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?