Mike Gaines teaches general biology to undergraduates at University of Miami. He’s one of those incredible educators who is always trying something new – regularly reinventing his course and his approach in order to keep it fresh, alive, and interesting (for his students and for him!).
Recently he decided to introduce participatory media to his course (BIL 150). For some time he’d been looking for a good way to turn a critical analysis of science in the movies into a workable course assignment and a wiki site seemed like a good way to organize it. He built a course wiki site, using Wikispaces, and gave his freshmen biology students the assignment to watch two movies, Contagion and 50/50, and then post their analysis of the biology in those movies (misconceptions? inaccuracies? controversies?) as wiki entries. The student posts are very revealing. You can almost hear their wheels turning as they apply the course concepts (cell division, genetic mutations, viruses) to the science plot twists of the movie (cancer treatment, infection, and disease management).
Following success with that, he started a new page on the wiki site where students would record their observations and reactions to the Richard Dawkins lecture, The Magic of Reality.
Now he was up and running, he decided to experiment further. Twitter, Wordle and Pixton quickly came next. He used Twitter to keep in touch with his students, conducting virtual office hours to answer questions and take the “pulse” of the course. After each exam, he asked students to create Wordles (word maps) of their reactions to the exam so that the students could easily (at a glance) check in with each other on their sense of it (really hard? how’d you do? what concepts were confusing? how much and how did you study?) and how their own reactions compared to those of their peers. I thought this was a particularly ingenious use of a simple media tool. It was so interesting to read their potent relief as their calibrated themselves to their peers on terms other than test scores.
What I think Mike has done particularly well here is to design his teaching approach so that he’s engaged his students in an authentic experience, where the representation of his students’ knowledge is absolutely essential to the ongoing flow of the course. There is no busy work here, no tack-ons – everything the students are doing feels important and part of the fabric of the course.
Cleverly, Mikes also used that course wiki site to get final feedback on the course from his students. He set up a new wiki page for student feedback and asked them all to post their comments, suggestions, gripes, and concerns on that page. From the looks of it, almost all of his students posted something and many of them wrote a quite detailed and useful analysis of their experience. There are some excellent insights there, but if you don’t have time to read them all, here are a few of my favorite student remarks:
“Because our audience was middle schoolers, critical thinking was required to help express technological and biological in an understandable manner to a general audience.”
“I enjoyed having the opportunity to provide my own input (through Twitter especially) because it gave me a chance to actually think about things more thoroughly. For example, by simply asking us to tweet you about what we found most hard about the test, you are asking us to rethink the test and try to figure out what went wrong. Tweeting is such an easy way to provide input but it really helps spark thinking.”
“Throughout this course twitter has been used as a useful tool to communicate with the professor. Although it may seem informal, it is an effective means of communication because a student can ask the professor a question as soon as they think of it. The comments from twitter were then converted to Wordles, this was exciting because as a student I got to see that other students had the similar concerns and comments on the course.”
“In particular, I thought the use of twitter was a fantastic way to connect with Dr. Gaines and make you stand out in a large class. The same goes for the Wordles, which allowed you to have some valuable input on the tests. It really showed that Dr. Gaines cared about us as students, and didn’t view us all as just one gigantic class that blended together.”
Pretty darned impressive.
And here’s what Mike, himself, had to say about the experience,
“My advice to teachers who want to try this is that once you become familiar with different aspects of Web 2.0 technology, it will be a useful addition to your pedagogical tool kit. It’s how todays students communicate. I had some fears at first because I felt my students were “digital natives” while I was a “digital immigrant” and I would know less than they do. But this did not turn out to be the case. This teacher and his students became partners sharing their different expertise in the digital world to make my large lecture class more interactive and exciting. So go for it!”