Driving Connectivity with Pedagogy.

The Connected Courses experience been insightful. As someone who is still a student and hasn’t had the opportunity to independently lead my own course, I have been left with new ideas and a new perspective of how the nature of instruction is evolving. I have tools that will prove invaluable as my teaching responsibilities increase over the coming years.

I have found the online and mixed-media composition of Connected Courses to facilitate inclusion. While internet-based courses have the potential to feel isolating, the constant discussion and diverse participant contributions keep things going. It is quite amazing that we live in a time in which we have the technology to participate in academic discussions at any time and from any place in the world.

One of the topics of the most recent Connected Courses sessions has been the Indie Web: a movement in which we simultaneously remove our sole trust in commercial internet media sites and centralize our own data. The concept of using the Indie Web to create, compile and publicly present our academic contributions has a lot of merit. However, I wonder if we need to be cautious in whether or not we put all of our eggs into one basket, even if it is one we have more control over. Specifically, I am slightly concerned about how social media aggregation might continue to erode the boundaries of our personal and professional lives. I am a proponent of openness but can think of several examples in which it may not be desirable to allow unregulated crossover of these realms.

Perhaps this represents a potential roadblock for the sustained application of social media in the classroom. The Indie Web movement is in part supposed to prevent students from being “locked out” of their data and allow the conversation to continue outside of the classroom. Surely, giving students “ownership” can be empowering and encourage deeper engagement. However, I question how much participation will actually continue after the semester ends, when students turn to new pressures and obligations. And how long will students want their names permanently attached to their contributions? Sometimes we might be less likely to contribute when we know our causal comments will exist longer than we will. We are vulnerable when we are learning. That is a good thing, but I feel that we need to consider the implications of this vulnerability when balancing new open course formats in order to make sure our practices are truly inclusive. I admire the focus of driving technological advances with current practice instead of the other way around, and perhaps selective anonymity will be something that is considered as the Indie Web develops.

This will not be my last blog post, but I must say how interesting my time with Connected Courses has been. I may not have participated in all of the writing prompts, but I have taken away a great deal, all while experimenting with unfamiliar topics and new methods. Definitely recommended, and I found the small breakout sessions with #VTCCourses to be especially valuable, despite my limited participation.

The Internet and Open Knowledge.

Not only is web fluency is a requirement for success in most modern work and social environments, but language of networks and social structures are increasingly used in how we talk about the offline learning experience as well.

The paradigm shift in higher education in the direction of active learner-centered engagement and empowerment parallels other societal changes of the new millennium. As David Weinberger puts it in his article on A Unified Theory of the Web, the internet is “is changing our understanding of what puts things together in the first place.” Making an analogy to education, perhaps the classroom can be thought of as “many small pieces loosely joined” rather than in the traditional structure of givers and receivers of knowledge. Increasing openness, diversity and inclusion can do nothing but increase the quality of the experience for all involved.

Within individual disciplines, the internet analogy can be taken further. According to Roy Fielding, the internet is a system to “interconnect information networks across organizational boundaries.” The revolution in interdisciplinary education similarly aims to transcend barriers in order to both enrich academic scholarship and lead to new advances that bridge traditional disciplinary silos. One step further, and we discover ways to better communicate esoteric ideas with an informed and curious public.

Wikipedia itself can serve as an interesting example of public communication of various topics. Jon Undell shows how “a loose worldwide federation of volunteers” exerts progressive evolutionary improvement of open-source articles. Like natural selection, he comments on a particular edit at 2:47, “that wasn’t very successful, and it doesn’t survive long”. Gone are the days of individual dominance of knowledge. We just have to figure out how to work with this information in strategic, constructive ways, and teach students to do the same.

Social Engagement in Higher Education.

My posts have been somewhat delayed due to a whirlwind of lab benchwork, travel and postdoc hunting. I have been participating in the live discussions but sometimes find it difficult to sit down and consolidate/communicate my thoughts. That’s one of the great things about Twitter (@0dwyVT): active discussion without necessarily the time commitment! As a first-time user of Twitter, I find it to be a perfect supplement to the video streaming and blogging going on in this course.

Speaking of social media, the first discussion in Unit 2 emphasized this social aspect: namely the utility of investment in social capital and the principal of reciprocity. There are two classes of network architecture representative of typical communities, whether we are talking about online relationships or face-to-face. Dense networks build trust and cultivate shared norms, while open networks are better characterized by diversity and information flow. Personal networks build meaningful communities (for learning or otherwise). It was interesting to me to consider the necessary balance of open/closed networks in the classroom or in mentorship relationships. How can we make sure there is both trust and new information in these networks?

These leads me to an interesting point noted in the second discussion of Unit 1. Social interaction is a critical driver of learning/engagement in high-level learning environments, and is not necessarily in opposition to education. This may be correlated with what students ultimately leave with, or Ito’s “life changing-metric”. As the societal motivations for higher education evolve, it’s important to be open-minded to new ideas that might challenge your opinions. I never thought I’d be required to use Twitter in graduate school, nor did I think I would find it so rewarding when a panel of excellent speakers address my Tweets in their live streams!

I think project-oriented or socially-driven courses can take a variety of forms, and one of my aims as I develop my career in higher education is to merge the necessity of acquiring core knowledge/theory with the learning that otherwise only happens “around the edges”. There are still core competencies that need to be developed in order to progress in any field, but how we introduce these concepts and how we assess them needs to change. Furthermore, every student must find her/his own purpose and motivators. We can’t do all the work as educators/mentors, but we can catalyze the process.

Introduction for Active Co-Learning.

It is time to (re)introduce myself this semester as a participant in Connected Courses: Active Co-Learning in Higher Ed. I was given the opportunity to take part in this course as one component of the Future Professoriate Graduate Certificate at Virginia Tech. As a PhD candidate in the basic biological/medical sciences, I recognize an obvious lack of training in teaching and mentorship. There is an assumption that a good researcher makes a good teacher, to the dismay of many a student in top-tier research institutions. I hope to be part of the solution to this problem, and am enrolled in the Active Co-Learning course to acquire new tools and new ways of thinking as the landscape of higher education rapidly changes.

I am not currently teaching a course. In fact, nearly the totality of my experience teaching has been confined to laboratory settings: albeit laboratories also equipped with chalkboards. I am more accustomed to lecturing on methods, presenting new data, or training new students about life in an academic lab than I am used to lecturing from a textbook or syllabus. Laboratory classes, whether in the natural sciences or otherwise, are quite different from lecture or pure discussion sections, and I imagine there are several advantages and disadvantages to teaching in this setting. One of the upsides is the more obvious “why”, since most of what I do is applied (in the bioengineering sense) rather than theoretical. However, even in this setting it can be all too easy to oversimplify the process, as Mike Welsch put it, as the “ultimately wrong notion of learning as the simple acquisition of knowledge”.

Education is a transformative process. That’s what got me hooked on science from the beginning. The scientific method provides more than a tool for answering questions: it is a worldview. Learning experimental design in high school biology opened up a whole new way of understanding and BEING on the planet Earth. I still fondly remember the foundational projector slides: a flow chart of Gregor Mendel’s plant hybridization experiments is SO MUCH MORE than a simple gardening task! It was empowering, and provided a broad framework for looking at other problems. As was discussed in the first session, education CANNOT be about checking boxes. Education is about TRANSFORMATION.

I credit a few inspiring mentors for helping me along my path, and I aspire to facilitate similar experiences in my students by giving them a purpose and helping them apply their passions and build their own niche. I was really interested to hear from the panel last class about how to move beyond outcomes-driven education and how to harness the REAL learning that seems to only take place in the periphery of the traditional classroom experience.

Even the pedagogical training I have received at Virginia Tech has been transformative. I entered the PFP program expecting to learn a few tools for being a better teacher, but have instead become immersed in the latest theories and ideas of higher education at its core. I am excited to see the changes that this course will facilitate, and hope to be able to share my insights and experiences along the way.

The versatility of the hybrid course format.

Yesterday evening, one of my classmates shared a personal experience regarding the use of online instructional media to supplement traditional lecture course. In addition to normal teaching, she uploaded videos onto Scholar to further explain relevant subject matter: material that could be accessed by her students at any time from any location. This person indicated that her students universally valued this approach, as assessed via teaching evaluations. I appreciated hearing this experience, and I think it demonstrates one of the ways we can use technology to enhance classroom learning without detracting from the conventional, immersive experience.

When I was an undergraduate, certain large introductory courses began offering supplementary podcasts in a similar manner. This may have been more utilitarian than progressive; students such as myself would attend multiple lecture sections of organic chemistry each day in order to hear the same material several times from different instructors. This resulted in students seated in the isles and standing in the back, often times causing issues with the building administration for exceeding the fire code maximum occupancy. This continued after the release of the podcasts, because their basic form was unable to compete with the lecture hall experience.

My point is that, despite my general skepticism of online and electronic learning as an exclusive teaching modality, I think it has tremendous value as a supplement to the classroom experience. In particular, combining face-to-face lecture and discussion with take-home media (that can be paused and repeated) delivers the best of both old and new. Faculty that can incorporate creative solutions such as this will indeed be valuable to their departments, but it has to be done in innovative and intelligent ways that consider the real needs of your students.

In addition to potentially being able to reach a larger audience, a hybrid course format accommodates a variety of learning styles. We all know that a single approach doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, and providing options should 1) encourage intellectual diversity in the classroom, 2) provide a more adaptable learning experience and 3) generally improve student performance on the subject matter. As we all strive to become better instructors, I think it is important to be cognizant of emerging technological tools and incorporate them in ways that genuinely enhance the learning experience.

A statement on faculty philosophy.

Being faculty represents occupying a critical role in society: one who conducts and disseminates meaningful research, who instructs and mentors junior academics, and who serves as a societal resource of knowledge. The position of university professor should be attained not as a mere result of accomplishing significant work as an individual, but by engaging in the larger scientific and social community while functioning as a trusted symbol of and advocate for the pursuit of higher education. This may be accomplished through a number of potential mechanisms based on the type of university as well as one’s particular specialization, but generally encompasses the well-known research/teaching/service triad as applied to a balanced faculty philosophy.

There is heavy emphasis within the life sciences to focus on research and the inevitable grant/manuscript cycles intrinsic to the process, but truly great faculty transcend these professional rigors and provide compassionate, respectful contributions to their students, department, and greater community. The beneficiaries of such an outlook extend well beyond the walls of the laboratory. My personal philosophy is focused on leading by example and communicating with others as my peers, regardless of their background or experience. One of my best undergraduate mentors told me that we are all intelligent scientists in his lab, but that we were all just at different stages of our careers. As a result, we were equals. That insight was profound, and has changed the way I see others within academia and beyond.

The intense competition present within contemporary academia forces many young academics to overlook teaching and service, and this behavior is often awarded in certain settings. Each generation is granted the opportunity to build upon the successes and shortcomings of its predecessors. In academia, it will be critical to strike a meaningful balance between faculty responsibilities to redirect public perception away from the concept of the egotistical, absent-minded professor toward a valuable community resource. While I have always emphasized research as my primary specialty, I now recognize that teaching and mentorship are equally if not more important. There will always be brilliant scientists out there, but those serving as faculty members must be especially skilled in disseminating their knowledge in order to solve societal problems and assist in the cultivation of future generations of inquisitive minds.

Teaching methods for laboratory courses.

My enrollment in this course has driven me to actively seek materials on teaching: something I would never have predicted three years ago as a highly research-driven new holder of a BS degree. The transition has been easier than I expected and I now realize that the reasons I thrived in my undergraduate course of study were largely due to the skilled mentorship I received from esteemed scientists who cared more about teaching than I realized.

I was browsing through the online archives of a favorite open-access journal of mine, PLoS Biology, and found a short communication that is particularly relevant to my previous teaching experience as well as my career goals. Those of you in departments that rely on laboratories as a major component of undergraduate teaching may find the following article useful:

Integrating Teaching and Research in Undergraduate Biology Laboratory Education
Full text available here.

The article criticized traditional “cook-book” style biology laboratories in favor of courses that integrate authentic research-driven activities. Though structured and heavily supervised, the authors involved students in hypothesis-driven original fieldwork that facilitated development of real intellectual and technical skills. This experience directly emphasized the skills necessary for careers involving scientific discourse, and also benefits the instructors/investigators by generating novel data. While it takes significant resources to establish such a program, the authors suggest that it is highly beneficial to all involved. I enthusiastically agree.

I have been on both the teaching and receiving ends of these kinds of courses, and I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with them. In fact, wet labs were some of my favorite classes as an undergraduate. However, it is critical to supplement these classes with true experiences involving formulation and testing of worthwhile questions. As I begin to plan my future impact as a faculty member in biology, I will heavily reference such approaches.

For those who are interested, the authors posted a list of six guidelines for founding undergraduate research-based laboratory courses, which can be found for free at the above link, and are applicable to almost any scientific field.

An ethical duty to teach?

I was recently involved in an interesting discussion with the Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program in Regenerative Medicine regarding ethical challenges in stem cell biology, particularly relating to patient approval for using surgical waste in research. Specifically, it is now possible to engineer “immortal” cell lines from any adult tissue biopsy using the technology of induced pluripotency, which represents enormous potential in the development of pharmaceutical testing paradigms for personalized medicine. Due to widely varying public opinion over the ownership and identity of cells acquired in such a manner, there is significant debate on the topic of non-coercive informed consent as it relates to the acquisition of discarded human tissues for biomedical research.

One may argue that by benefiting from a tradition of medicine, one has a responsibility to perpetuate its advancement by donating useful waste (such as a surgically extracted malignant tumor) to research. During the course of this discussion I began to realize that essentially the same principals that govern my viewpoint on cell donation apply to my motivation as a future educator. In a similar fashion, one who enjoys the benefits of an excellent education may have a deontological obligation to reciprocate the transmission of knowledge by teaching. While it may seem idealistic, the outcomes of 1) advancing science to improve the human condition and 2) transmitting knowledge to future generations for that purpose are motivating factors for someone like me who aspires to become a dual researcher/educator in the life sciences.

I view teaching as an exciting and productive facet of the responsibilities of a professor, rather than an uncomfortable necessity required in order to conduct research in an academic setting. I believe the culture of higher education in the life sciences would be dramatically improved if this opinion were to be more universally shared.

Parting Thoughts:

Do society’s most highly educated have an ethical duty to teach? If so, how does this influence your goals as a future faculty member?