Guest Post: “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution”…or are we?

PLOS Sci-Ed is pleased to welcome Eve Purdy to the blog today to discuss Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and her experiences with them. For more on Eve, please see her bio at the end of this post.

Revolutions are characterized by radical change. Education has always been about knowledge distribution and the creation of learning communities. To me, these do not seem to be radical ideas. However, some are saying that they will revolutionize education. Some feel that they are just a fad. They are generating conversation and they are changing the way students learn, or are they?

The “they” are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs have been on the education scene since 2008 when the course “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” created by George Siemens at the University of Manitoba registered 2200 students online. They are now available by the hundreds through websites such as as Coursera and Udacity that boast > 4 million participants. Despite attrition rates of >90%, MOOCs have the ability to reach more students in one course offering than in 40 years of teaching through an institution, as described in this article.

How do MOOCs work?
Anybody can register for courses on topics ranging from “Artificial Intelligence for Robotics” to “Microeconomic Principles” to “The Anatomy of the Upper Limb“. These courses, most often taught by a professor at a reputable post-secondary institution (Harvard, UCSF, Stanford etc. have joined the ranks), are offered for free and run for 4-12 weeks. Though courses vary, in most MOOCs, participants watch lectures on their own time, complete assignments, join discussion and submit/peer grade assignments.
I previously outlined my experience with the MOOC “Clinical Problem Solving” here. While MOOCs can supplement my medical school experience they cannot replace it. The same might be said for other practical laboratory and work environments.
xMOOCs vs cMOOCs

When thinking about the role of MOOCs in education, and for the rest of this discussion, it is key to make the distinction between xMOOCs and cMOOCs.

xMOOCs

xMOOCs are an eXtension of existing educational pedagogies. These are the most common types of MOOCs featured on Coursera, EdX, Udacity etc. They allow professors to deliver information in the same way that they do in a university lecture-based course but to a much larger audience using technology. The “sage on the stage” is still central to the learning with some secondary discussion on class discussion boards and peer graded assignments. Technology does not change the learning model but it does extend it to reach a larger audience.

xMOOCs provide an opportunity to deliver information in a relatively cheap and efficient way. Universities might consider them as a method to reduce costs and provide the highest quality teaching for courses when the main goal is to deliver information to students. Whether or not this is a valid educational goal is the topic of another debate but for now, let’s look at an example:

Medical students must learn some amount of anatomy. Historically, each institution has had a unique curriculum organized and delivered by professors at each school. This results in excess administrative costs and manpower for information that is essentially the same. From experience, I know that when I learned about the arm at McMaster University then again at Queen’s University the biceps brachii was still the biceps brachii. We could encourage the most engaging and effective anatomy professors across the country to collaborate to create an xMOOC “Anatomy for Medical Students” then share this resource with schools who may or may not choose to use it in their curriculum. Programs could support these MOOCs with other learning opportunities such as labs and tutorials. Such a future is explored in a great article “Just Imagine- New Paradigms for Medical Education“. There are certainly problems with this approach but if the goal is to streamline the delivery of factual information, xMOOCs might just be the way to go.

cMOOCs

cMOOCs (connectivist MOOCs) are different. They are a form of decentralized learning. The content is not central to the learning; instead, the process of learning is the learning. A single professor is no longer transferring knowledge in a top-down (vertical) approach as participants act as both students and educators by sharing information and engaging with each other, using technology as means to facilitate such interaction. Sounds a bit abstract right? To read more see this article. Though new to formalized education, this type of learning model is not new. It reflects the type of informal learning that colleagues engage in on a daily basis, but now the constantly evolving balance of learning with and from each other around a shared topic can be explicit and documented.

cMOOCs offer an opportunity to go beyond the material. Students become educators and educators become students. By creating a network where we learn to aggregate, remix, repurpose and share information we become aware that knowledge itself doesn’t make a doctor or an epidemiologist or a biologist. We become aware that how one interacts within a community is equally and likely more important than the knowledge. Universities might consider cMOOCs as a place to explore the already existing informal or “hidden” curriculum. Again, let’s turn to an example in medical education:

Cognitive biases often result in errors in clinical reasoning. For example a physician may be more likely to order unnecessary tests in an otherwise healthy young adult with chest pain if they missed a rare but deadly diagnosis related to that presentation early in their career. This is an example of the availability heuristic that sees recent or easily remembered, often emotionally charged events affect current decision making. If not recognized, it may result in increased costs to the system and to patients. There are many types of biases in decision making, each with different implications for physicians and patients. Simply delivering information about these cognitive biases to learners will not result in understanding or improved practice. Instead, a group of participants (medical students, residents, doctors, nurses, patients etc.) from an infinite number of institutions could commit to exploring cognitive biases through a cMOOC. This would look like the delivery of some content that would serve as a jumping off point for discussion, curation and creation of content from a variety of perspectives. Through such a course the medical student might learn not only what the attending physician knows but also the language she uses and the attitudes she holds. The medical student might challenge the attending and the attending might challenge the student. Being a horizontal course every participant would be in a position to contribute. The attending physician would learn from the nurse and the resident from the medical student. Knowledge acquisition is not the endpoint for the cMOOC the community is. For topics in medicine (and other sciences) that are less well defined cMOOCs provide a unique technological platform, not defined by boundaries of space and time, for exploration.

Are MOOCs revolutionary?

Will xMOOCs mean that more people have access to information? Yes. Will cMOOCs provide a platform for wider learning communities to create knowledge together? Yes. Will this require historical institutions to adapt? Yes. Will this create new opportunities for learning? Yes.

Will that series of “yes’s” result in radical change? You tell me!

I am interested in your thoughts on and experiences with MOOCs. Please feel free to comment below or contact me on twitter @purdy_eve. A thanks to Javier Benitez whose thoughts and perspectives in our discussions about MOOCs in the context of medical education have shaped my own ideas.

And since we may or may not be “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution”

About the Author

Eve PurdyEve Purdy BHSc is a third year medical student at Queen’s University with interests in emergency medicine, medical education and social media in health care. She blogs at manuetcorde.org and you can always contact her on twitter @purdy_eve

Communicating about evolution: the danger of shortcuts

When we talk about evolution and education, our first thoughts usually race to evangelical churches, school boards, and states like Kansas and Tennessee. While cultural battles over “belief” in evolution and its place in public schools are certainly important, a lesser-known issue is that acceptance and understanding are not the same thing, and  many people who enthusiastically “believe” in evolution don’t actually understand the basics of how it works. This may not be a problem if our only concern is that the public votes to keep non-science out of the public science classroom. But an understanding of evolution impacts more than just one hot-button issue at a time. It is necessary to understand issues surrounding antibiotic and pesticide resistance, overfishing, potential effects of climate change, the relevance of animal models in medical research, and it is the conceptual framework through which all other biological fields can be best understood.

A wide variety of evolution misconceptions have been documented in the science education research literature at all levels from elementary students through college students, museum visitors, and the general public.  The recently open-access [1] journal Evolution: Education and Outreach is an excellent resource for those looking for insights into communicating with non-experts about evolution. Evolutionary biologist T. Ryan Gregory contributed a review article (pdf) in 2009 that nicely summarizes the most prevalent misconceptions about natural selection. Others have documented learning difficulties associated with macroevolution, the relatedness of species, and interpreting tree diagrams. U.C. Berkeley’s Understanding Evolution website has a good starting list of common misconceptions related to all aspects of evolution.

Experts who do understand evolution by natural selection often use shortcuts and metaphors that are mostly harmless among those in the know. However, these same shortcuts can reinforce and even cause many misconceptions among students and members of the public without strong evolution backgrounds. Increased awareness of the science education research on evolution among teachers, informal educators, exhibit designers, documentary filmmakers, and journalists could go a long way toward preventing further entrenchment of these misconceptions.

I’ll attempt to outline some of the major misconceptions and learning difficulties related to the mechanism of natural selection and discuss some common ways of talking about evolutionary processes that can reinforce these misconceptions.

Darwin's Finches
Darwin’s finches or Galapagos finches. Charles Darwin, 1845. U.S. public domain.

Fitness and “survival of the fittest”

To evolutionary biologists, fitness has a very specific meaning: the number of offspring left by individuals of a species having a certain genetic makeup compared to other individuals with different genetic makeups. A recent “daily explainer” on i09, “Why ‘survival of the fittest’ is wrong,” tackled some of the issues wrapped up in this word. The colloquial usage of “fit” as “big, strong and healthy” [2] makes the phrase misleading. And evolution isn’t really about survival at all. It’s entirely about reproduction. Often living longer can mean more chances to mate, but survival only contributes to evolutionary fitness inasmuch as it enables an increase in successful reproduction events. An organism that lives to the upper limit of its lifespan — but never successfully reproduces — contributes exactly nothing to the next generation.

Populations and generations

The mechanism of natural selection is based in population thinking. To an expert, a population is a group of organisms of the same species that interbreed and that live in the same geographic area. Importantly, it is not an equivalent term to species. However, most non-experts do not think in terms of populations. They think in terms of individuals, species, or ecosystems. This translates to mistaken assumptions about what evolution acts on. Many people think that evolution happens to one individual during its lifetime, or that entire species (including all the individuals) gradually change into new species. Again, shortcuts such as “over time, the finches gained bigger beaks” can reinforce the idea that all members of the species grew bigger beaks. A better statement would have been “over many generations, finches with large beaks had more offspring than finches with smaller beaks, until nearly the whole population had large beaks.”

Adaptation

Adaptation is nearly ubiquitous as a “vocab” word for elementary-age students, before they understand anything about genetics. Students are expected to learn that an adaptation is something along the lines of “a trait of an organism that helps it survive in its environment.” This often devolves into “just-so story” explanations about how beavers have big teeth because they chew on trees all the time, or giraffes have long necks because they are always reaching high into the trees for food. It doesn’t help that journalists, teachers, and lecturers often use colorful metaphorical shortcuts to talk about adaptation. While their intention may be to create a lively article or talk, an expert’s metaphor is often a non-expert’s reality.

In his review article, Gregory highlights some of the problematic language used to describe adaptation:

Thus, adaptations in any taxon may be described as “innovations,” “inventions,” or “solutions” (sometimes “ingenious” ones, no less). Even the evolution of antibiotic resistance is characterized as a process whereby bacteria “learn” to “outsmart” antibiotics with frustrating regularity.

Human tendency to anthropomorphize everything from animals to inanimate objects and natural processes is well known, and tough to combat. (See Heider and Simmel’s 1944 experiment in which people assign intentions, emotions and even genders to moving geometric shapes.) In the context of evolution anthropomorphic descriptions can lead to the misconception that individual organisms try to modify themselves to better fit the environment, and then pass down those acquired traits to their offspring. A shaky understanding of genetics also underpins this idea, but sloppy communications can reinforce it.

A focus on adaptation from the early grades forward can also lead to the idea that each organism is perfectly adapted for its particular environment and niche, and that every feature of an organism has an adaptive purpose. Evolutionary biologists know this simply isn’t the case. Most traits that we call adaptations are simply “good enough.” They were a little more useful in a given circumstance than other traits — they weren’t designed from the ground up for the current situation. Learning about adaptation — and developing misconceptions about it — before grasping the genetic, generational mechanism of natural selection can put students at a disadvantage when they get to middle and high school biology classes.

Unity and diversity: a two-step process

As Gregory emphasized in his review article, evolution by natural selection is a two-step process: (1) new variation arises by random mutation and recombination, and (2) individuals with certain variants have more offspring than other individuals with different variants. Focusing on either mutation alone or selection alone can lead to the following misconceptions, respectively: that evolution is completely random, and that evolution results in perfectly optimized organisms. When communicating about evolution with non-experts, it is important never to refer to one without referencing the importance of the other.

Evolution is tricky. For those of us who understand it, its power to make everything else in biology crystal clear is deceptive. Most of us had naive ideas about evolution as children or students. As we progressed in our studies of science these were replaced with more accurate mental models. But we are the exceptions — most people don’t go on to major in science or think about it for a living. Yet as citizens they are often called upon to make decisions that require an understanding of evolution. And as humans, an understanding of evolution can contribute to a deeper appreciation of nature. Shortcuts are catchy — droning on about populations and generations can get tedious and wordy. It takes talent to communicate about evolution both accurately and compellingly, but experts and science writers and educators have a responsibility to get it right.

[1] Evolution: Education and Outreach used to be open-access, then it was toll-access, and now everything from January 2013 onward is open-access, but you’ll still have trouble getting the older issues.
[2] Amusingly, the British meaning of “attractive” for “fit” is actually a little more accurate in cases of sexual selection — though we’d still have to change it to “Reproduction of the Fittest.”

The Metric System, the United States of America, and Scientific Literacy

Here’s a quick quiz: I weigh 71 kilograms, and am about 1.82 meters tall.

a.) Do you have an idea of about how much I weigh and how tall I am?

b.) Am I taller or shorter than you, and do I weigh more or less than you?

If you don’t live in the United States of America, Liberia, or Burma, you most likely can answer both of these questions pretty much without any hesitation. If you do live in one of those three countries, then without the help of a calculator, or a quick search on Google, chances are you would have to think a bit about question “a,” and would struggle with question “b.”

The issue.

There is a huge disconnect between the science that we do (SI units, commonly interchanged with the Metric System) and how we live our daily lives, (U.S. Customary Units, not Imperial Units). Is it possible that people are turned off by science and technology because they don’t understand the metric system? And is it possible that this makes us less scientifically literate as a country?

One of my favorite comic strips, Fox Trot, by Bill Amend, consistently brings up math and science humor.

I think the answer is most definitely. While U.S. scientists are used to converting units, an ideal scientifically literate society includes artists, public servants, business owners, and waitresses — people who don’t have to use the metric system on a regular basis — translating units is one more barrier to understanding the math and science that is used in research.

The only examples that come to my mind where the metric system is in common use in the United States are:

  • Miles-per-hour/Kilometers-per-hour speedometers in our vehicles
  • A 750ml bottle of wine
  • A 1-liter (1,000ml) Nalgene bottle
  • The 100 meter dash
  • 2 liter soda bottles
  • 5k and 10k runs/races
  • Most food nutrition labels (How many people actually read those?)

Yet all science is done in the language of SI units. If the goal is for the non-scientific public to be able to engage regularly and enthusiastically with science, wouldn’t it make sense for scientists and non-scientists to speak the same language?

To really make SI units and the metric system commonplace in the United States requires more than a little effort on our part. Imagine how many local, state, and federal authorities would be required to change millions of road signs, food packaging, gas station signs and sports fields. And on top of that, does the general public want to make the switch?

Some selected history.

The reasons that hold us back from converting range from stubbornness to cost (a 1996 concern in the Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering and Education Practice). In 1975, thanks to President Gerald Ford and Congress, the Metric Conversion Act was passed which would have led to the metric system being the preferred system of weights and measures in the United States. This act created the United States Metric Board, which was abolished in 1982, by President Reagan.

From The United States and the Metric System, NIST LC 1136: “The efforts of the Metric Board were largely ignored by the American public, and, in 1981, the Board reported to Congress that it lacked the clear Congressional mandate necessary to bring about national conversion. Due to this apparent ineffectiveness, and in an effort [by President Reagan] to reduce Federal spending, the Metric Board was disestablished in the fall of 1982.”

Some readers may be familiar with the “We the People” petition that the White House website hosts. As of this moment, over 35,000 people have digitally signed a petition to make the metric system the official system of weights and measures of the United States. Possibly another act from the federal government is needed to really get things moving again.

A more detailed history can be read here.

Solutions.

Thankfully, the metric system has been taught in schools and this should continue. From my experience, however, it was only as a way to solve given problems. Physics was taught in the metric system, as was chemistry. But when I got to my algebra class, and even in shop class, (a prime opportunity to “feel” what 50 centimeters was), we measured 20 inches (not the same, by the way). I would recommend that all rulers in school should all be inches and centimeters, though I must admit I attended a science teacher workshop and we were given 12 foot tape measurers to take back home.

Should we discourage these words? Image from another blog post about the metric system.

 

When I learned Spanish, my most effective learning was not being told that café meant coffee — I was given a cup of café and told “este es café,” or “this is coffee.” We shouldn’t miss these tangible opportunities to become friendly with the system.

The next time you go to your doctor’s office and they take you height and weight, ask your doctor for the numbers in metric, and you will have that personal connection to some part of the metric system. Do you check the weather online or use online mapping? Change the units to Celsius and meters. These are a few simple changes people can make to become more familiar with the system.

You don’t have to look long to find bloggers who are asking why the United States has not yet converted to the metric system. One I found particularly interesting is a blog created in 2012 which focuses on documenting the creation of a documentary about how the United States was going to convert to the metric system, but never did. The blog is appropriately named “More than a mile behind.” Keep your eyes and ears open for this one.

The world and us.

I have always believed that no matter what language you speak, science and math are the same in any language. If we’re not speaking the same scientific language as scientists from other countries (many of whom have made the effort to learn English), we might be isolating ourselves scientifically. So with that, I’ll leave you with a clip from The Simpsons.

P.S. Even rocket scientists mess up.

Facing the research-practice divide in science education

Science education researchers and science teachers have much to offer each other. In an ideal world, knowledge would flow freely between researchers and educators. Unfortunately, research and practice tend to exist in parallel universes. As long as this divide persists, classrooms will rarely benefit from research findings, and research studies will rarely be rooted in the realities of the classroom. If we care about science education, we have to face the research-practice divide.

How did it get this way?

When we talk about research and practice, we’re talking about academics and teachers. In the most typical case, we’re talking about professors of education working at universities, and teachers working at K-12 schools. The divide has its roots in historical and current differences between researchers and teachers in their training, methods, work environment, and career goals that have led to misunderstanding and mistrust. In a 2004 paper titled “Re-Visioning the academic–teacher divide: power and knowledge in the educational community” Jennifer Gore and Andrew Gitlin describe the state of the research-practice divide through the lens of the two groups of people involved, and the imbalance of power between them. Historically, they argue, the framework of science education research has been that researchers generate knowledge and materials that teachers need, but rarely recognize the need for teacher contributions. This assumed one-way flow of knowledge has certainly sparked animosity between the groups, deepened by cultural differences associated with differing career paths.

Of course, some people have been both K-12 teachers and academics in their careers. To get this perspective on the issue I reached out to a colleague, Assistant Professor of Science Education Ron Gray (Northern Arizona University). Ron has been a middle school science teacher, a teacher of science teachers, and is now a science education academic. When I asked him about the experience of transitioning from teacher to academic, he recalled:

“I don’t believe I had seen a single primary research document in education before earning my doctorate.”

Most K-12 science teachers are fairly disconnected from the research world once they leave universities and enter schools. They lack university library access, yet currently many of the best journals in the field, such as the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Science Education, and the International Journal of Science Education are not open access, and require a per-article fee to read. So how does research reach most teachers? I talked to a few science teachers about where they encounter science education research studies — many used science and education pages on Facebook, one got papers sent from an administrator, and some read practitioner journals. Many science teachers are members of the National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA), which publishes practitioner journals and holds national and area conferences where teachers can hear about research findings. NSTA plays an invaluable role in working to connect research and practice. However, for perspective, NSTA has about 55,000 members, most but not all of which are practicing science teachers, but there are currently about two million practicing science teachers in the U.S.

The disconnect also stems from unfortunate misperceptions of professors by teachers and teachers by professors. Both groups often discount each other’s knowledge bases and workloads. Professors can harbor elitist attitudes about teachers, discounting the value of practical classroom experience in determining what works in education. Teachers frequently claim that professors suffer from “Ivory Tower Syndrome” — the assumption here is that professors live cushy lives, sheltered from the realities of schools, and therefore can’t produce knowledge that is useful in today’s classrooms. A high school teacher quoted by Gore and Gitlin explained:

“A lot of what [researchers] think is based on the past and they are out of touch. And so we call it the Ivory Tower. Welcome to our world.”

When I asked high school science teacher Laurie Almeida how she perceived the credibility of science education research, she responded:

“Somewhat credible. I work at a difficult school, so I feel that some of the research is way too out of touch with the reality of my school.”

An ivory tower of sorts. Sather Tower, U.C. Berkeley. Photo by Bernt Rostad.
An ivory tower of sorts. Sather Tower, U.C. Berkeley. Photo by Bernt Rostad.

There is sometimes truth to the ivory tower criticisms; Gore and Gitlin noted that in some academic circles, the more closely research is associated with practice, the more devalued it is. Furthermore, science education research is far from perfect. Small-scale studies with limited applicability are published more frequently in science education than they are the natural sciences. This trend hasn’t escaped notice from teachers either. When I asked about the perceived credibility of science education research among teachers, science teacher Toni Taylor told me:

“Too often I see ‘research’ that includes only a small sample population which makes me question the validity of the research,” and “Sometimes I feel like science education simply tries to reinvent the wheel.”

However, a lot of the mistrust between the two groups is based on their misunderstanding of each other’s professions. Teachers do not always appreciate that many researchers are often in the classroom regularly, conducting classroom-based studies and collecting data. This “back of the class” view can be highly illuminating, and is a valid way to know classrooms. Some researchers got their start as K-12 teachers. And higher education is certainly not immune from classroom management issues or over-filled schedules. Professors have stress — just ask the #realForbesProfessors (this hashtag exploded on Twitter following the publication of a Forbes article claiming that professors have one of the least stressful jobs). Similarly, researchers can forget that experienced teachers have a wealth of knowledge about the specific interactions of classroom context, pedagogy, and subject matter.

 

What can be done?

My conversation with Professor Ron Gray about what academics can do to better connect with teachers aligned well with calls in the literature for more researcher-teacher partnerships. He said:

“The best way would be to get back in the classroom but the tenure process just doesn’t let that happen.”

His response highlights the rigidity of teacher and researcher career paths. Even a former teacher who switched to the researcher path can’t switch back again without ultimately losing “traction” in both careers. Perhaps we should question the wisdom of entrenching people interested in science education in one narrowly-defined career trajectory or another. Instead, career advancement could reward the accumulation of diverse but synergistic experiences. Science education is a multidisciplinary endeavor, involving science, social science, and communication skills — why shouldn’t our career options reflect this?

Similarly, certain aspects of teacher training might be due for a change. Teacher education could be a crucial time to break the mold  that has placed researchers as producers and teachers as consumers of research. Gore and Gitlin suggest that student-teachers at the undergraduate or master’s levels could be attached to ongoing education research projects as research assistants. They would become intimately familiar with the purpose and methods of educational research and could become significant contributors to it. This would take some restructuring, as many programs focus on more “immediate” concerns such as classroom management, but the benefit could be the production of teachers who recognize the value of research and feel capable of making contributions to it.

The open access movement in scholarly publishing could also have a crucial role in breaking down barriers. Toll-access journals can function as practically impenetrable “ivory fortresses” where valuable knowledge is locked away from practitioners. However, open access will likely prove necessary, but not sufficient in closing the research-practice gap. Teachers I’ve spoken to are very positive about open access but guarded about how much more time they’ll spend reading research articles. Time is a huge issue for teachers. But the alternative — locking up research findings in places where both time and money can be barrier for teachers — is certainly not helping to connect research with practice.

For the short-term, most education research articles are still in toll-access journals. For those without easy access to the primary literature in science, research blogs have become an incredible resource. However, the science education research blogging community pales in comparison to the science research blogging community. While teachers can find the latest science news and engaging resources to share with their students by following the science blogging community, they are not as likely to find quick-and-easy write-ups of science education research findings that are relevant to their pedagogy, curriculum development, assessment practices. As the Sci-Ed blog establishes itself, I hope that my fellow writers and I can attempt to partially fill this role. And I hope that many others in science education continue to follow the research blogging model.

 

Reference:
Jennifer M. Gore & Andrew D. Gitlin (2004): [RE]Visioning the academic–teacher divide: power and knowledge in the educational community, Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 10:1, 35-58.