdf has been posted online anywhere.

As an online teacher, I spend hours each day using technology as an interface to interact with my students as they learn.  Since online learning is most frequently asynchronous, I am always excited about tools that improve the learning experience for students when I’m not immediately available for contact.  I’m also always on the look out for OER resources and the tools to help me create them. It’s a happy day when I find an online tool that helps me and my students travel our education journey more effectively together.





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





FTP and servers and file structure – oh my!! #yesican @articluate #onlineed #FileZilla #commodore64

3 10 2015

Something I’ve picked up from my mom is the mantra “If other people can figure out how to do this, so can I”.  From the outside, we may seem different.  She buys drills, tears down walls, and builds closets and banisters.  I buy software, tear down curricula, and build interactive learning activities.  If you ask my mom why she tears down walls and fiddles with a design until it works, she’ll tell you it’s because she enjoys building things that people can use.  Although our tools are different, our goals and motivations are the same.  I, too, enjoy building things that people can use – I get that from my mom.  She’d tell you we’re not alike, but we really are.  (Yes we are, mom!)

Back in the early 1980’s, I was obsessed with programming on my Commodore 64.  My interest continued through college, where I encountered the Mac HyperCard and PC DOS worlds.  In the 90’s I left home for the military, got married, had kids, went to grad school… and by the time I had time to think about programming again – the tools of that trade had exploded beyond what I could quickly assimilate.  So, I focused instead on the tech I needed for my career.  I mastered Excel data analysis and Power Point motion tracks.  As a teacher, I became the queen of animated Power Points (yes, I was that 90’s stereotype).  In 1999, I was approached about teaching within the emerging online platform, WebCT.  I jumped at the chance! Two of my favorite things – tech and teaching – combined into one?  Yes!!

In the 2000’s, I dove into screen casting – recording lectures for my online students with my trusty Bamboo graphic tablet and whiteboard program.  It was cutting edge to be able to deliver video lectures at the time.  But, in the tech world, new quickly becomes passé. Recently, I have wanted to gain experience with interactive animation to update my content delivery.  I have my own website and I’ve done some rudimentary interactive programming there, but I wanted something more robust.

This past week I published my first interLRSC medmath1active Articulate Storyline quiz activity.  The program has a bit of a learning curve, but there are videos to help.  It’s enough like Power Point that it was fairly easy going.  Until… I couldn’t get the output to upload to my website.  And… there were way too many files to upload individually and keep in order.  And… my web hosting service wouldn’t unzip folders.  So, I got frustrated and walked away for a few days.

Then, as I looked through pictures of my mom knocking out walls and building a closet from scratch, I realized that just like her – if other people can figure this out, so can I.

So, I started researching ways to bypass the program file transfer protocol (ftp) that wasn’t working.  I came across FileZilla, and memories of an ill-fated attempt to set up a Moodle server about 10 years ago came back to me.  I downloaded the software, pulled up some help files, logged into my web host server, transferred the files, got very nervous, and… IT WORKED!!!  I started yelling my version of “Eureka!” through the house, got called a nerd by my son (who was playing video games at the time – the son of a nerd), and posted my joy on Facebook 😉

As they used to say on a famous 80’s TV show… “I love it when a plan comes together!”.

My first project:  http://www.mycozynook.com/215math1.html  More to come soon – I’m addicted now!





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”.

ntl_learning_pyramid

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







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