Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Running Labs in an Asynchronous Course

familymwr // flickr
 Recently on twitter I was asked how I manage labs in an asynchronous course. The answer is disappointingly too long to fit into a tweet. I promised to write a blog post about it; truthfully, I've struggled with this issue all year and was hoping to read someone's blog post to get some guidance. Perhaps readers may learn what to avoid or become aware of questions that need answering after reading here.

I've treated different labs differently - obviously! I've filled small bins with 2-3 lab setups. When students are ready for a particular lab, they watch a labcast video, complete any pre-lab assignments, grab a setup, then perform the lab. While this works most of the time, I learned quickly the flaws of this plan. 

Students who work ahead: 

Large sample size is important in science. Access to statistically significant (or insignificant) data is perhaps even more important than students designing experiments, in my humble opinion. The reason I haven't moved completely to inquiry labs is because I need each group to replicate trials of the same procedure to pool the data for statistical analysis. This presents a new challenge in an asynchronous course. Students who work ahead only have access to a small sample size. I've solved this problem by publishing data from previous years. Whether a student collects data early or late, their data will be compiled with other years of data. 

Lab setup: 

Labs are messy; some materials can't be neatly stuffed into bins. Some labs require time consuming set ups, like water baths. Some require perishables which have to be ordered weeks in advance, while others need to used within three days of arrival. 

I shifted to a synchronous approach for some labs. The resource intensive and perishable-heavy labs just require too much work to plan for different lab dates. I still offer some flexibility. I make some labs available for a few days. This gives students the time to catch up. I don't want students performing labs before they are relevant. My labs are strategically situated at specific parts of the learning cycle. It's important to allow some time for students to complete the prerequisite steps before performing each lab. 

I'm dissatisfied with my system because I still have to rush some students through steps and prevent others from going ahead. I dislike encouraging students to skip steps in order to complete a lab.  

Future Plans: 

It's clear to me that what's best for student learning, and not my convenience, is to make labs available only when students are ready for them. If my mastery learning cycles are designed in a pedagogically sound way, then rushing or prohibiting students from moving ahead is counterproductive. I also still believe that students must work with large sample sizes and inquiry is an opportunity for students to engage in critical thinking and take ownership of their learning. My solution is to have students design all/most of their experiments and stipulate they must have large sample sizes in their experiments. 

This will require some adjustments. I'll have to alter the labcast videos to introduce the challenge, show some of the available materials and offer suggestions. This will take a great deal of organization and resources. I'll have to develop an effective technique to predict when students will be ready for particular experiments and use that information to strategically order materials. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Suggestions for Flipping the Science Lab

Here are some suggestions for managing labs in a flipped science course.  

1) Labcast video
Students should complete a pre-lab activity. At the very least, students should watch a labcast describing the experiment, lab safety concerns and demonstration of frequently confused portions of the lab procedure. The labcast video will save the teacher so much time by minimizing the usual clarification questions and giving students the opportunity to learn about the lab outside of precious class time. 

Example of a Labcast

2) Google Form for data collection:
If you are combining data from multiple groups, definitely use a Google form. Make sure students do not include the units because the spreadsheet will be unable to perform calculations. 

Sample Data Form

Consider whether you want to include required questions. Required questions defend against blank data entries. However, if there are legitimate reasons for skipping trials, then students will be unable to submit their data until you change that option. 

Finally consider adding an identifier question like student name or group number. If students make a mistake submitting data, you will need to identify and delete this data. (I had to learn this the hard way, notice the image above violates this suggestion!)

3) Publishing data
Add sheets to the Google form responses spreadsheet. You can use the array formula to send updated data from the responses to a calculation sheet. The calculation sheet can calculate and automatically update the mean, standard deviation, confidence intervals, etcetera. You can use array formula one more time to send the calculations to a published data sheet.

 Multiple sheets for calculations & data publication

The neat thing about Google spreadsheets is the option to publish just one sheet. I typically publish one final sheet and share the link with students.

Published Data

This workflow has been successful in my class. In most cases, students seamlessly move from different steps in the learning cycle to labs without much interruption of other students. The struggle I have with labs is more global and related to running an asynchronous flipped course, rather than merely a flipped course.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Urgent Need for Standards Based Grading

I love moving to an asynchronous flipped course. However, it is clear to me that the next major paradigm shift must be toward Standards Based Grading. 

The asynchronous nature of the course works well for so many reasons,which I have mentioned in the past. My major struggle is the model seems to encourage, or at least allow, students to submit late, and typically useless, assignments at the end of the quarter. Most of these assignments are irrelevant at quarter's end because students already completed their summative assessments. Students submit these late assignments solely to increase their average. While the flipped model decreases the opportunity for the typical "students playing school," clearly some of that is still happening in my course! I could ban submission of assignments after the subsequent steps but that would treat the symptom, rather than the cause.

The culprit seems to be grades, or at least the traditional assessment based grading system. I incorporate assignment completion percentage into the quarter averages to encourage students to do their work. But this seems wrong to me. If we have to assign a grade, shouldn't it be based exclusively on what students have learned, rather than behavior, participation and assignment completion and timeliness rates? Don't get me wrong, I understand why these aspects are included in grades; teachers want to encourage certain behaviors while discouraging others. The easiest method is including specific behaviors in the grading system. Unfortunately, the result is inflated grades for compliant students and deflated grades for noncompliant students. Rather than grades reflecting learning, grades merely correlate or relate to learning in the traditional system. This is an odd paradigm when you really think about it! 

Standards based grading can be the solution. Students are graded exclusively on how well they demonstrate mastery of learning objectives or standards. Students can choose which learning activities (readings, videos, labs) to complete. They can redo assignments to learn or practice objectives before opting for a graded objective check or mastery quiz. If students want or need to retake the summative assessment, they can revisit some or all of the learning activities -  but I won't include the completion percentage rate into the grade. I haven't figured out the logistics but I am sure that my current grading system needs a makeover.  

Friday, April 4, 2014

How to (and Why You Should) Take Baby Steps to Flipped Learning

Will Fisher // Flickr

When asked how long I've been flipping my class, I typically say since fourth quarter of the 2012-2013 academic school year. Upon further reflection, I now realize that I've adopted elements of the Flip for years. Perhaps unconsciously, I flirted with flipped learning. In sharing some of these prior flirtations, I hope readers weary of diving into flipped learning may use my words to help dip their toes into the flipped learning pool. 

Screencasts - Demonstrating how to use Technology: 

In the past, if I wanted students to use graphing software like Excel, TinkerPlots or Fathom, a technology integrator would visit my classes, lead a lesson or two and walk my students through the processes of inputting data, making graphs and performing calculations. This was helpful because I didn't have the proficiency to teach the software at the time. But it was difficult to schedule these lessons and ensure each section learned the same techniques, not to mention the difficulty of helping students who were absent for these guest lessons. 

As I learned more, I took over the lessons. This solved the problem of scheduling lessons but other issues remained. For example, it was still difficult to remember what I told each class. Some students missed parts of the instructions and repeating myself meant other groups were waiting for the next step. There were always groups who had technical issues, so troubleshooting also prevented other groups from moving on. Some groups already knew how to use the software and still had to wait for specific instructions from me. All of these issues meant I spent way too much time on teaching technology, rather than focusing on the course specific skills and content. 

I solved these problems by creating videos or screencasts showing how to use the technology. At first, students watched the videos during class. This instantly improved the student experience. Those who missed a step could rewind. Faster students or students previously experienced with the software no longer had to wait for the rest of the class. I was free to manage behavior without interrupting the lesson; more importantly, I helped students troubleshoot. 

Eventually, I asked students to preview the technology tutorial videos at home. Offloading direct instruction added so much time to the lesson. My students spent the majority of class time working on their projects, rather than watching a screen or waiting for their peers. Students had more time to discuss, collaborate, ask questions and revise their work. Anecdotally, I recall thinking the project quality improved after the switch.  I even notched up expectations. There were fewer noticeable breaches of academic integrity as well. I presume this was true for a few reasons. I was present for most of project completion; it would've been audacious for a student to cheat on a project despite the teacher lurking around the room and talking with students. Another reason, presumably, is students were able to ask me questions as soon as confusion arose. Previously, these confused students would turn to their peers outside of classtime for help- sometimes, inappropriate help. Instead, students turned to me during class time. 

Labcasts - Giving Directions on Video: 

After my successes with the screencasts, I realized that videos could be helpful so I decided to put ALL instructions in videos. Whenever there was a project, students viewed the video instructions before we began work. Students also jotted down questions for homework. 

I extended these videos to labs as well. This is probably when I fell in love with instructional videos. As a pre-lab assignment, students took notes and answered questions based on the labcast videos. Class time was maximized for set up, data collection,  clean up and reflection.  I no longer spent 10-15 minutes explaining the experiment and fielding questions. Even though class still began with Q & A, there were fewer questions. Presumably, students took advantage of the pause and rewind buttons. All students now had an closeup view of the lab setup. When I explained the experiment during class, only the first row of students had an unimpeded view. 

YouTube - Teaching Content:

After the successes of labcasts and screencasts, I appreciated the benefits of flipped learning. I started to use a few YouTube videos to teach content. I didn't do it often because my presentations were designed specifically for my course and most of the videos I found online were not. On the rare occasion when I found appropriate videos, I usually showed them in class, as part of my presentation. This strategy was limited and didn't offer all of the previously mentioned benefits. The videos were still part of synchronous presentations. Students did not have the luxury of rewinding or moving ahead. I also didn't have the luxury to roam, interact with students, give individualized feedback or manage behavior without interrupting the lesson. Class time wasn't saved. I could've assigned the videos for homework but was skeptical that all of my students would watch the videos. Even if they did, I didn't have a plan for reimagining the captured class time. 

Closing thoughts: 

I came to realize that if I desired the use of videos to teach content on a consistent basis, I would need to build new accountability structures and reorganize my class. The video was just a small element of this imagined course; I would have to rethink my class. 

This is where the baby steps stopped... eventually, I took large strides out of the wading pool and dove into the deep end of flipped learning. I haven't peeked over to the shallow end yet and don't expect to!