Friday 25 October 2013

 I’ve always been a bit of a technology junkie, but if I am going to use technology in my teaching, the most important question is “does it work?” The answer will depend on what each of us is trying to achieve. Here I describe 3 ways to use interactive whiteboards for you to try: as a monitor, for group work and as a presentation tool.
Student annotating a poster on one of the smartboards.

First, a bit of background. A few years ago Monash set up an educational technology sandpit. After using it a few times with my small (35) class of BSc (Advanced with Honours) students, it was really hard to go back to plain walls and PowerPoint in the mainstream core science tutorials. But with 500-600 students in tutorials of about 20-25 students, how could this be achieved economically?

The answer was to install 4 of the simplest smartboards, a large old-school white board across the back, and some new furniture. It turns out the hardest thing was to get all the different University services to all work together and I am really grateful for Reynold Dias for his efforts in this. It took a year, but with plaster still on the floor and wet paint on the walls, the rooms were ready to the first day of semester 1. 

The new set up in the science tutorial rooms ST1 and ST2. Students work in table groups. Here they are accessing and discussing types of scientific literature.

Electronic whiteboards are not new technology. They are in almost every primary school – in fact if you are unsure about how to use one, I’ve found that at least one student in every class has a parent who is a primary school teacher and knows all about them. I use them to do the same things we used to do when we with traditional whiteboards and one simple screen at the front of the room, but better and then some.

 Prior to these new teaching spaces being developed we adopted ‘Notebooks‘ (HP2760s if you like specifics) to encourage student collaboration (Allie Ford organised this). These notebooks worked well, and Allie Ford and KirstiAbbott creatively applied the technology to other things we did such as analysing posters, inking PowerPoints and so on. 

 There were several problems with this technology: Even though I arranged for the Wi-Fi signal to be boosted and additional power outlets to be put in all over the place there were still issues with flat batteries and signals dropping out. Sure, we could ask students to bring their own devices but that doesn’t promote collaborative learning and it can disadvantage those without them. Other technologies may be as good or better for certain activities but I like the Smartboards because they can are flexible. Here are three.
(1) As a monitor. The touch screen is a great way to be more involved in the subject matter and promotes discussion and group decision-making. Students can use the computer and board next to their table to access primary literature or the Web of Science. When using the experimental space, I had noticed that students were reluctant to type in their passwords up on the big screen, so in the new rooms each group have a wireless mouse and keyboard as well. In another workshop they might use the Web to find out about some new ‘health’ product, highlighting aspects that indicate it might be really be pseudoscience. Students can also download the materials from the learning management system in real time, saving printing – and paper and the environment and time.

(2) To promote group work. We ask the students to analyse good and bad features of conference posters. We used to project examples on a screen at the front and have a class discussion – something particularly intimidating to the quieter students, or those whose English is not that good. Now students download examples from Moodle, and annotate them (as a group of 4-5) around the board. They also brainstorming their essay topics. This is not rocket science and educationally is the same as using sheets of A3 paper, but being bigger everyone can have a go. An added bonus is that they save it and email it to themselves.
Student presenting their conference poster on their research project. The format promotes discussion and interaction between students as they move around the room.

(3) For Presentations. Each week we try and get students to present something to the whole class such as their analysis of the posters or what they have discovered about dodgy products. There is no need to throw the image to the front – students can just move around the room. Students still give one formal presentation from the front, but that is clearly a different skill with a specific learning outcome. The BSc (Advanced) group go one further, and have a mock conference with posters on each screen. The resolution isn’t brilliant, but they don’t need to spend money getting their posters printed, as in the past. Electronic posters are becoming more common anyway, whether we like them or not.

The Monash Educational Technology fair this past week was a good moment to reflect on what has and hasn't worked as I’ve tried out different technologies.

At the beginning of this journey we all had a lot of fun trying out all the bells and whistles in the University’s experimental teaching space. The lights were funky, the beanbags were well used, the side-lit glass walls were great for making notes (one reason why I wanted to keep a large old-school white boards in the new tutorial rooms). But when I really thought about it, some things were just fun whereas others had become integral to the way I wanted to teach.  It was the multiple interactive whiteboards that I really missed. It hasn't been all that expensive to install them, and they can be integrated pretty simply into whatever you might be doing already.

I am now so used to using the smartboards that I can't imagine running our classes in any other way. They make all sorts of things we used to do easier and more fun. But this has been just the next step along the road from printed materials, to whiteboards and projectors, to computer labs and notebooks.

I wonder what will come next?

Enjoy the journey!

Associate Professor Ros Gleadow is co-ordinator of the core science program at Monash University and has taught SCI2010 “Scientific Practice and Communication” for 8 years. In her other life she is a plant scientist in the School of Biological Sciences studying the effect of climate change on plants that kill, and the immediate past President of the Australian Society of Plant Scientists. You can follow her on Twitter @RosGleadow
Post updated 27 Oct 2013 to fix broken links and change video format

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Friday 18 October 2013

‘If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach them accordingly’ 
(Ausubel, 1968)

The complex and abstract nature of Chemistry tends to result in students holding a variety of alternative conceptual ideas that differ from the commonly accepted scientific consensus. In the literature, these are generally referred to as misconceptions or alternative conceptions.

I am undertaking an education focused MSc degree investigating how Chemistry students’ alternative conceptions can be exposed and challenged. Alternative conceptions can be exposed using diagnostic tools such as student -generated drawing tasks and concept inventories, both of which I will discuss in more detail below. To challenge students’ alternative conceptions, I am investigating cooperative learning as a pedagogical strategy.

Concept inventories

A concept inventory is a multiple choice instrument composed of non-mathematical conceptual questions. One answer is correct while the other answers (called distractors) are alternative conceptions derived from research.  

Below is an example of a concept inventory question.  First year Chemistry students at Monash were invited to answer this particular question at the start of semester 1, 2013. Before reading further, what answer would you choose?

Students with a good conceptual understanding of what happens during a phase change would have recognized that (e) was the correct answer. However, only 45% of students who responded chose (e). Therefore, more than half of the students thought that when water evaporates it results in the formation of oxygen and hydrogen atoms or molecules. Or worse still, rather than just being spaced further apart, the molecules disappear altogether!

Student generated diagrams

Knowledge and understanding of Chemistry is generated, expressed, taught, and communicated at the macro, submicro and symbolic levels of representation (Johnstone, 1991). These three levels of representation are briefly described in the table below.

Research data I have collected to date highlights the diversity of students’ submicro representations for the same substance. Below are examples of first year Chemistry students’ drawings of water molecules.

However, does a student-generated drawing that lacks detail or is inaccurate mean that they hold an alternative conception? Maybe they have an understanding of a concept that they have chosen not to include in their diagram or maybe they were just being ‘lazy’?
Chemistry is a visual science, and chemists have developed a variety of representations to help understand and communicate information that may not be easily understood otherwise.  I believe it is of pedagogical significance for Chemistry students to generate their own submicro drawings and use them to facilitate a shared understanding with their peers.


Ausubel, D. (1968). Educational psychology: A cognitive view. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Johnstone, A. H. (1991). Why is science difficult to learn? Things are seldom what they seem. Journal of computer assisted learning, 7(2), 75-83. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.1991.tb00230.x

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Sunday 13 October 2013

On the ground floor of Building 27, at the Clayton Campus, an NGLS is under construction. The new space is known by the acronym PACE (Physics and Astronomy Collaborative-learning Environment)... notice the hyphen, it indicates the significant effort required to fit appropriate wording to a snappy acronym!

It is not just “new labs” or “new lecture theatres” it represents a new paradigm in a variety of ways. The most significant change is our intention to stop delivering lectures, stop delivering labs and combine all of this teaching into the Studio spaces being constructed in this area.

The approach is most closely based on SCALE-UP where classes are run with a maximum of around 100 students. Students are seated at circular tables, 2m in diameter, each seating nine students in teams of three. There is no front to the classroom. The instructor controls the room from a podium near the centre and tries to minimise the amount of time they are talking, and maximise the amount of time students are working. It can support theoretical and hands-on (lab) activities. It provides an environment in which to indulge in (and that naturally encourages) a variety of pedagogical strategies such as: student-centred learning, blended learning, flipped classroom, team-based learning, peer-instruction, just-in-time teaching.

Existing physics "Studio" at MIT.

The School of Physics is hoping to have its NGLS up and running for Semester 1, 2014. However, as the excitement builds, nerves increase. A space alone does not awesome teaching guarantee (apologies Yoda). When we inhabit PACE we will be faced with practical hurdles related to the daily running of the space and a myriad of obstacles to the teaching methodologies we wish to introduce. It will not be simple. Many challenges face us:

  • Finding the time to create new activities - the new space will require the creation of new teaching activities. How will we resource this when staff are already time poor?

  • Increased staffing requirements? - you cannot fit as many students into a Studio as you can into mega-lecture theatres. So, we will be adding to the problem of time poor staff by increasing the number of teaching sessions that need to be staffed!

  • Timetabling - to introduce an increased number of novel sessions into a Faculty timetable which has just been recently updated will be tricky, to say the least.

  • Intransigence of existing practices - while many in the School are keen to embrace new teaching practices, there are still questions to be answered (and rightly so) about the efficacy of whatever pedagogical changes are introduced. What advantages do they bring, what evidence is there of improved outcomes?

  • Sustainability – however much everyone is on board with embracing innovative teaching practices, it is always much easier to regress to the comfort of the familiar. There are examples of similar approaches taken at other institutions where, as soon as key people have moved on, business as usual resumed.

  • Student expectations - students have been known to challenge simple changes such as required pre-reading and the introduction of interactivity in lectures through such technology as clickers. This will be a whole new ball-game.

  • How do we assess any improved outcomes related to the use of the new space; and the challenge here is not just trying to find suitable assessment tools to do this, but also finding anyone with the time to do this!

... and that is just to mention a few of the challenges we face.

We will likely fail many times and in many ways; but each time we will pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again. So why would we want to put ourselves through this?

Computer render of how one of the new PACE "Studios" will look.

Since the dawn of time educators have known that simply telling someone something is not teaching, and students have known that simply listening to someone is not learning.

Tell me and I will forget
Show me and I may remember
Involve me and I will understand
Step back and I can lead
My adaptation of other people's adaptations of an old Chinese proverb?

So as responsible educators we refuse to persist in the notion that to stand-and-deliver at the front of a lecture theatre is making the best use of the valuable, limited face-face time we have with students.

Many others have shown this sort of model can work. MIT topped the 2013 QS World Rankings and this is how they deliver Physics teaching. If they can do it. So can we.
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Thursday 3 October 2013

I had the pleasure recently of chairing a forum on Education-Focused (EF) academic roles at the Australian Conference of Science and Maths Education (ASCME) at the ANU in Canberra. I currently hold one of these roles myself - “Lecturer (Education-Focused)” - but across the country these are known by many other titles (Teaching-Focused/Teaching-Professionals/Teaching-Only).
Approximately 70 people attended the EF forum at ASCME (including EF and T&R staff as well as several Associate Deans) which in itself was telling about how much interest surrounds these positions. And put simply, this room probably contained the highest concentration of passion towards science and maths education that I have seen in a single location simultaneously. I’ve been in fuller rooms, but these guys were the die-hards and once we got rolling, people were wearing their heart on their sleeve!
In the Monash Faculty of Science we currently have ~5 EF academics, from Level B Lecturers to Level D Associate Professor (and hopefully soon a Level E). Some were once T&R staff, others are direct EF appointments, and there have already (since 2011) been several EF promotions, including up to Level D!
Are EF staff still ‘Researchers’?
You bet. The burgeoning volume of education research being done in Australia by both EF and T&R academics is impressive and routinely published in internationally peer-reviewed education journals. Amongst scientists, education research often gets a bad rap for not being particularly rigorous, evidence-based, or relevant for real teaching at the coal-face. (If you’re not sure what I mean, try using the word ‘pedagogy’ in a room of scientists and watch the response!).
Yet what I have seen in two short days at the ACSME conference has been quite the opposite. Most projects are thoughtful, longitudinal, and comprehensively evaluated studies of innovative teaching – all based on the experiences of real students. What’s more, many papers in this area are based on many years of data and analysis, and often take over 12 months before being accepted/rejected for publication.
A strong history of science education research exists of course, most produced by normal T&R academics. But this field is increasingly occupied by EF staff, who have both the passion, but also have academic probation and promotion criteria driving them to excel in this field.
Exciting, Innovative Teaching
As with research, normal T&R staff make fantastic contributions to great teaching. Yet the pressures of research output, and the emphasis on pursuing high-impact papers and research grants mean many academics simply don’t have the time to dedicate to their teaching.
In contrast, EF staff have been given the explicit responsibility of reforming our classrooms and our curricula. Now that these roles are officially recognised in many institutions, true reward and recognition exists for those whose ‘laboratory’ is the classroom itself.
These academics now have the capacity to develop, nurture, implement and evaluate big picture ideas, and publish in quality education journals. Take for example the “IDEA Experiments” which have been introduced across three schools in our Faculty of Science, now described in one paper (Rayner, Charlton-Robb, Thompson & Hughes, IJISME, 21(5), 1-11, 2013) two Good Practice Guides, and likely to be subject of at least two further publications.
Frustration & Uncertainty
At the ACSME EF Forum, the general feeling in the room was positive, but at the same time there is a mountain of anxiety amongst this group. In fact it seems perhaps that Monash has one of the better frameworks, with many delegates from other institutions describing the frustration and uncertainty of short-term contracts, enormous workloads, and little recognition. Each university, and the sector as a whole, seem to be feeling their way through this period with varying levels of commitment to EF roles, despite the clear and ubiquitous need for dedicated teaching and learning experts.
In case there is any confusion, let me put one thing straight - EF folk work hard! Good learning outcomes are hard. Running inquiry-oriented, problem-solving classes are difficult. Keeping up with changes in eLearning is exhausting. Our one-hour, open Forum heard that loud and clear from probably 40 different voices. Yet this cohort remain completely dedicated to this challenge.

Leadership & the Future
In the past, ‘teaching-only’ staff may have lacked recognition in many Schools, but EF-status is now yielding the next leaders in science education. In my personal case, many of my T&R colleagues now turn to me for ideas and inspiration. At ACSME, our keynote Nobel Prize speaker Prof. Brian Schmidt spoke of being mentored by his EF colleague in Physics at ANU to improve his teaching! I predict in our own Faculty we might see our next Associate Dean of Education come from the ranks of EF staff – beyond which, who knows?
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