Learning technologies

The Mission (Geo)Impossible Scavenger Hunt

It was a Saturday morning like any other and my husband and I were enjoying a cup of coffee while he channel surfed to find a program related to disassembling and reassembling automobiles. He paused on a channel showing the movie Smokey and the Bandit, a classic film from 1977 about an epic beer run between Atlanta and Texarkana. “I wonder if I drove that road,” he said.

So we looked at Google Earth and found that there were two possible highways that Smokey and the Bandit could have used to move their beer. And then I saw it: the intervening space had a variety of superposed plunging folds. The seed for Mission (Geo)Impossible was planted the moment I began to wonder how I might lead students on a path to make that discovery for themselves. I don’t recall whether it was I or my husband who came up with the actual notion of torturing challenging students with a scavenger hunt for information, but it certainly appealed to my nefarious side.

What is it, exactly?

Download the handout here.

Mission (Geo)Impossible is a series of 19 quests that teams of students complete for extra credit. Why 19? I like prime numbers. 17 seemed to few, and 23 was too many. The first time around the optimal number of quests was one of many unconstrained variables. Why extra credit? Because when I make up the quests I honestly have no idea whether students will be able to do them. They are meant to be challenging problems, and are of a type that I’ve never seen as part of an assessment or activity. Students go into this knowing it will be difficult (I make sure they know), and do so by their own choice so I can feel a little less guilty about how hard they work.

Why on Earth would students want to do this?

The enticement for them to try Mission (Geo)Impossible is a substantial bonus on their final grade. If their team completes all 19 quests, 2.5% is added to their grade. That means a 60% becomes a 62.5%. If their team finishes first, they get another 2.5% for a total of 5%.

That might seem like a lot, and I wrestled with whether this was appropriate or not, but in the end I decided it was legitimate for three reasons. First, it is a term-long project and they work very hard on it. Second, to complete it they must learn a lot of geology and do synthesis tasks at a level that I would never ask of students in an introductory physical geology class under other circumstances. Finally, I’ve applied similar curves to final grades, and with serious misgivings. To my mind, this extra credit work is a heck of a lot more legitimate than bumping grades so the class average falls in the magical 60% to 65% range.

I also try to entice them by imbuing the whole undertaking with a spirit of playful competition. Students are competing with me- I tell them I designed the quests to mess with them (true), and challenge them to beat me. They are also competing with their classmates. There is a bit of secret agent role-playing, too. It is Mission (Geo)Impossible, after all. They “activate” their teams by emailing a team name and roster to Mission (Geo)Impossible Command Central, and there is a Quest Master who confirms their activation.

How does it work?

The mechanics of the scavenger hunt are designed to keep the level of work manageable for me, to keep my interactions with teams as fair as possible, and also to leave students to their own devices. Those devices turn out to be very good, and likely better than students realize themselves, which is a big reason why I like this activity.

To begin with, I post a pdf containing 19 quests on the course website. The procedure they follow is to email their quest solutions to Mission (Geo)Impossible Command Central, and the Quest Master responds with one of three words: “correct,” “incorrect,” or “proceed.” “Proceed” means some part of their answer is correct, or they are going in the right direction, but I don’t provide any information about what they’re doing right. That keeps me from having to worry about whether I’ve given one team more of a clue than another.

They can submit as many solutions as they like, and they have taken advantage of this in interesting ways. One team submitted “anagram” as their first attempt on a quest. They were trying to figure out what sort of puzzle they were solving. If they had gotten a “proceed” they’d know it was an anagram. The puzzle turned out to be a substitution cipher rather than an anagram, but it was a clever approach nonetheless.

So what do these puzzles look like?

The quests specify a target (a general thing to aim at), and deliverables (what students must submit). Then they give the clue.

Here’s an example of one quest that they solved relatively easily:

Lisbon

Solution: Earthquake, Lisbon, Portugal

The key to this quest is realizing that the minerals can be assigned a number using the Mohs hardness scale. In the order the minerals appear, those numbers are 1, 7, 5, and 5… or 1755, a year. Students could google “events in 1755,” they might actually know what happened, or they might have read the syllabus and found the sidebar I included about the earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, that happened on 1 November, 1755.

Here is another one. It proved a bit more challenging for some students.

dancing men

Solution: Paricutin. It’s a cinder cone while the others are stratovolcanoes.

If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes, you’ll recognize this as the cipher from The Adventure of the Dancing Men. Solving the cipher gives the following rows of letters:

PINATUBORA

INIERFUJIY

AMAPARICUT

IN

If you break up the rows differently, you can get this:

PINATUBO

RAINIER

FUJIYAMA

PARICUTIN

These are the names of volcanoes. It’s possible students will recall what I’ve said about those volcanoes in class, and immediately realize that the first three are stratovolcanoes, while the last is a cinder cone. On the other hand, the solution might involve looking up each volcano, listing the important characteristics, noticing that Parícutin is a cinder cone while the others are not, and verifying that stratovolcano versus cinder cone is an important distinction. The latter scenario requires a lot of work and ends in a very clear idea about the difference between a stratovolcano and a cinder cone.

Anything that can be googled will be googled

When designing these quests there were a few things I wanted to accomplish. One was that students from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of interests would be a valuable part of the solution. In fact, I wanted them to realize something very specific: that their background and perspective, whether they considered themselves “science people” or not, was indeed valuable for figuring out a puzzle about science.

To make Mission (Geo)Impossible a meaningful exercise, it was important that students could not simply look up the answer somewhere. As far as possible, I tried to make the clues things that could not be put into a search engine, or something that could be searched, but would only give another clue to the problem. At first blush, this might sound next to impossible, but here’s an example of something unsearchable:

branches

Detail of a painting at St. Peter’s College

This is a blurry photograph of a corner of a painting. It’s a painting that students walk by daily. The photo is of tree branches, but they aren’t necessarily recognizable as such. There is simply nothing about this that gives you a searchable string. Students would have to recognize the painting, and proceed from there. In this case the deliverable was the age of bedrock beneath the College. Students had to realize that the painting was giving them a location, and then look at a geologic map.

Here are a few other things I kept in mind:

No extraneous information

I didn’t include things that weren’t relevant to the quest. At least not on purpose. The quests were hard enough, and there wasn’t anything to be accomplished by sending students on a false path. They did that on their own often enough.

No process of elimination

I wouldn’t give them a quest in the style of multiple choice because they could simply keep guessing until they got the right answer. Where quests had a finite number of options, there was either work involved to get those options (like the dancing men quest), or work involved in explaining a choice (ditto the dancing men).

Don’t restrict the quests to things explicitly addressed in class.

There is value in extrapolating knowledge and building on it. For example, in the case of Smokey and the Bandit, the plunging folds are easy enough to pick out with some searching, if you know what you’re looking for. However, the plunging folds I show in class are of the “textbook” variety. The ones between Atlanta and Texarkana are much more complex, but still discoverable if students think carefully about how plunging folds are expressed at Earth’s surface. In the end, they found the folds.

Use a wide variety of clues and puzzle types

As best I could, I used clues that involved a wide range of topics (literature, art, science, popular culture of the 1970s). I used puzzles that would appeal to different ways of thinking. Some involved interpreting images to get a word or phrase. For example, a pile of soil next to an apple core would be interpreted as “earth” and “core.” Some were ciphers, and some involved recognizing objects. Some were narratives, like the one below. Students used the stories to get the differences in timing between P-wave and S-wave arrivals, then used triangulation to find the location of an earthquake. But they had to find a map of Middle Earth first, and do some km to miles conversions.

earthquake

It was an earthquake in Fangorn Forest.

 

So how did this go over with the victims students?

My class was never more than 23 students, and the uptake was 2-3 active teams each time. I would need surveillance throughout the College to see exactly how they responded to the quests (and I’m not sure I’d like what I’d hear). But from conversations with students it seemed there was the right amount of frustration to make solving the quests feel like an accomplishment. In all but one case, teams that started Mission (Geo)Impossible also finished it, or else ran out of time trying.

 

They submitted solutions at 5:30 in the morning, 11:00 in the evening, and sometimes during the lecture. They brought their quests to the lecture in case I dropped a hint. They came to visit me and said things like, “This is driving me crazy,” and “Why, Karla? Why?” I successfully (I think) suppressed a diabolical grin on most occasions. In fact, they put so much work into this that I felt bad about it from time to time. But it was an optional activity, I rationalized.

Wiggle room

When I started this I had no idea whatsoever whether students would be successful, but I did intend to supply a safety net if it was needed, and make sure their work was rewarded. This is my policy with everything I try in my courses.

In the first iteration things bogged down part way through the term, so to get students going again, I gave them an option: they could request one additional clue to a quest of their choice, or they could request clues for three quests, but I would pick which ones, and I wouldn’t tell them which I chose. (Heh heh.)

Naturally, the teams negotiated an arrangement whereby they sorted out which combination of options would work out to their collective advantage, and then they shared the information. At that point I was very glad I insisted on teams rather than letting individuals play, because as individuals they could conceivably ask for enough clues to specific quests to beat the system.

 

In the second iteration, I tried a new style of puzzles that turned out to be more difficult than I intended. By the end of the term, and after a massive effort, the teams were only about half way through. In that case I awarded the team with the most quests the 5% and 2.5% to the other team.

 

The third iteration

I will do this again, but with fewer puzzles (13- still a prime number), and with fewer difficult quests than last time. I will also give students some examples of quests from previous iterations. I’m hoping that will convince more students to get involved.

I won’t relax the rule about participating in teams. I tried that the second time around, and the individual participants either did not get started, or got hopelessly off on the wrong track. I do need to find a solution for students who want to participate, but aren’t comfortable approaching other students in the class who they don’t know.

But I will find a way to get as many students involved as possible, because the potential for this activity to give students confidence in their ability to approach difficult tasks- even seemingly impossible ones- is just too important.

Oh yes, and by the way…

I dare you.

dare

Deliverable: x + y + z

Categories: Challenges, Learning technologies, Teaching strategies | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Online Courses and The Problem That No-One Is Talking About

There are two kinds of online courses: those which are taught, and those which are facilitated. The distinction does not apply to the task of interacting with students. I’ve been both “teacher” and “facilitator,” and it’s exactly the same job from that perspective. The difference is one of autonomy, and it is a big difference.

The Gwenna Moss Centre is about to run another offering of their Introduction to Teaching Online course. Although I am a co-facilitator for this course, I would describe it as a course which is taught rather than facilitated. My co-co-facilitator and I discuss the course as it is running, and make adjustments on the fly when necessary. We take note of what worked and what didn’t, look at participants’ evaluations, and then modify the course as necessary for the next offering. Not only do we have the autonomy to make the necessary changes, it is expected that we will.

In Intro to Teaching Online, we assume that the participants will also be able to teach their online courses- that they will make pedagogical and logistical choices to respond to their students’ needs, and to make the course run as smoothly as possible. Also, that they will have the ability to revise as necessary and try new things. That’s how you teach an online course.

When you facilitate an online course, while you might take on the task of assisting students and grading their papers, what you can do beyond that is tightly restricted by a delivery model over which you have very little control. How little control will vary, but most likely it will be difficult or impossible to make substantive changes to what is taught, or how it is taught. Even if you designed the course in the first place, that “you” and facilitator you are completely different people as far as control over the course goes, and designer you lost any input as soon as the design contract was up.

If you are lucky enough to be able to request changes, the process is rather like having completed a painting, then being told you aren’t allowed to touch it anymore. If you want something to change, you must fill out a form describing in detail where the paint should go and how to move the brush. Someone more qualified than you will make the change. They might send a note back to you saying that they plan to improve your painting of a cow by adding spots. You must then explain at length that it is in fact a dog, and should not have spots. When the painting is finally modified, the dog is the wrong shade of brown. You decide it is best to not request modifications to your paintings in future.

Why does this matter? I don’t care how good you are- you never get a course exactly right the first time. If there aren’t any outright problems, then it soon becomes apparent where improvements can be made. Facilitator you gets to see the problems or areas for improvement, but must be content with grading papers and answering questions. If facilitator you is like facilitator me, this will drive you nuts. If facilitator you is subject to the same kinds of course evaluations as someone who can teach their course, and make it the best it can be, then this is not only unfair, but professionally dangerous.

While course quality is affected by this- especially if no-one sees a need to consult with facilitator you about how the course is going, or there are no mechanisms for facilitator you to communicate issues and be taken seriously- there is a bigger problem: the very integrity of the course.

At one time distance education was mostly intended to serve those who could not go to a brick-and-mortar institution for one reason or another. Maybe they had a family or a full-time job and couldn’t leave to go to school. Maybe they just couldn’t afford to move. Now things are different. While I don’t have any hard numbers, from what I can tell, at least 70% of my students are already taking classes at a brick-and-mortar school. They take an online class because they can fit it into their schedule better than one on campus, or it isn’t offered on campus at a time they need it, or they’re trying to get ahead/ complete their degrees over the summer.

What this means for the big picture is that students are far more likely to communicate with each other about the course than in the past. It might be two students who take the course together, or it could be someone who took it previously sharing information with someone currently enrolled. In the case that is causing me problems right now, a substantial number of students from one department at one school take the online course to fill a requirement. This is a facilitated course, so perhaps you can guess where this is going.

The students talk to each other. Some of it might be innocent enough, but some of it involves passing on assignments that I’ve graded to the next group of students who take the course. The course has not been updated substantively in some time, so the same assignments and exams still apply.

The problem has become ridiculous of late, with students submitting near-perfect assignments, all exactly alike plus or minus a few careless errors, and within record time. They get things right that no-one ever gets right. Clearly they are working together, but they are also referring to older assignments. I know this for certain for a few reasons: First, the correct answer will frequently appear after incomplete or even nonsensical work. They submit solutions with the answer that would have resulted if a typo, long since removed, was still in the question. They also plagiarize my comments from old assignments, sometimes reproducing them verbatim.

This course has a must-pass stipulation on the final exam. Normally that would be some comfort, because students who haven’t learned anything on the assignments would fail the exams. I’ve seen students with 95%, 99%, and 100% on assignments unable to break 20% on the final. (The exam isn’t that hard.) But over the past few months it has become apparent that the content of the exam has been shared. If not an actual copy, then a very good description of what it contains is in circulation. Exam grades have gone up, and students are regularly answering questions correctly which were rarely answered correctly in the past.

Ideally, if so many students who know each other are taking the course, the assignments should change frequently. In our hyper-connected world, it is almost certain that this kind of communication between students will happen. I even know of a homework-sharing website that has some of the solutions posted. The problem is that in order to change this, someone has to keep on top of the course full-time, and have the autonomy to make the necessary changes. The main consideration should not be the logistics of altering course materials. There’s no excuse for that when the relevant materials are or can be delivered online, and everyone and their dog knows how to upload a file to an LMS.

Nevertheless, the issue is that facilitators cannot be empowered in this way without disrupting the underlying structure of course delivery. Even more problematic is a culture amongst those who do run things- those who are not subject-matter experts but who handle the day-to-day operations- which views facilitators as incompetent, and unable to handle this responsibility. Not long ago I was handed an in-house guide to designing distance education courses. It warned readers at the outset that most faculty would be uncooperative and not understand how a distance education course should run. I felt ill, the way you would feel if you overheard your co-workers complaining about how useless you were. As I recycle that book I will contemplate with irony the damage this attitude has caused to distance education, and wonder if maybe I should take a chance and start the dog-washing business I’ve been thinking about.

There are many reasons to disempower facilitators, not the least of which is the cost savings from having them as casual workers instead of full-time ones. So here’s where I’m going to get in trouble for this post (if I haven’t already): if your concern is the bottom line, what happens when the ease with which students can cheat in your course makes other schools, employers, professional certification organizations, etc., decide that credit for your course is no longer meaningful? Even if cheating is less of a risk, what if word gets around that the course is hopelessly outdated or has problems? You don’t get enrollment, that’s what. And the people who communicate this aren’t going to be disgruntled facilitators. I’m the least of your worries. You need to worry about the students themselves who joke openly about cheating, and how little can be done about it, or who are discovered to lack skills or to have learning that is outdated.

There is a fundamental disconnect between what schools view as the appropriate way to structure a distance education program, and what actually works on the ground, when you’re expecting learning to happen. One involves online teaching and the other does not. There is a cultural gulf between those who have the power to do something about it, and those who can only look on in frustration. There are a lot of dogs to wash, but with most of them you have to spell out B-A-T-H rather than say the word, or they run off. A waterproof apron is useful, but not foolproof. You’ll need lots of towels.

Categories: Assessment, Challenges, Distance education and e-learning, Learning technologies, The business of education | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dear Ed Tech: This Is What You Don’t Understand About Higher Education

I am the kind of tired that makes you feel hollow inside, so maybe this isn’t the best time to be writing this, but then again, maybe it is. I just got back from my Monday-Tuesday teaching overnighter out of town. I’m a hired gun in the world of higher education- sometimes we’re called adjunct faculty, sometimes sessional lecturers, and a number of other terms that are beyond my ability to recall at the moment. But you know who we are.

The problem is that being able to learn about educational technologies is really a luxury for my lot. I’ve been able to take many free courses which I’ve enjoyed very much, but I was only able to take them because I could afford to not fill that time with paid work. Full-time faculty on campus who opt to attend a course are doing so during the work day, but hired guns do it on their own time. Many of my colleagues simply wouldn’t be able to take the time- I’m thinking of you, Elaine, with your 8 courses this term in at least three different communities. So the first thing you need to know, Ed Tech, is that a substantial number of the people teaching courses at universities are hired guns like me, and many of those are on the razor’s edge of being able to support their teaching habits.

Part of being a hired gun is not having job security. You should care about this, Ed Tech, because the many wonderful tools you offer require a lot of work up-front. It’s a big decision whether or not to use a technology when learning it and preparing materials happens on your own time. It’s an even bigger decision when access to a tool depends on your employment status, as it often does with institutional subscriptions to software.

My blog, for example, started out on a university WordPress service, but after the jarring experience of having my computing access cut off between contracts, and facing the loss of the materials I created, I moved it and absorbed the costs associated with making it ad-free.

The same university is working on updating their in-class response system. I’m using one now- Poll Everywhere, which also happens to be something I can afford out-of-pocket- and the chance that I would adopt the system they choose is zero. It doesn’t matter how good the system is. What matters is that it takes a lot of time to set up questions and to embed them into presentations. Is it worth spending the time if I only get to use those questions once, or, assuming I’m teaching a similar class elsewhere, am unable to access them? This more or less guarantees that whatever system the university chooses will be utilized far less than they would like.

I came face to face with this issue more recently when discussing a home for the open textbook adaptation I’m working on. First of all, I’ve spent 131 hours on this adaptation so far, according to the timer I use to track my various ill-advised activities. That doesn’t include the 65 hours I spent writing a chapter for the original version of the book (for which, I must add, I was compensated- something I appreciated as an acknowledgement of my work as much as for the income.).

My free Pressbooks account didn’t have enough space for the media library, so I upgraded at my own expense. I then learned that the university is setting up its own version of Pressbooks, but faced with the possibility of losing access to what now seems like a ridiculous amount of work, I would never consider using their account to work on my textbook. I would also be nervous about having my students use a version hosted on the university’s system because I’m not clear on whether I would have access to edit it once it got put there. (I have no idea how authors of print materials aren’t driven nuts by being unable to edit at will.)

In my present state of near-faceplant exhaustion, it appears that I’ve made a great many poor life-choices. I can justify this in my better moments as things that are important to do for my students, but on days like today, all I can think of is why oh why am I killing myself with this?

Ed Tech, you need to realize that many of the people teaching in higher education are not in a position to be as frivolous with their time as I have been. In the push to get instructors to adopt various kinds of educational technology, it isn’t just a matter of convincing them that it’s good for students. They very likely know that already. The challenge is convincing them that they should commit to a technology in spite of the personal and financial burden, not to mention being treated like the education version of a paper plate (it works, it’s cheap, it’s disposable, there are lots more where it came from) by the schools that would benefit from their labour.

The commitment you’re asking for isn’t the same as it would be for full-time faculty, and I don’t think you realize how frustrating- even insulting- it is when you discuss the problem of adoption in terms of instructors being resistant to change, too lazy to change, or just not getting it. Especially when you yourselves are comfortably ensconced in a full-time position. For hired guns like me, the only compensation is warm fuzzies. When you’re a dead-inside kind of tired, warm fuzzies are entirely inadequate.

Categories: Challenges, Learning technologies, Textbooks | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The open textbook arrives- For real this time!

Textbook coverApparently I’m not the only person who has seen a need for an open textbook for introductory physical geology. BCcampus has just released one, and I was lucky enough to get in at the tail end of the process and add a chapter on the origin of Earth and the solar system.

In case you haven’t heard of open before, these are resources which are free to use, and are available with non-restrictive or minimally restrictive licenses, or released to the public domain.  This particular book has a CC-BY license. That means anyone can use the book in any way they please, so long as they give the creator appropriate credit, and note whether any changes have been made.  Quite simply, it’s a free textbook.

A lot of work went into this book, and that is evident when you look through it. The author, Steven Earle, not only explained a wide range of topics in an enthusiastic and conversational style, but he also drew or adapted a great many figures. From my own experience, I can tell you that figure drawing takes up a lot more time than the actual writing. (But then again, I’m the sort to vacillate between shadow settings or tweak a font for 5 to 10 minutes before I’m happy with it.)

This textbook has a special focus on the geology of British Columbia.  That’s a Canadian focus that many commercially available physical geology textbooks have lacked until recently, judging by the regular shipment of freebies I get from the textbook companies.

The textbook is not only accessible as an online resource, but it can also be downloaded in a variety of electronic formats- you could put it on an e-reader, for example.

The online version of the book is built in Pressbooks, and I was immediately enamored of the aesthetics and ease of navigation… so much so I got my own Pressbooks account for experimentation. I’m finding it a bit slow, however my internet signal fails on really windy days (one of the perils of a rural home office), so maybe it’s not their fault.

The one feature of this textbook which has had the greatest impact on me is the fact that I can edit it- all by my lonesome, no permission required. In its current form, the book presents some of the topics differently than I do in my course, so I inquired about making the changes. The result? Amanda, a lovely lady from BCcampus, emailed me the latest version of the XML file, and I imported it into my Pressbooks account. It was that easy. (The XML file is one of the download options as well.)

I was pleasantly surprised at how straightforward it was to get something I could edit, but what surprised me most of all was the immense sense of relief I felt when I discovered that there were no barriers to making the textbook fit my needs. I’ve always been a bit of a control freak when it comes to my course materials- on a bad day that translates to downright resentment at not being able to fix things that need fixing- but I had no idea that I was so stressed out about not being able to control my textbooks.

Categories: Learning technologies, Textbooks | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Crowd-sourcing distance education (or, Why Athabasca University’s problems are just getting started)

mortar quoteLast week there was another missive from Athabasca University interim president, Peter MacKinnon. The post appears to be damage control after a Metro article by Jeremey Nolais, Fears arise that Alberta’s Athabasca University will be lost as tough budget looms.  The post says that while Athabasca is facing “financial challenges that are acute,” and “a decline in the rate of enrollment growth,” the rumors in the media that it will be merged with another school or shut down are untrue.

What I found interesting about the article were the comments. There are only 6 of them at this point, and three of the comments were complaints about insufficient interaction with tutors. They weren’t complaints about the call centre model, where students contact the call center and a call center employee determines whether an Academic Expert should be informed that the student needs assistance (contact ensuing within 2 business days). Instead they were complaints by students who had tutors but felt that they weren’t hearing from the tutors enough. As one student says, “… I did not pay to be completely ignored and paid to be TAUGHT.” [original emphasis]. There were complaints about the quality of education, and the blame for that laid at the feet of tutors as well.

Given the controversy surrounding the call center, and the seemingly obvious thing to comment about- that those who were unhappy with insufficient contact from their tutors could rest assured that they would soon have no contact with a tutor whatsoever- it is surprising that no comments of that nature were posted. After some experimentation, I determined that those points of view were being moderated out. The upshot is that readers will come away with the conclusion that what is wrong with Athabasca is its tutors, which is very convenient for the administration at present. However, there is also a very real risk of discouraging students who might otherwise register for courses that are still running under the tutor model. If someone at AU thought that was a risk worth taking… well, make of that what you will.

I’m not saying that all tutors do the job that students want them to- some tutors may not do the best job they can for any number of reasons, and some students may have bought into the misconception that they have a full-time teacher assigned to them.

But Athabasca’s problem isn’t tutors not doing what students want them to. Its problem is a structure designed in the days when distance education required sending students boxes of paper in the mail. This is a problem because the system that can most efficiently manage hard-copy course materials is one in which teachers cannot have the autonomy to alter their course materials at will to respond to students’ needs. Think of the nightmare that keeping track of document versions would be! There would be no control on the workflow (and therefore on costs) if instructors could alter materials whenever they found a better way to teach. In order for the school to function, teaching has to take a back seat to operations.

kids these days

Kids these days

On the surface, it would seem that Athabasca has moved past this, with an online learning management system, online exams, and digital textbooks. At its core, however, Athabasca is still structured so that it is necessary to inhibit its teachers in order for it to operate as efficiently as possible. The reason I think that Athabasca’s problems are just beginning is that the costly and harmful structure they are fighting to protect is rapidly becoming unnecessary for distance education.

Think of it this way- these days most universities run courses through online learning management systems. Using these systems, instructors can post documents, set up quizzes and exams, post video links, post videos and podcasts of lectures, host class discussions, and more. It is entirely doable with a very minimal outlay for me to broadcast my in-class lectures live online, and have students answer questions in real time through Poll Everywhere while watching that lecture. We could discuss their answers as a group, and I could adjust my lecture on the fly to address issues that they were having. Students could even submit questions through Twitter during the lecture.

With courses set up this way, no-one sends students a box of paper course-materials. Students download and print what they want, access the rest online, and purchase textbooks directly from vendors in the format they want. Students can take a course and engage fully with a community of learners and an instructor without being in the classroom, whether that course is designated as distance education or not.

In contrast, Athabasca is structurally incapable of empowering its front-line teaching staff to act in their students’ best interest. It has people to grade papers and answer questions, but it doesn’t afford those people the mantle of teachers, the salary so they can be committed to students full-time, or the autonomy to fix issues with courses as they arise. Consider this: I don’t have access to the course materials that I wrote.  If I want to fix a typo, there is a separate group of people who handle that sort of thing, and I have to make a request to get it done. I had to hunt around to find out who those people were. If I had the same control over my Athabasca courses as I do with some other courses I teach, I would just take the three seconds to fix the typo myself and not tie up IT people, and who knows who else. I would likely be updating the course regularly to improve it, which means that a separate expenditure on a Subject Matter Expert (who is also me) to revise the course every so many years would be unnecessary.

From a business perspective, it might have been safe at one time to compromise on teaching if you were the only game in town that could mail out those boxes of paper. But what happens when mailing out boxes of paper becomes irrelevant to serving students at a distance? What happens when the competition is no longer other distance education schools or programs- when it becomes hundreds or even thousands of individual creative, energetic, and innovative instructors at traditional brick-and-mortar schools who choose to build and manage their own online courses? What happens when the additional cost of running those courses is trivial, because the resources are already there as part of how on-site students are served? Well, what happens is that the competition is essentially crowd-sourced, and can do a better job with lower costs and happier teachers.

I don’t know what will become of Athabasca. As long as it offers programs that no-one else does, there will be a demand for its product, and perhaps it will begin to focus on that segment of the market instead of a broad swath of undergraduate courses. But if it does offer programs that no-one else does, that will have more to do with no-one else choosing to offer those programs, rather than being unable to do so in a cost-effective manner. Athabasca will not change the way it does business because it is firmly committed to the notion that as long as the school is run as a business, the rest will take care of itself.  The call centre model- where by design, the first person students talk to will never be the person teaching them- is evidence of that. There is an entrenched culture which holds front-line teachers in such low regard as to view answer databases and non-teaching call-center employees as a better alternative.  This exists because at some level, Athabasca views itself as an organization for delivering courses rather than for teaching students.

Categories: Distance education and e-learning, Learning technologies, The business of education | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Plagiarism-proof assignments: The Up-Goer Five Challenge

up_goer_fiveOk, so there’s probably no such thing as a plagiarism-proof assignment, but I think I’ve got a reasonable approximation thereof.

It originated with my frustration with the perpetual struggle to have students in my distance education classes answer questions in their own words. My students are using their textbooks to answer questions, and many seem to feel that a textbook is the exception to the rule when it comes to plagiarism. Some simply don’t understand that they’re doing anything wrong. From experience, I can tell you that many people who are not my students also see it that way, and complaining about it is a great way to be branded as unreasonable. The problem, as I’ve documented before, is that students who copy from their textbook also tend to fail the class. After last term, I’ve decided that it’s in my best interest to consume alcohol before grading assignments. I’m not allowed to ignore plagiarism, but what I don’t see

Absent blissful ignorance, the only way to deal with plagiarism (without causing myself a variety of problems) is to change the assignments so that plagiarism isn’t possible. Now, if you’ve attempted to do this, you know it isn’t easy. A search online will give you tips like having students put themselves in the position of a person experiencing a historical event, and explaining their perspective on the matter. That’s something students (most likely) can’t copy from the internet. But suggestions like that are not especially helpful when the topic is how volcanoes work. (Although now that I think about it, “Imagine you are an olivine crystal in a magma chamber…”)

The solution came from my online source of comfort, xkcd. Randall Munroe, the creator of the webcomic, set himself the challenge of labeling a diagram of NASA’s Saturn 5 rocket (Up Goer Five) with only the 1000 most commonly used words in the English language. Soon after, members of the geoscience community took up the challenge of explaining their fields of research in the 1000 most commonly used words. Here are two examples from a blog post by hydrogeologist Anne Jefferson. Anne writes:

” So I decided to see if I could explain urban hydrology and why I study it using only the words in the list. Here’s what I came up with:

I study how water moves in cities and other places. Water is under the ground and on top of it, and when we build things we change where it can go and how fast it gets there. This can lead to problems like wet and broken roads and houses. Our roads, houses, and animals, can also add bad things to the water. My job is to figure out what we have done to the water and how to help make it better. I also help people learn how to care about water and land. This might seem like a sad job, because often the water is very bad and we are not going to make things perfect, but I like knowing that I’m helping make things better.

Science, teach, observe, measure, buildings, and any synonym for waste/feces were among the words I had to write my way around. If I hadn’t had access to “water”, I might have given up in despair.

But my challenge was nothing compared to that faced by Chris, as he explained paleomagnetism without the word magnet:

I study what rocks tell us about how the ground moves and changes over many, many (more than a hundred times a hundred times a hundred) years. I can do this because little bits hidden inside a rock can remember where they were when they formed, and can give us their memories if we ask them in the right way. From these memories we can tell how far and how fast the rocks have moved, and if they have been turned around, in the time since they were made. It is important to know the stories of the past that rocks tell, because it is only by understanding that story that we really understand the place where we live, how to find the things that we need to live there, and how it might change in the years to come. We also need to know these things so we can find the places where the ground can move or shake very fast, which can be very bad for us and our homes.”

Is that brilliant, or what?! To make it even better, Theo Sanderson developed a text editor to check whether only those words have been used. This is what happened when I typed part of the introduction to the chapter on volcanoes:

Up-Goer Five text editor

Yes, fortunately it has the word “rock.”

I decided to test-drive this with my class. I gave them the option of answering their assignment questions in this way. It’s difficult, so they got bonus points for doing it. A handful attempted it, and that was probably the most fun I’ve ever had grading assignments. If you’d like to give this kind of assignment a shot, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Students (and colleagues) may be skeptical. Explain that the exercise requires a solid knowledge of the subject matter (in contrast to paraphrasing the textbook) and is a very effective way for students to diagnose whether they know what they think they know. In my books, that gives it a high score in the learning per unit time category.
  • The text editor has some work-arounds, like putting single quotes around a word, or adding “Mr or “Mrs” in front of a word (e.g., Mr Magma). Head those off at the pass, or you’ll get “But you didn’t say we couldn’t!”
  • You may wish to allow certain words for the assignment or for specific questions, depending on your goals. For example, if I were less diabolical, I might consider allowing the use of “lava.” The other reason for not allowing “lava” is that I want to be sure they know what it means. In contrast, I probably wouldn’t make them struggle with “North America.”
  • Make it clear that simple language does not mean simple answers. I found that students tended to give imprecise answers that didn’t address important details. I don’t think they were trying to cut corners- they just didn’t think it was necessary. If I were to do this again I would give them a rubric with examples of what is and isn’t adequate.
  • Recommend that they write out the key points of their answers in normal language first, and in a separate document, and then attempt to translate it.
  • Suggest that they use analogies or comparisons if they are stuck. For example, Randall Munroe refers to hydrogen as “the kind of air that once burned a big sky bag.”
  • Make the assignment shorter than you might otherwise, and focus on key objectives. Doing an assignment this way is a lot of work, and time consuming.
  • And finally, (as with all assignments) try it yourself first.

In that spirit:

I like to make stories with numbers to learn what happens when things go into the air that make air hot. Very old rocks from deep under water say things that help make number stories. The number stories are not perfect but they still tell us important ideas about how our home works. Some day the number stories about how old air got hot might come true again, but maybe if people know the old number stories, they will stop hurting the air. If they don’t stop hurting the air, it will be sad for us because our home will change in bad ways.

Categories: Assessment, Challenges, Distance education and e-learning, Learning strategies, Learning technologies, Teaching strategies | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Time: The final frontier

Timefleet Academy logo: a winged hourglass made of ammonites

A logo begging for a t-shirt

Here it is: the final incarnation of my design project for Design and Development of Educational Technology– the Timefleet Academy. It’s a tool to assist undergraduate students of historical geology with remembering events in Earth history, and how those events fit into the Geological Time Scale. Much of their work consists of memorizing a long list of complicated happenings. While memorizing is not exactly at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy (it’s exactly at the bottom, in fact), it is necessary. One could approach this task by reading the textbook over and over, and hoping something will stick, but I think there’s a better way.

I envision a tool with three key features:

  • A timeline that incorporates the Geological Time Scale, and “zooms” to show events that occur over widely varying timescales
  • The ability to add events from a pre-existing library onto a custom timeline
  • Assessments to help students focus their efforts effectively

Here’s an introduction to the problem, and a sketch of my solution. If your sensors start to detect something familiar about this enterprise then you’re as much of a nerd as I am.

Timefleet Academy is based on the constructionist idea that building is good for learning. Making a representation of something (in this case, Earth history) is a way of distilling its essential features. That means analyzing what those features are, how they are related, and expressing them explicitly. Ultimately this translates to the intuitive notion that it is best to approach a complex topic by breaking it into small digestible pieces.

Geological Time Scale

This is what you get to memorize.

As challenging as the Geological Time Scale is to memorize, it does lend itself to “chunking” because the Time Scale comes already subdivided. Even better, those subdivisions are designed to reflect meaningful stages (and therefore meaningful groupings of events) in Earth history.

There is an official convention regarding the colours in the Geological Time Scale (so no, it wasn’t my choice to put red, fuchsia, and salmon next to each other), and I’ve used it on the interface for two reasons. One is that it’s employed on diagrams and geological maps, so students might as well become familiar with it. The other is that students can take advantage of colour association as a memory tool.

Assessments

Assessments are a key difference between Timefleet Academy and other “zoomable” timelines that already exist. The assessments would come in two forms.

1. Self assessment checklists

These allow users to document their progress through the list of resources attached to individual events. This might seem like a trivial housekeeping matter, but mentally constructing a map of what resources have been used costs cognitive capital. Answering the question “Have I been here already?” has a non-zero cognitive load, and one that doesn’t move the user toward the goal of learning historical geology.

2. Drag-and-drop drills

The second kind of assessment involves drill-type exercises where users drag and drop objects representing events, geological time periods, and dates, to place them in the right order. The algorithm governing how drills are set would take into account the following:

  • The user’s previous errors: It would allow for more practice in those areas.
  • Changes in the user’s skill level: It would adjust by making tasks more or less challenging. For example, the difficulty level could be increased by going from arranging events in chronological order to arranging them chronologically and situating them in the correct spots on the Geological Time Scale. Difficulty could also be increased by placing time limits on the exercise, requiring that the user apply acquired knowledge rather than looking up the information.
  • The context of events: If drills tend to focus on the same group of events, the result could be overly contextualized knowledge. In other words, if the student were repeatedly drilled on the order of events A, B, and C separately from the order of events D, E, and F, and were then asked to put A, B, and E in the right order, there could be a problem.

The feedback from drills would consist of correct answers and errors being indicated at the end of each exercise, and a marker placed on the timeline to indicate where (when) errors have occurred. Students would earn points toward a promotion within Timefleet Academy for completing drills, and for correct answers.

Who wouldn’t want a cool new uniform?

How do you know if it works?

1. Did learning outcomes improve?

This could be tested by comparing the performance of a group of students who used the tool to that of a control group who didn’t. Performance measures could be results from a multiple choice exam. They could also be scores derived from an interview with each student, where he or she is asked questions to gauge not only how well events are recalled, but also whether he or she can explain the larger context of an event, including causal relationships. It would be interesting to compare exam and interview scores for students within each group to see how closely the results of a recall test track the results of a test focused on understanding.

For the group of students who have access to the tool, it would be important to have a measure of how they used it, and how often. For example, did they use it once and lose interest? Did they use it for organizing events but not do drills? Or did they work at it regularly, adding events and testing themselves throughout? Without this information, it would be difficult to know how to interpret differences (or a lack of differences) in performance between the two groups.

 2. Do they want to use it?

This is an important indicator of whether students perceive that the tool is helpful, but also of their experience interacting with it. Students could be surveyed about which parts of the tool were useful and which weren’t, and asked for feedback about what changes would make it better. (The option to print out parts of the timeline, maybe?) They could be asked specific questions about aspects of the interface, such as whether their drill results were displayed effectively, whether the controls were easy to use, etc. It might be useful to ask them if they would use the tool again, either in its current form, or if it were redesigned to take into account their feedback.

Timefleet in the bigger picture

Writing a test

All set to pass the test of time

Timefleet Academy is ostensibly a tool to aid in memorizing the details of Earth history, but it actually does something more than that. It introduces students to a systematic way of learning- by identifying key features within an ocean of details, organizing those features, and then testing their knowledge.

The point system rewards students for testing their knowledge regardless of whether they get all of the answers right. The message is twofold: testing one’s knowledge is valuable because it provides information about what to do next; and testing one’s knowledge counts as progress toward a goal even if you don’t get the right answers every time. Maybe it’s threefold: if you do enough tests, eventually you get a cape, and a shirt with stars on it.

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Building assessments into a timeline tool for historical geology

In my last post I wrote about the challenges faced by undergraduate students in introductory historical geology. They are required to know an overwhelming breadth and depth of information about the history of the Earth, from 4.5 billion years ago to present. They must learn not only what events occurred, but also the name of the interval of the Geological Time Scale in which they occurred. This is a very difficult task! The Geological Time Scale itself is a challenge to memorize, and the events that fit on it often involve processes, locations, and organisms that students have never heard of. If you want to see a case of cognitive overload, just talk to a historical geology student.

My proposed solution was a scalable timeline. A regular old timeline is helpful for organizing events in chronological order, and it could be modified to include the divisions of the Geological Time Scale. However, a regular old timeline is simply not up to the task of displaying the relevant timescales of geological events, which vary over at least six orders of magnitude. It is also not up to the job of displaying the sheer number of events that students must know about. A scalable timeline would solve those problems by allowing students to zoom in and out to view different timescales, and by changing which events are shown depending on the scale. It would work just like Google Maps, where the type and amount of geographic information that is displayed depends on the map scale.

Doesn’t that exist already?

My first round of Google searches didn’t turn anything up, but more recently round two hit paydirt… sort of. Timeglider is a tool for making “zoomable” timelines, and allows the user to imbed media. It also has the catch phrase “It’s like Google Maps but for time,” which made me wonder if my last post was re-inventing the wheel.

ChronoZoom was designed with Big History in mind, which is consistent with the range of timescales that I would need. I experimented with this tool a little, and discovered that users can build timelines by adding exhibits, which appear as nodes on the timeline. Users can zoom in on an exhibit and access images, videos, etc.

If I had to choose, I’d use ChronoZoom because it’s free, and because students could create their own timelines and incorporate timelines or exhibits that I’ve made. Both Timeglider and ChronoZoom would help students organize information, and ChronoZoom already has a Geological Time Scale, but there are still features missing. One of those features is adaptive formative assessments that are responsive to students’ choices about what is important to learn.

Learning goals

There is a larger narrative in geological history, involving intricate feedbacks and cause-and-effect relationships, but very little of that richness is apparent until students have done a lot of memorization. My timeline tool would assist students in the following learning goals:

  • Memorize the Geological Time Scale and the dates of key event boundaries.
  • Memorize key events in Earth history.
  • Place individual geological events in the larger context of Earth history.

These learning goals fit right at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important to accomplish. Students can’t move on to understanding why things happened without first having a good feeling for the events that took place. It’s like taking a photo with the lens cap on- you just don’t get the picture.

And why assessments?

This tool is intended to help students organize and visualize the information they must remember, but they still have to practice remembering it in order for it to stick. Formative assessments would give students that practice, and students could use the feedback from those assessments to gauge their knowledge and direct their study to the greatest advantage.

How it would work

The assessments would address events on a timeline that the students construct for themselves (My Timeline) by selecting from many hundreds of events on a Master Timeline. The figure below is a mock-up of what My Timeline would look like when the scale is limited to a relatively narrow 140 million year window. When students select events, related resources (videos, images, etc.) would also become accessible through My Timeline.

Timeline interface

A mock-up of My Timeline. A and B are pop-up windows designed to show students which resources they have used. C is access to practice exercises, and D is how the tool would show students where they need more work.

Students would benefit from two kinds of assessments:

Completion checklists and charts

The problem with having abundant resources is keeping track of which ones you’ve already looked at. Checklists and charts would show students which resources they have used. A mouse-over of a particular event would pop up a small window (A in the image above) with the date (or range of dates) of the event and a pie chart with sections representing the number of resources that are available for that event. A mouse-over on the pie chart would pop up a hyperlinked list of those resources (B). Students would choose whether to check off a particular resource once they are satisfied that they have what they need from it, or perhaps flag it if they find it especially helpful. If a resource is relevant for more than one event, and shows up on multiple checklists, then checks and flags would appear for all instances.

Drag-and-drop exercises

Some of my students construct elaborate sets of flashcards so they can arrange events or geological time intervals spatially. Why not save them the trouble of making flashcards?

Students could opt to practice remembering by visiting the Timefleet Academy (C). They would do exercises such as:

  • Dragging coloured blocks labeled with Geological Time Scale divisions to put them in the right order
  • Dragging events to either put them in the correct chronological order (lower difficulty) or to position them in the correct location on the timeline (higher difficulty)
  • Dragging dates from a bank of options onto the Geological Time Scale or onto specific events (very difficult)

Upon completion of each of the drag-and-drop exercise, students would see which parts of their responses were correct. Problem areas (for example, a geological time period in the wrong order) would be marked on My Timeline with a white outline (D) so students could review those events in the appropriate context. White outlines could be cleared directly by the student, or else by successfully completing Timefleet Academy exercises with those components.

Drag-and-drop exercises would include some randomly selected content, as well as items that the student has had difficulty with in the past. The difficulty of the exercises could be scaled to respond to increasing skill, either by varying the type of drag-and-drop task, or by placing time limits on the exercise. Because a student could become very familiar with one stretch of geologic time without knowing others very well, the tool would have to detect a change in skill level and respond accordingly.

A bit of motivation

Students would earn points for doing Timefleet Academy exercises. To reward persistence, they would earn points for completing the exercises, in addition to points for correct responses. Points would accumulate toward a progression through Timefleet Academy ranks, beginning with Time Cadet, and culminating in Time Overlord (and who wouldn’t want to be a Time Overlord?). Progressive ranks could be illustrated with an avatar that changes appearance, or a badging system. As much as I’d like to show you some avatars and badges, I am flat out of creativity, so I will leave it to your imagination for now.

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How to make sense of historical geology

Imagine that someone changed the clock on you, breaking the day into irregular blocks, and giving the blocks names and symbols in no systematic way. Now imagine that you are given a list of events to memorize- activities of people you don’t know at places with which you are unfamiliar:

Fantasy clock with radiolarians

No, they’re not aliens. They’re radiolarians. And aren’t you glad you don’t use this to tell time?

During the Early Fizz, Pierre Bezukhov and Cthulu squared off on Callisto. By Middle to Late Fizz, Pierre Bezukhov had the advantage, so Cthulu migrated to Kore. At the Fizz-Zoot boundary, Dmitry Dokhturov and a shoggoth appeared on Europa, but both went extinct by the end of the Zoot, likely due to a lack of habitat. Beginning in the Flap, Callisto, Europa, and Taygete began a collision that culminated in their merger by mid-Flap. Land bridges that formed allowed the migration of Anna Mikhaylovna Drubetskaya from her original habitat on Taygete, leaving a niche open, and allowing Nyarlathotep to diversify.

Now stuff that in your head so I can ask you about it on an exam, in no particular order.

If you are familiar with the moons of Jupiter, the characters of War and Peace, or the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, then you might have a chance at remembering some of the names, but their relationships would probably be new to you. This is the scenario faced by students taking introductory historical geology.

The clock they have to work with is the Geological Time Scale– a way geologists have of carving up Earth’s 4.5 billion years of history into chunks that reflect key events or phases. The chunks are not the same size, and there are chunks within chunks. The exact dates when each chunk (or sub-chunk) starts and ends are moving every few years as geologists get better information about the timing of key events that define the boundaries. There is no system- you just have to memorize it, and you’d better do it in a hurry, because everything you will learn about the Earth’s history will be described in terms of the Geological Time Scale.

Aside from learning this new clock, students must also learn the names of extinct and extant organisms, the names and histories of various continents and oceans, extant or otherwise, and the geological processes that have influenced those organisms, continents, and oceans. Did I mention that students usually have to learn a range of dates, because we can’t be sure of the actual date, and/or because the event happened over millions or hundreds of millions of years? Oh, and one more thing- the dates of different events will overlap to varying degrees, and the story lines will be almost impossible to disentangle from each other. But don’t worry- the exam is multiple choice.

The obvious way to organize all of this information is a timeline, and most textbooks have a version of the Geological Time Scale with some dates and key events marked on it. The problem is that to construct a timeline with all of the information that students need, you would have to devote a book to that alone, so most of these are just Geological Time Scales with some pretty pictures attached. The Geologic Time Spiral (below), showing Earth history spiraling away from the beginning of time, is a classic, and fascinating to look at, but of limited use to my students.  The durations of the events pictured are gross approximations, there is no description of those events, and there is no sense of the spatial changes that occurred. The timeline also glosses over the multiple story lines in Earth history, and the complex interconnections between story lines.

A spiral diagram illustrating the evolution of life on Earth through geological time

Geological Time Spiral: The names of units within the Geological Time Scale are written along the edges.

How to fix it

Make it adapt to scaling

What’s needed is a timeline in electronic format, but not just any timeline- it should be a scalable timeline. Users must be able to zoom out to see big-picture, long-term history, or zoom in to see the finer details. It would be the temporal analog to Google Maps, where the details which appear, including the divisions of the Geological Time Scale itself, depend on the scale. This would solve the problem of the necessarily limited amount of information in current timelines, but it would also do something more important. Users would be able to easily go back and forth between scales to understand how events are situated in a broader context. This is what you do every time you are planning a route to a new address- look at the larger map of the city to see the main thoroughfares, then zoom in to the streets within a particular neighbourhood, then zoom out again to remind yourself where the neighbourhood is relative to the freeway. Then you might zoom in again to the exact address, and depending on the tool you are using, you might look at a picture of the building that you are headed to.

Show cause and effect relationships

In Google Maps, you can see how streets are connected to each other. In Earth history, individual story lines are interconnected in the same way, and the complexity of city streets is probably not a bad analogy for the complexity of these interconnections. The scalable timeline would also show branches that link one story line to other stories, so a user could follow a single timeline, or choose to follow a branch and see how another series of events was impacted by the first story line. Because of how complex the interactions are, these branches would also have to appear or disappear depending on the scale, and depending on which timeline is being viewed.

Add multimedia

Like Google Maps, where resources like photographs, or information like phone numbers are linked to particular points in space, the timeline would have resources linked to a particular point in time, to a broader range of events, or to branches that connect related events. There could be pictures of the organisms that existed, or videos to explain a concept or expand on the details of an event. This would replace the limited images in the timelines that exist at present.

Add a responsive map

The scalable timeline should have an easy way to view the geographic location of a particular event, if it happens to occur in a specific place. This would require an omnipresent world map that lights up in the right spots to correspond to a particular event, but which also changes to reflect the shifting positions of the continents. The map would show where an event happened, but also where climate zones are, where glaciers are present, and where other key contemporaneous events occurred.

Get hypothetical

Hypothetical timelines could be introduced to consider alternative histories. For example, what would have happened if Earth had never been hit by an extraterrestrial object 65 million years ago? Would we even exist if mammals hadn’t been able to take over niches left open by the extinction of the dinosaurs? Or would the dinosaurs have gone extinct anyway for some other reason? Hypothetical timelines could be places to host discussions.

No more Brontosauruses

Brontosaurus illustration from 1896

Brontosaurus, redlined. Skeleton illustration appeared in “The Dinosaurs of North America” by O. C. Marsh (1896)

A timeline of this nature would be much easier to update as new data become available, or as the thinking about Earth history changes. In the popular Golden Guide to Fossils, which some of my students use, there still exists an entry for  Brontosaurus. Brontosauruses were invented by mistake in 1879 because Othniel Charles Marsh was in a rush to publish and didn’t realize that his new dinosaur find was just an adult version of a juvenile dinosaur he had already documented, called Apatosaurus.  The  iconic dinosaur that came to be known as Brontosaurus was actually Apatosaurus with the wrong head attached. The Brontosaurus story could be corrected with a few keystrokes and turned into a teachable moment about the challenges of interpreting paleontological data.

Why would it work?

It would work because narratives are better than lists. The standard timeline offers a way to summarize some of the events in Earth’s history, and to express temporal relationships as spatial ones, but it doesn’t go far enough to make the events into a meaningful whole. A list of seemingly isolated events is just that- a list. It takes context and meaning to make it a story, and stories are things we can remember and understand. There’s a reason you need to write down your grocery list to remember it, but you don’t need notes to be able to relate a relatively trivial story about what your dog did the other day. Whether you get all of the groceries you need or not will likely have a bigger impact on your life than if you can remember your dog story, but if you remember the dog story, it’s because it means something to you. A scalable timeline is a dog story rather than a grocery list because it will make it easy to examine the relationships between events in Earth history, and to synthesize essential details into a meaningful whole.

 

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Blinkie and the Valley of Confusion

One of my projects these days is MOOCery. MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses- courses offered for free online, and open to everyone. The formats these courses take will vary, but they often include lectures on video, discussion forums, and assignments. I’m working on two courses right now, and it was very tempting to sign up for more.

One of the courses is Design and Development of Educational Technology, offered by the MIT. I’ve been curious about Ed Tech since taking Introduction to Learning Technologies at the University of Saskatchewan, and the course seemed a good opportunity for further exploration. Part of the course involves reflecting on both old and new educational technologies, and I have a bit of homework in that regard: comparing and contrasting a new and an old technology.

The New: Demystifying the Valley of Confusion

A simplified geological map

Geological map of the Valley of Confusion

First-year geology students are asked to do a very complex task: view a two-dimensional representation of the intersection of a complex geometric surface with three-dimensional subsurface structures (also called a geological map), and understand what the heck they are looking at.

Here’s an example of a simplified geological map. In this image, the coloured patches represent different rock layers that you would see if you could strip away all of the soil and expose the rocks beneath. If I were to ask you how those rock layers were arranged within the Earth, you might say that they were folded. It certainly looks that way. In fact, they are not folded at all. They are in flat layers, all tilting to the east at an angle of 30 degrees. Students are expected to arrive at that interpretation by looking at maps like this one.

The map in the image above is actually a birds-eye view of this:

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Valley of Confusion in three dimensions: not as confusing

Here you can see on the side of the block that the rocks are arranged in flat, tilted layers, not curved and folded ones. The reason they look folded on the map is that the surface is actually a valley. The numbered black and grey lines in the first image represent the elevations at different points in the valley.

This is why Visible Geology is so useful. It is an online tool that allows users to construct and view three-dimensional models of geological structures. Users start with a blank cube, then add layers to represent different rocks. They can manipulate the layers by tilting them, folding them, or faulting them. The cubes can be rotated to allow a view of all of the sides. Users can also print their models, cut them out, and fold them up into cubes. Visible Geology is also a good example of what Seymour Papert referred to as a low floor: it is very easy to get started with, and users get results immediately. I created both of the images above in under 5 minutes using Visible Geology.

Visible Geology is particularly interesting because it began as a project by a student who was learning about geological maps and geological structures. He happened to have programming skills in MATLAB which allowed him to build visualizations to help himself and his peers. From there, he developed Visible Geology into an online tool.

The goal of Visible Geology is to make it easy to visualize the three-dimensional structures formed by rocks. The lament I hear most often from my first-years is, “I just can’t see it!” Visible Geology solves that problem by allowing students to explore different configurations and scenarios. It is engaging because it has an interface that is user-friendly: it is colourful, it’s functions are intuitive, and it is not at all intimidating (unless you find large buttons with pastel-coloured illustrations intimidating). Students can learn from Visible Geology by experimenting, but would also benefit by attempting to reproduce the geological maps and structures in their assignments.

The Old: Blinkie Computes

owl calculator

Blinkie (The National Semiconductor Quiz Kid)

At some point in the early 1980’s, I received a National Semiconductor Quiz Kid as a gift. This toy (henceforth referred to as Blinkie) was a calculator that looked like an owl. Blinkie didn’t work like a regular calculator, though. When you entered a mathematical operation (“4 + 3 =”) he calculated the answer, but he wouldn’t tell you what it was. You would have to supply the answer. If your answer were correct, he would blink a green LED eye at you. If it were wrong, he winked a red LED eye. Blinkie came with a book of math questions, and was intended as a drill tool for children learning their pluses, take-aways, timeses and divide-bys.

I’m sure Blinkie was effective as a math teaching tool (I can add, after all), but that isn’t my main recollection of Blinkie. I liked Blinkie because the keys made a satisfying click when you pressed them. I liked Blinkie because if you turned out the lights and hid under the covers, then covered his eyes with your thumbs, the red eye would glow through your thumb, but the green one wouldn’t. Most of all, I liked Blinkie because I could use him to check my math homework, and not feel that I was cheating. So, although Blinkie was intended to teach me math (and perhaps save my mom some time making flash cards), his most substantial benefit was to reduce my anxiety. Once you do that, the math comes a lot easier anyway.

Blinkie Versus the Internet (or, Bringing An Owl To A Gunfight)

Comparing Blinkie to Visible Geology is not like comparing apples to oranges. Comparing apples to oranges is much easier than finding characteristics that Blinkie and Visible Geology share. They are very different tools.

For one thing, their approaches are very different. Blinkie was a tool for practicing math skills. He told you whether you got the answer right, or whether you got it wrong. Visible Geology is about exploring. It allows the user to be creative, and to experiment risk-free. It is about “what if?”

The motivation for creating these tools was also very different. I suspect that at least some of the motivation for building Blinkie was that new microprocessors had been developed, and that development had to be funded commercially. National Semiconductor had a hammer, and was looking for a nail. In contrast, Visible Geology was created by someone who experienced a need for a visualization tool, and built what he needed.

The most obvious contrast is the difference in technology, but it is also the least relevant. Blinkie is old technology, but back in the early 1980’s, he was pretty cool… heck, anything with lights and buttons was cool back then. The point is, he did his job, and I didn’t feel that I was missing out on anything. Today, as amazing as Visual Geology might be to a Blinkie-era person, it is nothing special technologically to the eighteen- to twenty-year-olds that I usually deal with. It does its job.

I was excited to discover both of these technologies, but for different reasons. Those reasons are related to context. I faced Blinkie as a learner. Blinkie was novel, and so was math. He and math were intertwined in a new tactile and visual experience. As far as I was concerned, Blinkie wasn’t for teaching me math, he was entertainment, and I just happened to be learning math at the same time. My perspective on Visible Geology is as a teacher. It is a tool that I’m excited about because it fills a definite need that my students have to see the three-dimensional structures they are working with. When I play with it, the purpose is to create a teachable object. There isn’t the same element of novelty and discovery as there was with Blinkie, back when math was something new.

I think that for my students, Visible Geology will be a Blinkie experience. They are discovering geology, and Visible Geology will be entertainment inseparable from learning. They can use it as a way to “check their homework” by comparing their expectations with the results of combining geological structures with different surfaces. It may even lessen the anxiety they feel when geological maps just aren’t making sense. Nevertheless, there is one thing they will be missing: Visible Geology will never make their thumbs glow.

 

 

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