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The Virtual Classroom (Part I)

So, I’ve just finished my first year of full-time teaching! It was great…I learned a lot (how to teach, how to deal with students, the material I was teaching…) and I’m looking forward to implementing those lessons into my courses next year. However, I’m in no way done challenging myself!..keep reading!

Back in fall, when I wasn’t quite sure if I was going to be at SU for a second year, I elected to run a course that would end before the date at which my lease would be up. So, that meant a 4-week intensive Introduction to Neuroscience course – online. Oh, and the lab is online, too.

Truth be told, I knew nothing about how to organize and run an online course. My teacher training was already limited and certainly did not include material on this. But, I could see the value in learning via trial by fire. Not only is my inexperience a road-block, so is creating an experience for students that is as high quality as what they would experience in a classroom at SU. The small class-sizes with faculty who focus on how to teach is unlike what students likely experience at large public institutions. How would I make sure that I was giving them a small liberal arts online course? How could I make this four week course AMAZING? I’m probably putting a tad too much pressure on myself, but I know no other way.

Regardless of how this course goes, what I learn and how I change it in the future is going to be really valuable. E-learning will likely continue to increase in popularity due to low costs for the students and flexibility in time and location – students don’t have to quit their jobs (which pay for the course) to take the course. Learning how to successfully plan and execute a online course, be it four weeks or twelve, will likely serve me well on the job search and the students who are exposed to my creations in the future.

To begin planning my course, I went back to the Intro to Neuro course I taught in the fall. I liked the text, The Mind’s Machine by Watson and Breedlove, and I liked the inquiry-based lab activities we did. I chose to organize the course chapter-by-chapter, meaning we would move through the weeks covering each chapter sequentially. I think in the future I may do this differently and focus on major learning objectives, but for my first time, I think this is OK. I also chose five lab activities that I thought would be most valuable: eBrain+ Virtual Dissection (Sinauer Associates, Inc), MetaNeuron – an interactive neuron simulation program, the Daphnia lab to study effects of excitatory and inhibatory chemicals, a somatosensory lab in which students time their motor responses to different stimuli, and finally, a cortisol ELISA assay to investigate neuroendocrinology and stress. My syllabus contained a schedule of activities that looked like this:


What you may also notice is that this schedule contains discussions. Having students bat ideas, responses and reflections around with each others makes the classroom a more interesting place and enhances learning, and I hope it does the same online. While there may be a number of ways to have a virtual discussion or forum, I chose to use an app that SU is piloting called Yellowdig. It allows for a virtual learning community where students, or myself, can post articles and content and then everyone else can comment or ‘like’ or what have you. The interface looks a lot like Facebook which is appealing to the students and not as clunky as the discussion option that is available on Blackboard.

Of course, I must assess them! As you can see in the schedule, I have a quiz mid-week and an exam at the week’s end. Very traditional summative assessment that gets the job done. What is not on the schedule are the videos that I made in which I talk students through some of the more complex topics, such as action potentials. For these short (15-20 min) videos, I have a powerpoint that I voice over. Once created, I can upload it to EdPuzzle and insert questions into certain points of the video – some good ol’ formative assessment. I love it, the students love it, everyone is happy and learning. What is also cool about EdPuzzle is that I can see if students have watched the whole video and if they attempted questions and how they responded. So this would also be useful for a flipped classroom situation or something.

Anyway, this adventure embarks on Monday, so I will learn (rapidly) where the flaws are in content organization and how unclear my instructions are on some tasks.  Keep an eye out for updates and let me know if you’ve tried anything in the virtual classroom that has worked particularly well! Thanks everyone!


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