Tag Archives: professional development

Experimenting with Participatory Media: Mike Gaines at University of Miami

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!).

Mike Gaines' wiki page

Mike Gaines' wiki page

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!”


Filed under Reflections on Teaching, Teaching with Technology

Reflections on Growth and Change

Growth and ChangeI just finished reading the article “Models of growth – towards fundamental change in learning environments” by David Cavallo (BT Technology Journal * Vol 22 No4)  – with thanks to Gardner Campbell for bringing it to my attention.  A very good read with many intriguing ideas.  In order to process the ideas for myself, I thought I’d blog about it here.

David Cavallo is a really interesting guy.  He’s the co-head of the the MIT Media Lab’s Future of Learning group which focuses on the design and implementation of new learning environments.  He collaborated with Seymour Papert at the MIT Media Lab and is the VP Learning for the One Laptop Per Child organization.  He also led the design and implementation of medical informatics at Harvard University Health Services prior to his work at the Lab.

Based on Cavallo’s experience implementing new learning environments in Brazil, he proposes new models for growth and change in education.  You’ll have to read the article for the juicy details on his Brazil project.  What I hope to chew on here, are his take-home lessons for our own use in thinking about transformational process in schools and colleges.

First off, Cavallo talks about existing models for growth and change in schools.  As he puts it, we either try to replicate change – that is, enforce the execution a predetermined, formulated design in every location according to prescribed steps.   Or we try to take it to scale – that is, test the reform in a small, controlled setting and then attempt to spread it through the system.  Both models, according to Cavallo, are flawed and he laments the lack of alternative models.  And then, of course, goes on to propose new ways of thinking about it.

The way Cavallo sees change is as a kind of learning.  He very articulately makes the parallel between the process when a school system undergoes change and the changes that happen in an individual learner when they encounter new concepts. Just as we know that simple information transfer doesn’t work for the individual learner, so it goes for a school system.  In addition to that, just as with an individual learner, we have to consider the sociological, cultural, and environmental context in which the learning (the change) takes place.  And when they’re working, they need to work on problems that are significant to them.  This way of reframing systemic change, gives us all sorts of insights based on experience with students.

Cavallo explains that copying best practices doesn’t work (he uses the auto industry in post-war Japan as a example to illustrate this).  Substantive change requires the learner to study the underlying principles of the information so that they can apply and fit the new ideas to their local culture and specific situation.  And so it goes with educational change.  It is the mindset around the change, rather than the sum of the steps or practices, that need to be developed.

And that leads to his description of what constitutes a “fertile environment for growth”.  Here’s a list of what Cavallo sees as felicitous conditions for educational change:

Volition: teachers have got to want it

Appropriation and experimentation: teachers need to be able to try it out in their own setting

Concrete exemplars: real-life examples that are meaningful to the teachers

Community and communication: peer-to-peer interchange of ideas, questions, doubts, and considerations

Feedback: teachers need to see everyone’s results and get feedback on their own results

Debugging: make mistakes and discuss them

Materials: you need the things to work with

Language: either re-appropriating old terms for new meanings or inventing new terms to describe what’s going on

Bottom-up and emergent: many little contributions (not top down)

Time: major changes do not happen over night

Hope and expectation: teachers must come to believe that improvement is desirable and possible

Sounds like a pretty good list, doesn’t it?  I’m thinking this could be used as a check list – as in, before we get started, are these conditions in place?  If not, why not?  And what could we do about it?

The article goes on to describe the specifics of a summer institute they designed (alternating between talks, project work, and discussion groups) and the resulting implementation in the various schools. He explains that the central focus of the workshops was to reflect on the learning process itself and how they spark an ongoing process of reflection and improvement.  And how often does that happen?  How often are we able to take the time to reflect on our teaching?  On our own learning?  And on better ways to learn?

In the end, Cavallo concludes that large-scale educational change emerges from a number of small-scale changes and that the most lasting improvements come from modeling, testing, debugging and adapting to local conditions.  Throughout their experiences in Brazil, they seemed to create deliberate variation – each classroom, each school turned out differently and there were always unexpected results. I really appreciated his welcome attitude toward the diversity of solutions. It’s a good reminder that your implementation will probably look nothing like my solution – and that’s not only ok, it’s a good thing.  As Cavallo puts it, “meaningful changes must proceed form local concerns, and no one knows the right answers in advance.”

I have to say that one of my most valuable take-aways from reading this article is to remind myself that patience is required.  “This is not the work of a day, or a week, or a workshop…this is a process where the chance to experience a new practice of learning leads to a fundamental re-thinking of what might be possible.”  Patience.


Filed under Reflections on Teaching