COVID-19 forces the adoption of technology in the university

For this post I decided to reflect on the importance of one specific technology in teaching that has been available for a while… the Internet. It may seem foolish to discuss the importance of the internet, as it’s been around for many years now, and newer generations don’t even know what it’s like to be in a world without one. And I would agree with that argument if we were talking about other fields other than education. The rate in which other human fields have adopted the internet to perform daily tasks is remarkable (Take, for instance, transportation! You can click on a button in your phone, and a car will pick you up in the next 10 minutes and take you anywhere you wish to go). But we can’t say the same about the use of technology in education. The use of internet to deliver education has always been seen with skepticism. That was, until 2020.

In 2020 internet was the only way in which education was possible to happen. We all remember how uncertain we were, early in 2020 summer, about whether the fall semester would even happen or not. The only way it was made possible to happen, is because the majority of the classes are being held online, and education could be safely delivered.  Another educational impact driven by the COVID-19 pandemics was that companies, and universities would share their extension work, with expert speakers, online with the incapacity of holding in-person events. These lectures are always free and are great opportunities for professional development.

I believe that there are many features of the internet that have been forced into the educational system in 2020 that have come to stay. I expect that we will have much more use of internet for teaching after COVID-19 than we had prior to it, and I believe this is good! Zoom, for example, has proven to be an efficient way to deliver education, and often facilitates the life of both the students and the teacher (based on my experience as a student… Feel free to disagree).

Despite of my support for adopting of internet in education, I also strongly believe that universities must return to in-person classes as soon as possible, specially for lab classes. Some of the content we teach can not be delivered properly without live exercises, and if we remain teaching only through the internet, universities won’t be very different than Youtube, for example.


How Dan Brown taught me the importance of Open access

You probably know Dan Brown stories from the movie theater. The adventures lived by Robert Langdon, played by Tom Hanks, in the different countries, solving all the symbolic riddles, are breathtaking. However, in my opinion, the factor that makes those stories so fascinating (factor you can only get right by reading the book) is the deep reflection the author offers to problems the world faces nowadays.

In the book Inferno (spoiler alert), the author explains how the population currently grows in geometric progression, and how the overpopulation we’ll face in the future is capable of creating catastrophe. By increasing the population, the resources available for maintaining the population will become scarce, which in turn would result in wars between countries for those resources, and so on. In this book, Robert Langdon has to stop the spread of a genetically engineered virus, that was designed to solve the issue of this overgrowing population.

Yet, in another book, “The Lost Symbol”, the author shows us how the technologies that we have available nowadays, also grow and develop in a geometric progression, and would be responsible for solving many problems and avoiding many conflicts. The author’s exact words are:

“The power of human thought grows exponentially with the number of minds that share that thought.”

That is because often the solution for a problem in one area, can also be the solution in another one. Take for example CRISPR-Cas9, the new gene editing technique that yielded the Nobel prize for Drs. Doudna and Charpentier. CRISPR is nothing but an immunologic tool that some bacteria developed through evolution to cut down DNA from viruses that would infect them. This tool was then manipulated to edit genes, and is a promising technology for healing many diseases. This shows how knowledge generated from microbiologists yielded the development of the greatest gene editing tool ever created.

You’re probably asking yourself, how does all of this has to do with open access journals? And my answer to that question is everything! We currently live in a world where access to fake news and lies is much easier than access to good quality scientific knowledge. We live in a world where we care much more to discuss about conspiracy theories, than to discuss problems that affect our society. Why do we live in a world where fake news are fed to us for free, whereas good scientific knowledge is restrict for people who work in land grant universities? Science should be free and available for everyone, and not expensive and restrict to a handful of people.

Open access journals is the promising way that people can access scientific knowledge, rather than fake news. I believe that the scientific community should push to publish their work in journals that will be available for everyone. I think that, combined with more qualified peer review process of those journals, is what will ultimately allow the spread of good science.

Ethical misconduct in research

The office of Research Integrity (ORI) is responsible for supervising public health research misconduct. In my opinion, fabricating data and misleading scientific experiments is very bad, however doing this in the medical field is even worse. It’s worse because the relationship between a doctor and a patient is built on trust. Trust that the doctor, who holds all the scientific knowledge, will make the best decision to treat the patient’s body and mind, and ultimately heal the patient. How is the doctor supposed to make a qualified decision if the science he’s using to back his decision up is fabricated? More importantly, how is the patient supposed to trust the doctor in the same scenario?

For me, this only highlights the importance of the ORI institution. Gladly, while browsing through their website, I could only find 33 of research misconduct cases since 2015, which makes me believe in the integrity of the majority of researchers in the area.

The case I chose to study, referred to a Psychiatric scientist who not only fabricated data, but also lied about the qualification of personnel responsible for conducting the psychiatric analysis in their research, and also used 6 NIH grant money for personal expenses, ultimately misleading the publication of 4 scientific papers. This scientist has agreed to take a 2 year absence of any contracting with the United States government, 4 years absence for serving in any advisory capacity, and removal of the published scientific papers from press. Also, a quick google on his name lead to greater detail of the case, not included in the ORI website. The sentence included the payment of over $70.000 to the government as well as an obligation to play piano in elderly homes for 2 hours a week.

This case is hopefully rare, and studying this case made me believe in the integrity of scientists. Not because of this particular scientist who was sentenced, but because his peers were likely responsible for identifying the misconduct and to inform it to authorities.

Are mission statements in fact applied? – My perspective

Today I’d like to go over the mission statements of two universities from different countries. I chose to compare the mission of these specific universities, because I had the honor to study in both of them, and therefore can provide the insight of someone who’s been able to experience learning in these institutions, as well as to discuss whether their mission statements are in fact implemented to the students experience.

State University of Sao Paulo:

At UNESP, we highly value the principles of free speech and critical thinking as well as ethical and humanistic principles; so, it is our mission to bring you education, research and outreach activities that uphold these principles.

In addition, we promote professionalization which aims to improve: the quality of life of both individuals and society; technological innovation, sustainability, social equity, human rights and democratic access.

Also, through the transformative power of knowledge sharing, we are seeking to incite impactful changes that will help to overcome inequalities as well as to empower citizens to fully exercise their rights.

Virginia Tech:

Inspired by our land-grant identity and guided by our motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech is an inclusive community of knowledge, discovery, and creativity dedicated to improving the quality of life and the human condition within the Commonwealth of Virginia and throughout the world.

In general, both universities have a similar mission of developing their communities and promote diversity and inclusion. In practice, Virginia Tech is highly diverse, as the students in the university come from all over the world (including myself). Virginia Tech also plays an important role in promoting these different cultures to form their own communities on campus, ultimately promoting a very broad cultural environment.

The State University of Sao Paulo is inclusive in a way that it offers great quality teaching free of tuition and fees for all students. Although there is a difficult selective process based on merit, this allows access of education for those who are less fortunate. In addition, the university has 24 campi spread across the state, which ultimately provides education outreach.

Distribution of State University of Sao Paulo campi across the State

The Brazilian university however, seems to have a more political goal as stated “we are seeking to incite impactful changes that will help to overcome inequalities as well as to empower citizens to fully exercise their rights.”, whereas Virginia Tech defines it’s mission broadly as developing the community’s quality of life. In practice, the Brazilian university is, indeed more politically driven. Since it is a public university, not only the institution, but often the students and professors will adopt a political position, which often results in strikes.

Can PBL promote inclusion in a classroom?

I believe people have different skills when learning. That is, I may understand biology easier than my colleague, while math may seem quite easy for that person and a nightmare to myself (which it actually is. Mention statistics near me and I’ll go a week without sleeping). I also believe that, it is because we have different skills at learning, that we learn better different subjects.
I was therefore, intrigued when reading and watching videos of problem based learning this week. It is quite interesting the idea of making students to research different topics on different subjects, often resulting in group discussions, in order to solve a problem posed by the teacher. I believe this approach can be quite successful for not only breaking the routine of a classroom, where the teacher has most of participation, but also because it allows other skills to be developed by the students.

I do however believe that while this approach may be advantageous for students who are easily engaged into problem solving, some other students may be more engaged in learning through the traditional, or other methods, of delivering the content (such as reading materials, youtube videos, documentaries, etc).

Nonetheless, I am happy to be introduced into the problem based learning strategy and will happily add it to my “teaching strategies Batman utility belt”. I ultimately believe it is by providing different methods of delivering the content that will more accurately adapt to the different learning skills of students in a class and I’m sure the PBL methodology is a good tool to explore different learning skills in the classroom.


Identity and Intellectual Performance – Perspective of a Foreigner Student

For my Contemporary Pedagogy class we were assigned a few reading assignments and the “How stereotypes affects us and what we can do” article by Dr. Steele really caught my attention. In this article, Dr. Steele narrates the experiences he had during his career as a professor and researcher in human psychology, and how these experiences led him to understand how social pressure and stereotypes result in lower performance of minority groups, such as black students, women and latinos.

I am originally from Brazil, and it was as soon as I joined Virginia Tech that I realized that the cultural struggle required to belong posed a great challenge. In other words, I realized that, in order to be accepted by my peers, I couldn’t behave the same way I used to in Brazil. In essence, jokes that are funny in Brazil don’t necessarily are funny in the U.S. (and vice versa), people don’t greet each other with hugs, and more specifically, people seem to welcome you as a colleague, but are skeptical on having you as a friend.

In the article, Dr. Steele states that minorities tend to agglomerate themselves with people belonging to their own identity, and I believe this is in result of the cultural distance posed in the environment. Or, at least, that’s what happened in my case. Feeling distant from belonging in the States, I sought to find others of my kind, where I could behave like myself and feel like I belong, however the need to adapt to the new culture in order to belong outside of my cultural niche was still something very important. I therefore, make the daily effort to adapt to the American culture, since I believe it’s my responsibility to adapt to the culture rather than having people around me to adapt to my costumes (I’m the fish out of the water afterwards, so I might as well learn how to walk rather than insist on swimming).

I’m obligated to say that I never felt discriminated due to my nationality, but Virginia Tech does a great job on spreading diversity on campus and I’m thankful for being in such an inclusive campus. I do however, sometimes feel that preconception is present in a way to stereotype some academic performance, but rather than feeling stigmatized (as the article states being the reason of underperformance in some groups), I use this preconception as motivation to do an outstanding job. It is sometimes in our hands, to show what we’re capable of.