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Posts Tagged ‘MSSE’

We finished the field component of the predator-prey ecology class this week in the Daly Creek drainage, Montana, Yellowstone National Park. We worked to collect information on how elk browsing habits related to physical barriers in aspen stands affects recruitment of aspen saplings. Here’s a bit of what we saw.

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image via montana.edu

I’m in Bozeman this week for an MSSE class on predator-prey ecology, which I’m really psyched about. Two (long) days in the classroom, and three days out in the field in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. I walked around campus this afternoon, got my bearings, and I’m looking forward to a good burger before I settle in for some light reading on trophic cascades, carrying capacities, isoclines, and the paradox of enrichment. I haven’t seen any elk or wolves yet, but when I do I’ll post some pictures.

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As part of the wrap-up for this course, we’re looking back at some of the first things we wrote in June (Introduction to WebTools, Setting the Stage, and Guiding Principles for Tech Use in the Classroom).

I don’t know that my thinking/philosophy on using technology has changed dramatically in the past two and a half months. I was on-board with tech use in the classroom with the goal of improved learning and connection, and I was excited to try out some new tools and learn from a new and diverse group of educators. I still am. I do have a clearer picture of some specific tools that I’d like to implement this year in my classes, and I am happy to have made many new connections in my continually-expanding PLN. What has changed for me is a renewed focus on the idea that the best web tools allow us to do something completely new. I find myself coming back to three points from Jeff Utecht’s article “Evaluating Technology Use in the Classroom”:

  • Does the technology allow students to learn from people they never would have been able to without it?
  • Does the technology allow students to interact with information in a way that is meaningful and could not have happened otherwise?
  • Does the technology allow students to create and share their knowledge with an audience they never would have had access to without technology? [my emphasis]

I’ve been focused primarily on the second bullet point (which isn’t horrible). If that’s all we do with new technology, it still represents movement in the right direction. I’ve made some progress on the third point (through student blogging), but I don’t think I’ve tapped into the full potential there. My students were very excited to keep track of their blog’s Page Views counter, and they broadened their readership by putting their new biology blog posts up on Facebook. (Which, come to think of it, is actually a pretty significant step. I wonder if they were sharing any of their history essays, Spanish translations, or math problem sets on FB?) But I want to try to find some ways to have them interact with people outside of our classroom, outside of our state and country, if possible. That’s a new goal of mine for the year.

Lastly, we should recognize that we’re going to ask our students to jump into this whole using tech in the classroom in new ways thing along with us. They’ll get their own crash courses in web tools in the coming year (in many of our classes), and they’ll be fine. They’ll learn the content (most of it, hopefully), and there will be some tools they like better than others (just like us). And all we can hope for at the end of the day is that they’re willing to try new things, that they work hard, and that they’re curious. It is science, right? What’s not to be curious about? In the process, hopefully they’ll understand more about themselves as learners. And as many have said before, the tech is not the point, it’s just a tool, but if it improves learning then we’re moving in the right direction.

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I started to jump into the world of really using technology in the classroom after attending a Building Learning Communities conference in 2008 (through November Learning). They do a terrific job, and I highly recommend checking it out. Sessions at that conference were eye opening for me in several ways. They collectively planted the seeds that have resulted in my developing a Personal Learning Network (PLN), the beginning of using student blogs in my biology class as digital online portfolios, and I’m sure they were partly responsible for nudging me towards starting this blog back in ’09.

Jeff Utecht’s article “Evaluating Technology Use in the Classroom” and a particular session from BLC08 by Jim Wenzloff struck the same chord with me. The idea of using technology to create new and different learning opportunities for students is the key. Utecht mentions three different questions we can ask to see if what we’re doing is new or different:

Does the technology allow students to learn from people they never would have been able to without it?

Does the technology allow students to interact with information in a way that is meaningful and could not have happened otherwise?

Does the technology allow students to create and share their knowledge with an audience they never would have had access to without technology? [my emphasis]

Three ways it can be different: connecting with new people (now possible geographically in some staggering ways), changing how students interact with (and use) information during the process, and broadening the audience for their work beyond the traditional poster tacked on the hallway bulletin board. In other words: the library has expanded, their potential pool of study partners has expanded, and now everyone in the world can see the hallway bulletin board.

I want to note that just because these are positive new developments, I don’t think that using technology to do “old things in new ways” is bad. Using a Smartboard in class to present content is a good example. I do still have my students take notes from time to time, ask them to actually write things down on paper while I explain something at the board. This is making me feel terribly old-fashioned in describing it this way. I might as well be using chalk and slate, I know. But using the Smartboard (instead of slate) makes my class notes much clearer for students, and I can archive them on the school server, which is a terrific benefit (to me and to my students). In a subject-specific way for me, it’s also great for molecular drawings in biology – carbohydrates, polypeptide chains, and nucleic acids come to mind as being easier to draw with a “shape tool” rather than freehand.) But I’d be naive to think that this is anything but a shiny new way to present notes.

So, what are my Guiding Principles for Technology Use in the Classroom? Let’s give it a shot:

1. Trying out new programs, websites, software, presentation tools, etc. as a way for me to share information with my students (or to have my students to share information with others) in class is a good idea. I’m willing to try new things, and I’m going to ask my students to try new things/formats/software. I’m okay with a little uncertainty (in terms of my mastery of a particular tool before starting a project with it), and I understand that not all these experiments will turn out the way I plan. I have hope that some of them will.

2. Using technology to improve “old fashioned” methods is fine, but it’s important to recognize that it’s just one part of the overall technology picture. If it helps clarify content, or facilitate delivery, documentation, presentation of that content, that’s great.

3. I don’t know everything, but I’m willing to learn. I’d love to teach my students to take the same approach.

4. I understand that my students all have different learning styles, and that some students will gravitate towards certain programs/media/methods based on how their brains work and what makes sense to them. This is a good thing, and I would like to work towards giving them flexibility in how they complete projects, etc (when possible). A phrase from BLC08 still sticks in my head (and I’m sorry that I don’t remember the name of the presenter, though it might have been Alan November), “How would you like your learning?”

5. Lastly, I mentioned this in my Setting the Stage post in more depth, but it’s important to me that the technology is not the focus, but a means to improve instruction and understanding among my students.

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I’m very excited to be starting a class this week called Web Tools for Science Teachers through Montana State’s MSSE program (Masters of Science in Science Education), and I will be using this blog to post assignments, reflections, and examples of web tools that will be useful in the classroom.

While this blog has been up and running for about two years (started just after school let out in 2009), it always seems to mirror the ebb and flow of the school year. Rather, it complements it (to borrow the molecular lock-and-key or coding/non-coding DNA metaphor) in that there’s certainly less blog activity during the more busy times of the school year, and more blog activity during school breaks and holidays. There are only so many hours in the day, as I’m sure you know. It was the onset of summer vacation in ’09 that led to the creation of the blog in the first place.

The story behind the phrase “Once There Were Lions” as a title comes from David Quammen’s terrific book, “Monster of God,” and it references a time in the future when children might be “startled and excited to learn, if anyone tells them, that once there were lions at large in the very world.” It’s a reminder to take care of what we have, and preserve what we can from an ecological perspective. I teach environmental science and biology, so Quammen’s quote resonates with me (and I hope also for my students). You can find a bit more background on the blog in the About tab above.

I’m looking forward to this class, to making connections with new teachers, and sharing information, tools, and best practices. I’m sure we all will benefit.

-Scott Lilley 6/16/11

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