Professors Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Wiley: big publishers producing online courses

A recent article on by Gabriel Kahn reports that major textbook publishers are now producing online courses at the introductory level across various subjects. These courses include the extensive materials that are already bundled with many textbooks, such as videos, quizzes and activities, and can be run without much additional input from an instructor. Some of the courses include essays that are submitted online and graded automatically. The courses are offered through colleges and universities, but they essentially the same course no matter which institution is giving the student credit.

Proponents of the courses say that the lower cost of delivering them, as compared with a traditional course that involves many hours of an instructor’s time to prepare, deliver and mark, is a major benefit. The materials produced by textbook companies has a higher production value than what any individual instructor would be able to put together on his or her own. First-year courses are already somewhat standardized across institutions, especially in disciplines where one textbook is used by a majority of universities. Given that many professors (particularly at research-focused universities) would prefer to teach upper-level courses, offloading introductory courses onto the textbook companies rather than onto sessional lecturers may make university administrators happy as well.

I think that for instructors, these textbook-company courses should serve as a real wake-up call. While I am in favour of a flipped classroom model, perhaps using some of the textbook company’s videos and quizzes, anyone whose course could be replaced by software should be taking a long, hard look at their teaching methods. I believe that my job is not just to deliver content and assess students’ memorization of said content (and I agree that software could probably do those tasks), but also to personalize the content for my each group of students, inspire excitement about the subject matter, encourage and advise students, model a scientific way of thinking, and provide meaningful feedback on students’ progress. Maybe looking at what the textbook companies are offering in terms of online courses should give us a push toward focusing on those things that only real instructors can provide, and away from standing at the front of the room (or sitting in front of a webcam) delivering a speech.


Lessons worth sharing

Many of us use TED talks to supplement our lessons, but did you know that there’s a TED site just for teachers? allows users to build lessons around educational videos from TED and other sources, and add discussion topics or questions. TED ed content comes from educators who submit videos of under-10-minute lessons for consideration; those that are chosen get made into animations and shared on the site.

How cool would it be to have one of your lessons made into a professional animation and shared with students around the world? Anyone else tempted to polish up your best work and submit it?

What we can learn from MOOCs

Daphne Koller’s TED talk describes the free, huge online courses offered by elite universities, and what educators can learn from the successes and shortcomings of these courses. The best elements of these courses include their customizable nature, the active learning that comes from in-lecture quizzes, and the ability to break material up into short segments of 8-12 minutes that are better matched to attention spans than the traditional 50-minute lecture. These are all elements that face-to-face educators can incorporate to make our classes more effective.  She also presents data suggesting that self-grading and peer-grading of assignments may be an effective solution to the problem of instructor workload in large (or huge!) classes as well as being assessment for learning- something to consider for face-to-face instructors too.

Salman Khan’s TED talk

Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, gave an inspiring TED talk about how the Khan Academy came to be, and the role he sees it playing in education. PIDP 3240 has given me the push I needed to start exploring ways to make my course more customizable for students’ individual needs and learning preferences, and I think that offering the option of watching videos as an alternative to reading the textbook for class preparation is a great start. Khan Academy videos are of a consistently high quality and are my first stop for finding useful tutorials for my students. Watch Sal Khan here:

Getting students to prepare for class

The “flipped classroom” model depends on students coming to class prepared – usually having watched an online lecture, but perhaps using other materials to get the equivalent of a lecture. In-class time can then be used for more interactive, “brains-on” and hands-on activities. Even in a more traditional model, students who have done the reading ahead of time will be better able to follow the lecture and participate in class. But getting students motivated to read is hard! The textbook is long, heavy and boring, and you’re going to cover the material in class anyway (maybe) – so why bother? One possibility is to get students to use other materials – videos or podcasts – to prepare – but the issue of motivating students to actually do the preparation exists no matter what media you use.

Cynthia Heiner, Amanda Banet and Carl Wieman published a paper discussing the use of pre-reading assignments and online quizzes in physics and biology classes. Students typically consider reading the textbook to be a relatively low-priority activity because they don’t think it will help their grade; one method to encourage reading is to administer a quiz that is directly related to the reading. An online quiz can be given with a deadline shortly before class starts; results of this quiz can help the instructor to figure out what concepts students find difficult, so that he or she can focus more on these concepts in class. However, even with a graded quiz, previous studies have found that the majority of students don’t read the textbook. Heiner et al. (2014) aimed to help students to see the value of doing the reading by creating a more targeted reading and quiz, rather than just asking students to read whole chapters of the textbook. This practice involves making sure that the reading is very closely linked to the material to be discussed in class, and that the quiz refers to specific page numbers and figures in the textbook – drawing students’ attention to the most important parts of the reading. At the end of the study, students reported that they found the pre-reading assignments helpful for their learning, and there was a correlation between how many of the assignments they completed and their performance on the final exam.

Heiner et al. (2014) suggest some best practices for pre-reading assignments:

  1. Keep the reading focused on what you plan to discuss in class
  2. Explain the purpose of pre-readings and how these benefit students
  3. Provide questions that students should think about while reading
  4. Omit unnecessary material
  5. Give a graded online quiz that is due before class; the quiz should be easy for students who have done the reading, and hard for students who have not.
  6. In class, refer to concepts from the pre-reading but do not re-teach them, or students will learn that they don’t really need to do the pre-reading.

I give a pre-reading quiz every class (in person, although I am increasingly tempted to move it online) and also find that it isn’t sufficient to motivate most students to actually do the reading. I normally assign the whole chapter, or large sections of it, so this article has motivated me to go through and select specific sections that are useful. I think that the biggest challenge for me will be to not re-teach concepts from the pre-reading, but I will try it out next term in my Biology 12 class and see how it goes.

Heiner, C.E., Banet, A.I., & Wieman, C. (2014). Preparing students for class: How to get 80% of students reading the textbook before class. American Journal of Physics, 82 (10), 989-996.

Educational games vs. “gamification”

An article on by Chris Berdik describes the distinction between using games to reward students for learning (“gamificaton”) and using games to capture the intrinsic fun of learning. An example of “gamification”  would be a math game that rewards correct answers to math drills with a short shooting-stuff video game, animations, or points. The problem with this model, according to the article, is that students learn that the subject matter (e.g. math) is a means to an end – that getting the boring math over with allows you to reach a fun reward. It doesn’t foster any love of the subject matter or inspire students.

Instead, the researchers of MIT’s Education Arcade believe that educational games can capture what is inherently fun or inspiring about the subject matter – for example, that math allows us to solve real-world problems – and put that into a game. They have produced a game called The Radix Endeavor that is aimed at middle- and high school students and covers topics in math and biology. The game is highly complex and large-scale, and involves both individual and cooperative tasks – and is freely available online. It is not designed to replace classroom instruction, but to supplement it by giving students a place to apply their knowledge.

This type of game is clearly a more ambitious undertaking than a simple drill-and-reward type game (which may still have a role as a review tool), but with really exciting implications. It’s sometimes hard to make students see applications for what they learn in an introductory course, when the real-world application may be years away – a game is of course not exactly “real world” but still provides some motivation and excitement about what is being taught in class. An inquiry-based game that gives students room to fail at some tasks without “failing” in a real sense, and to work through frustrating problems using their knowledge, has the potential to teach much more about how science works than anything I could say in front of the class.

More about The Radix Endeavor can be found around the web:

Next Gen Learning Blog State of Play

Games and Learning

Clickers in small classes

Michelle Smith, Caleb Trujillo and Tin Tin Su published an article in CBE – Life Sciences Education in 2011 discussing the use of clickers in small (25-student) biology courses. Clickers are in relatively common use in large lecture hall courses at UBC, where I started my teaching career, and at other institutions – but not everyone is convinced of their usefulness in smaller classes.

In the Smith et al. (2011) study, students in an upper-division seminar course in Embryology were given two types of clicker questions: multiple-choice, fact-based quiz questions based on the pre-reading, and questions that asked the students to apply their knowledge following a presentation. The pre-reading quiz questions were done without discussion, and the post-presentation questions were answered individually first, then discussed with peers, then answered again. The researchers then interviewed students to get their reactions. Students commented that the questions motivated them to do the reading, pay attention in class (the questions were distributed throughout the lecture), think through the questions being asked rather than waiting for the most outspoken students to answer, and engage with their peers over the more challenging application questions.

This article was of particular interest to me because I teach small classes and have used clicker-type questions during my lectures, but without any technology – I just post the question and ask students to work out the answer and vote, or sometimes use a think-pair-share model for harder questions. I’ve been considering the use of a clicker-replacement app such as eclicker or Polls Everywhere to make it a little more fun and anonymous to encourage everyone to participate, and this article gives me a little push to act on that next term. It also made me realize that I could administer my pre-reading quizzes using this technology, which would save me some marking time and show me instantly how students did on each question.

Smith, M.K., Trujillo, C., & Siu, T.T. (2011) The benefits of using clickers in small-enrollment seminar-style biology courses. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 10, 14-17.