About shaunw77

I’m a chemistry professor with PhD in chemical physics and an interest in online education. My scientific interests revolve around the infrared spectroscopic properties of meta-materials.

Instructional Design: A Retrospection

A title image showing various chemistry objects.

Source: Self-Created

Throughout the fall semester of 2017, I worked on the development of an introductory chemistry course geared towards the fully online environment. This is the first course that I have designed to be fully online from the beginning. The work I did to develop this course will form the basis of the first fully online introductory chemistry class offered at Lenoir-Rhyne University. I hope to offer this online course for the first time during the summer of 2018.

Flexibility

A cartoon of a "flexible classroom" with questions and ideas written all over the walls.

Source: https://sites.google.com/a/ocde.us/access-edtech-user-support/knowledge-base/flexibleclassroomsprovidingthelearningenvironmentthatkidsneed

One of the big lessons that I learned this semester could be summarized as “be flexible”. Going into the semester, I had a plan for the course. I have taught this course numerous times in a traditional setting. My plan was to create an online course from that same content. While the general content can be translated into the digital realm, I had to learn to be flexible with my organization.

In my traditional courses, as I teach the material I can observe the students and see who’s lost. These observations allow me to elaborate so I can correct any issues. In an online environment, making sure that the students do not become lost is more of a challenge, especially due to the complexity of the material in chemistry. The modules had to be very carefully ordered and structured so that material would be presented in a certain order. It became critically important to design the material so that the students never reached an assignment they were being asked a question that they haven’t learned about yet. In my traditional course, the quizzes and homework assignments are at the end of the chapters so material is never missed. In my online course I decided to break things up. The assignments are smaller and spread throughout the modules so that the students can test their knowledge periodically throughout the module. In order to achieve this I had to move beyond the design that I have used in my traditional courses and break up my material into small, manageable bits. This required me to be flexible in my thinking… moving away from my normal style of teaching this material. Once I had these education bits, I then put them together carefully, layering concept upon concept so that by the end, the students could approach the assignments with confidence. I also set up the course so that the students were forced to work through the material in order so that I could be sure that the material built up properly.

It turns out that while I intended to use the ADDIE model to create this course from the beginning, it took me a while to start actually using it. The ADDIE model is built around this idea of using an analysis of the content that already exist to then develop and modify it to improve the course (or new course). I should have spent more time analyzing what I already had and focusing on ways to alter it. Instead, I spent too long trying to shoehorn traditional content into this online format. Once I got to the real task of altering the material, everything went much smoother. Overall, this was a great reminder of how to actually use the ADDIE model.

Peer Review

A stick figure studying the word "Review" with a big magnifying glass.

Source: https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photography-review-character-shows-assess-reviewing-evaluate-reviews-showing-image34211637

Peer review also turned out to be a new tool that proved highly useful. Up to this point in my career, I have discussed my course content with other members of my department. I was interested in their take on topics and how to teach those topics. This is the first time that I have had others look at my work who are far outside of my field. At first I was concerned because of the complexity of the material. What I came to understand is that these outside reviewers provide an invaluable resource. While they can’t speak to the material that I am presenting, they can review the overall design and flow of the course. Too often, I got caught up in the weeds, dealing with the minute concepts, so that I ended up with content that didn’t flow well or was simply confusing. Several times I had my reviewers tell me that they didn’t understand where I wanted them to go. I had spent so much time fine tuning the individual content that I never looked at how it worked overall. It was through my reviewers eyes that I began to create an online course that worked. While I came into this course uncertain about the value of outside (non-sciency) people reviewing my courses, this course illustrated how useful they can be in the instructional design process.

I also had an opportunity to review other students materials throughout this term. It was sort of eye opening to see how other instructors approached things. For example, when I created my first splash-page, I didn’t have my name or contact information on it. I had assumed that having it in the syllabus was enough. Then I saw that one of my fellow students had included their information on their splash-page and it looked great and seemed very useful. Additionally, rather than just typing the information into the page, this student had created a small Piktochart of their contact information and embedded that. It looked so much better. While I ended up simply typing my information into the page, it is my intention to create a Piktochart graphic of my contact information for use in my upcoming class. The main reason that I haven’t created it to this point is that I don’t have much in the way of contact information right now. I won’t have an office (or phone number) until the science building reopens in January and I get them assigned to me. It turns out that I got a lot of ideas for my courses from how my fellow students set up their courses.

The Orientation Module

A stick figure trying to figure out where to go.

Source: http://career.iresearchnet.com/career-development/orientation/

One of the things that I will do differently in the next course I create regards the orientation module. Due to the structure of EDU 658, I created the orientation module before I created the content modules. In the future I would reverse that order. When I designed the content, I began with the assessments. As I learned in the instructional design theory course, when you start with the assessment, you get an idea concerning what sort of content you need to provide to your students. In that same respect, in the future I will go from assessments to content and then to orientation. At the beginning of the course, when I created the orientation module, I had an idea of what I wanted to do but as I implemented the content, things changed. In this course I found that as I was building the content I was having to go back and fix the orientation module. It turns out that changing the orientation wasn’t a big deal, the ADDIE design model is all about the cyclic nature of the design process, but creating the orientation module last would save a lot of time in the long run.

Conclusion

Left and right hand putting two jigsaw puzzle pieces together.

Source: https://outlookmag.org/second-half-of-life-conclusion/

I believe that, on the whole, my biggest difficulty turned out to be my familiarity with the material. I knew how I had taught the material in a traditional classroom. I feel like I relied on that past experience too much. I spent too much time trying to build an online course using the techniques I have used in the traditional setting. Once I began building the course with an eye towards not doing what I’ve done before, the content began to flow together better and I had less “what are the students supposed to be doing here” moments. In the future I need to make sure that while I used the same content, I try to ignore how I teach the material face-to-face and look at how I can best utilize the online format to instruct my students.

Do we do our students a disservice in entry-level courses?

A collection of the most important words in a general chemistry course.

SOURCE: https://sites.google.com/a/nebo.edu/denise-villarta/general-hs-chemistry

I have begun wondering whether many higher education programs, including mine, are doing their students a disservice in how we teach the entry-level courses in our programs (general chemistry for me). I’m a physical chemist and I have an analytical chemist and an organic chemist as colleagues. We all have our upper-level courses in which we are the experts but it has occurred to me that we seem to be missing something in our entry-level course.

I’m not sure about all programs, but most of the programs I have ever been around have entry-level courses which are broad in scope, covering topics from all the sub-disciplines. Our general chemistry courses cover broad overview of analytical topics, physical topics, organic topics, etc. The way we teach the class is that one faculty member teaches it. Right now, for instance, I am teaching general chemistry. Our current topic is an aspect of organic chemistry. I’m fully qualified to teach the concept but am I the best? Wouldn’t it be better if the organic chemist teaches a topic that they are the expert on? Are we doing a disservice to our student by not doing this?

Picture of a blue solution in a flask with some organic chemical structures in the background.

SOURCE: https://www.streamingtutors.com/course/organic-chemistry-1/

The problem, of course, is that implementing a course in which profession jump in and out of the course is problematic for a number of reasons. How do we compensate the faculty members fairly? Is is distracting to the students to have different professors from week to week, topic to topic? I’m not sure there is an easy way to rectify this issue. However, I have become more and more sure that if we teach those topic of which we are the experts, we can provide our students with a better educational experience.

Kerbal Space Program… in Education

Over the last few years, I have read numerous stories of using games in the classroom. Having a game that teaches students while they play has a lot of advantages over traditional instruction… the biggest advantage is simply in student interest. Let’s face it, children (as well as adults) love to play games. One might say that playing games is wired into our genes. By encouraging students to play games in which they learn information, we are taking advantage of this seeming innate interest in order to teach. It’s a win for the teachers and a win for the students.

The Kerbal Space Program logo

SOURCE: Kerbal Space Program

I have seen a lot of usage of Minecraft in educational environments, but I wanted to go in a different direction. I am a chemical physicist by training and have taught both chemistry and physics throughout my career. Building things in Minecraft is great… but nothing is cooler than space travel! So many scientists got interested in science through the space program! Enter Kerbal Space Program. Kerbal Space Program (KSP) allows the players to run a space program. Using “simple” rocket parts, the player builds rockets and then launch them. Sometimes the rockets work great and then sometimes…

A rocket in Kerbal Space Program exploding.

SOURCE: Eric Kelly

KSP also allows for users to create mods, just like Minecraft. These mods allow the program to do more than the vanilla, off-the-shelf version. By itself, KSP offers the users great physics details like trust, force, torque, strength, weight, etc. However, in its ordinary version, KSP is not multiplayer capable. That means in classroom setting, multiple students would have to work at a single computer to collaborate. The Dark MultiPlayer mod adds multiplayer functionality to the game allowing for collaboration between students. Using this mod, students can build their own rockets, observe each others rockets, launch together, meet in orbit… all sorts of fun space stuff.

So I set out to try this out with my son who is a gamer. While my son is a gamer he has never played KSP, while I have played it for years (it’s addictive). This allowed me to see how the environment worked as well as sort of play the role of observing instructor. I got to watch him play around with trying to figure out how to get the physics to work. I was able to put together a simple rocket and show him how I used the thrust, weight, impulse, etc. to build a rocket that got off the ground. He was quickly able to first build a simple working rocket and then started add more and more complicated bits.

A comedy graph showing that understanding of orbital mechanics greatly increases after playing Kerbal Space Program.

SOURCE: xkcd

We ended our game with trying to get both our space craft to rendezvous in orbit… this is essentially learning about orbital dynamics. Having played this for years I knew what to do but I let him play for a while. He was able to observe what happened to his orbit when he applied trust in different directions. Even though I have played for years, this was the first time I used the multiplayer mod. That meant I had to suddenly start working with someone else to get our spacecraft to meet. This turned out to be quite difficult. In fact, due to the complexity of orbital rendezvous, we never successfully managed rendezvous in space. However, based on the speed at which we were learning how to manipulate our orbits, I’m sure that if we had kept trying over and over, we would have eventually gotten there.

Overall, I was very pleased with the level of education my son got out of playing this game. For instance, he was able to observe that if he increased his spacecraft’s orbital speed he could increase its orbital altitude. While he hasn’t seen the equations that govern all this, he was able to observe the effect and will have a much better understanding of what the equations mean when he learns them eventually. Clearly using KSP to give students a fun way of observing these fundamental concepts makes for a great educational experience.

Fake or Real? An Analysis

Prompt:

Write a blog post on your own blog reflecting on this experience. How effective were the strategies you used to determine whether the photos, reviews, and quotes were real or fake? How might the strategies you learned in the answers blog post help you in your personal and/or professional life? How might you share these strategies with your current and/or future learners?

I studied the situations brought up in the blog post by Dan Russell. Remarkably I came up with results that were close… in most cases.

Background Knowledge

A fighter aircraft flying low over New York City.

SOURCE: http://searchresearch1.blogspot.com/2015/11/search-challenge-111115-fake-or-real.html

I used my training in the physical sciences to great effect when analyzing the photograph. I very readily picked out the photograph as a fake. It seemed to me early on that the lighting was very wrong. My background in physical science led me immediately look at angles, lighting, etc. and I noticed the problems with the lighting. Using background knowledge seems like a very good tool. As mentioned in the answers, it was also important to not focus on the obvious part of the photograph alone but to take it all in. If you fixate on just the aircraft, you miss the lighting in the rest of the photograph including its color.

I also used my background knowledge as a basis for the quotes. For instance, I used the fact that I know that Jefferson was a scientist and it seemed very likely to me that he would write or speak about scientific discoveries that was consistent with that time period (quote 2). The time period is all wrong for quote 3. Putting gun in the hands of law-abiding citizen and out of the hands of criminals was not a discussion during Jefferson’s time. Guns we predominantly in the hands of hunters and the militia so I easily guessed this was a fake. Knowing a bit about the personality of Jefferson helped with quote 1. Jefferson was an introvert. He was not big on “acting” anything. As such, he never would have said quote 1.

Reviews Problem

A checkbox review document and pen.

SOURCE: http://www.georgesintl.com/hotel-review-websites-reliable/

The hotel reviews gave me problems. I didn’t research those quotes so I simply relied on the wording. The second seemed more real to me. It was a simple expression of what someone experienced at the hotel. To me, the first review seemed fake since it goes far into describing details of the hotel that would be in a brochure. My feeling was that it was written by someone who worked at the hotel. I failed to actually look up these reviews and look into the authors as it stated in the answers post.

Overall

I think the overall take away is that using our background knowledge can help a lot in picking fake items out of a lineup. However, we must utilize the digital tools at our disposal so that we don’t get fooled. Clearly my background did not give me any insight into the hotel review and so my analysis was flawed. It is important for everyone to keep in mind what they know and look up what they don’t know.

These types of concepts come up from time to time in chemistry where a students understanding of the world is actually wrong. By physically showing the students what they don’t expect I jar them out of their “box” and get them thinking about the world in a new way.

Hole in the Wall: Am I Really Needed?

A hole in a brick wall.

SOURCE: Tiia Monto

Having been a professor for more than ten years now, the TED talk “Hole in the Wall” by Sugata Mitra, is a bit surprising. I’m not sure why it is surprising though. Throughout my life, I learned a variety of things, especially technology related, just by using them. I haven’t read a manual in too many years to remember. I have always just played with it until I understood how to use it. The fact that it surprised me that children can learn complex topics totally on their own is somewhat strange.

As an educator I feel like I can offer my students something that only a teacher can provide. This talk, and the underlying research, sheds light on a new avenue of teaching… instead of being the traditional teacher who provides knowledge, we can provide encouragement. We give the students a focal goal, “we are going to answer _____” and then provide encouragement to keep the students working. With this background in place, the students can then learn the material, by trial and error on their own by simply playing with the system. Sugata Mitra’s research that was presented in the video shows this working even when the children do have an understanding of the same language.

A student asleep at his desk.

SOURCE: Jto Enríquez

The system works, clearly, but I worry that there is a significant issue: unmotivated students. In all of Sugata Mitra’s research, he never describes how many of the total children in the area participated in his system. I’d be willing to bet that the children in the area who interacted with the system are like me, willing to play until I learn how it works. What about those children who are not interested? Teaching chemistry gives me an interesting perspective on this since I have many students who are very interested in learning… just not interested in learning chemistry. How well would the self-learning system work for these students?

My overall view is that the answer to education in the future is a bit complicated. There needs to be a way to promote self-learning and the self-defined sense of wonder in students, just like what Sugata Mitra found, while at the same time pushing non-motivated students along. All students are motivated to learn about things that interest them, but there are things outside those borders that they need to learn as well. My students who want to be nurses don’t see why they need to learn chemistry but they do. It seems to me, that what we really need is a way of making all the topics interesting enough for students to want to learn. Saying “today we are going to learn about the atom” might not be that exciting. If instead the students cut a piece of paper in half over and over again until it is too small to cut, we can then say “you are made up of particle a thousands of times smaller than that.” That connection could prove exciting and an entry point for students who don’t understand the importance of learning about atoms.

Flipped Classroom – A Possibility

The Flipped Classroom

SOURCE: DuEnLiJu

The idea of a flipped classroom has some appeal, especially considering the courses I teach. As a quick overview, in a flipped classroom, student take time, before class, to study course material to get a cursory understanding of the material before the next class session. During class, the instructor aids the students in applying the lesson’s concepts to problems and situations, providing the students feedback along the way.

In introductory and general chemistry courses, there is a lot of “problems” that the students need to learn to master. Currently, I lecture in short segments and then break to work problems dealing with that topic. The lecture segments last from 5 to 10 minutes and then we spend maybe 15-20 minutes working example problems as a class. Removing the lecture portion from the in-class time would free up a lot of time throughout the semester to work more problems. Students always seem to want more in the way of practice problems and I have found that the more problems we do, the better my students understand the material. The problem is that there is currently no way that I can provide enough problems to cover every possibility in the short time I have between topics.

A teacher helping two students with a problem.

SOURCE: https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/05/21/flipped-classroom-2-0-mastery-levelcomptenecy-learning-with-videos/

The flipped classroom provides an excellent approach to correcting these problems. By having the students view material the night before class and coming to class prepared, I don’t have to worry about having to cover every topic by lecturing on it live. Instead, I can focus my attention on providing my students with high quality example problems to work through that demonstrate the application of each of the topics in that lesson. Additionally, I can provide a wider variety of examples that expand the possible applications for the students. For instance, rather than spending 30 minutes (in 5 minutes sections) lecturing on all the aspects of how to name the variety of chemicals, the students can watch these lectures before class. Then, during class I can provide a large set of example molecules. This will allows student to see the methods I describe in the videos applied to real problems. These examples can illustrate complex issues that a difficult to describe in a simple lecture.

In my head, however, there are complications. For instance, video and resources needs to be created/found for each of the lessons which takes time. This is not as large a liability as the next issue… student responsibility. Students must be responsible for viewing all the course materials before attending class. If a student doesn’t do so, then that student will get little from the example problems. Additionally, I can lecture to the one unprepared students since everyone else is ready and working on the problems. In order for me to implement this system, I would have to find a way to ensure, to the best of my ability, that all of my students are prepared… which may be impossible.

Why Won’t Students Use Remind?!

The remind logo.

SOURCE: https://www.remind.com/

So, I’ve been trying to implement Remind in my general chemistry course for about three weeks now. You would think that since most of my students are between 18 and 22 years old, they would be quick to adopt this new technology in my classroom. About 10% of my students have taken to it with open arms. They are sending me messages and I am quickly and easily returning them. The other 90% have not even begun to use it.

So, about 2 weeks ago, I announced that I would give every student who just installed and tried to use Remind 10 bonus points towards their homework average (that’s tiny percentage considering the number of points possible). The bonus points only seemed to have enticed 2 extra students. I have no idea why they simply will not try the app.

For those students who are using it, and myself, it has proven to be highly valuable. Remind has allowed me to quickly send out announcements and reminders. It has allowed my students to quickly send me questions or concerns. I’m loving the fact that I get to see who has viewed my announcement and who hasn’t viewed it.

I just need to figure out how to get more students to utilize it…

A Question of Fairness and Education… and Grade Inflation

So I’ve run into a stumbling block in my own head. How do we strike a balance between fairness and increasing student performance? Let me take a step back…

Extra credit street sign.

SOURCE: Sandra Cheng, https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/fylcartoffoodfall2014/tag/extra-credit/

In my classes, I give my students exams. Some students do well while others do not. Same old story. I am contemplating allowing my students the ability to correct their exams for some extra credit points. They would also be required to complete totally new, though  similar questions, in order to get credit. Obviously, all of the student can get those extra credit points and everyone can increase their grade in the class. However, the high performing students cannot arbitrarily raise their grade since there isn’t a grade higher than A (I only get to submit letter grades). Therein lies the problem: part of my brain says it is unfair to allow one set of students to raise their grades more (in terms of letter grades) than the better performing students.

A person pumping up a balloon "A".

SOURCE: Eric Meckley, http://www.ethosreview.org/intellectual-spaces/whats-in-an-a/

Then there’s the matter of grade inflation. I am allowing a group of students to raise their grades on the exam by possibly a letter grade. This seems to be the definition of grade inflation. Allowing all the poorly performing students to raise their grades, am I not going to see a general increase in the average grades of the students in the course? Isn’t this a bad thing? It seems to me that it is only a bad thing if that general increase in the average grade is not accompanied by a correspond increase in the amount of knowledge that the students have acquired. As long as the students have learned more…

It occurs to me that the problem may be with the letter grading scheme in general. In a percentage system, the student’s grade percentage is a measure of how much they know. I expect that every student needs to learn at least 70% of the material in order to successfully complete my course. As such, whether or not the student uses the corrections to increase their knowledge doesn’t matter. The student’s percentage is still the fraction of the information that they have learned.

Of course this brings me to a much bigger question… how can I be sure that my assignments are actually measuring the student’s learning? How do I know that when a students scores a 90% on an exam they actually know 90% of the material? Not having the answer to that questions, I fear I have to leave this topic here… for now.

Hang Paper on a Wall Using Scissors

My two wheel spins gave me "hange a piece of paper on the wall" using "scissors".

Results of my wheel spins.

In order to better understand how we can use tools for things they were not intended for, I spun two wheel and got to figure out how to attached a piece of paper to a wall using scissors. I made a video to show my method for doing this.

This process really got me thinking about how many tools can be utilized for new purposes both inside and outside the classroom. It turns out that the hardest part I found was not being able to scissors as a make-shift push-pin… though that would be a possibility. There have been countless times that I have had to improvise on the spot while teaching chemistry lab. You know… something isn’t working right so I have to figure out how to do the same thing with other tools. Not only does this happen in science labs, it also happens in classroom settings. I am just now beginning to get a grip on using cell phones to facilitate better dialog with my students both inside and outside the classroom. Many tools that we use all the time, can be used for a variety of unintended purposes.

Redesign Science Labs to Redefine Student Learning

Lab gloves on a tablet that says "The Digital Lab"

SOURCE: Annthea Lewis; Shutterstock

The laboratory is a fundamental part of science courses. As such, it is critically important to properly move it into the digital environment. In the traditional lab, pairs of students work on a physical activity. This activity often emphasizes a topic that is being covered concurrently in the lecture portion of the course. The students record data from the laboratory experiment and then work together to analyze the data that they have collected. Once the analysis is complete, the student often need to write up their experience as a lab report which described what they did, what results they got, what their analysis entailed, and an interpretation of their results in terms of the topic for the laboratory experiment.

Transitioning the traditional laboratory experiment into the digital realm has to involve three components. First, the laboratory experiment itself needs to be converted. Second, there needs to be a method of digital interactivity between lab partners during the experiment as well as during the subsequent data analysis. Finally, there need to be digital collaboration while creating the lab report.

It is important to find a fully online solution for laboratory experiments. Luckily, Late Nite Labs provides just such a solution. Late Nite Labs offers totally online labs which simulate the real-world laboratory environments. Additionally they provide labs for biology, chemistry, and physics. These attributes make it ideal for converting a traditional laboratory setting into a digital setting.

The difficulty lies in the interaction during the experiment. As far as I can tell, Late Nite Labs does not seem to provide for student interaction. It seems that the students work on experiments on their own. This means that another service is needed to be able to include the interaction between lab partners. After having used WebEx a few times, it should be possible for students to use WebEx to collaborate. One student can have Late Nite Labs open and share their screen while they work on the lab. This would allow both students to observe the experiment and record the results and discuss what they are seeing in real time. Additionally, splitting the lab into two halves, one student could lead part one, while the other student leads part two. Ultimately using WebEx in this way would provide nearly the same collaborative lab experience that students get in a traditional lab setting.

Google Docs is a perfect solution for the final part of the collaborative lab experience, writing a laboratory report. Both students could work on the same document after they finish performing the lab experiment. Additionally, they could remain on WebEx after completion of the lab so they can discuss what they are writing as they write it.

The combination of Late Nite Labs, WebEx, and Google Docs will allow traditional science labs to move into the digital realm while maintaining the collaborative nature and educational value of the traditional science lab. This redesigned system would improve upon the traditional lab environment in that it would allow students who are separated by large distances to perform laboratory experiential in the same way the traditional lab student.

In general, this assignment has gotten me to think outside the box a bit. It made me utilize multiple tools in different ways and in combinations with each other to solve a single, complex problem. Mainly science faculty members get information via email regarding Late Nite Labs, WebEx, or Google Docs, but none of them discuss how to utilize them all to acheive something that none of them can do individually. By merging Late Nite Labs along with WebEx and Google Docs, I was able to incorporate all the collaborative learning experiences that we get in traditional Labs while maintaining a totally online experience. From now on, I need to keep in mind that not only do I need to think about new technology tools in my course, but also look at using multiple tools together to achieve even more.