eTexts and Changing the Classroom

I just found this in my Facebook feed:

Five Best Practices for the Flipped Classroom

Ok, I’ll be honest. I get very nervous when I hear education reformists and politicians tout how “incredible” the flipped classroom model, or how it will “solve” many of the problems of education. It doesn’t solve anything. It is a great first step in reframing the role of the teacher in the classroom. It fosters the “guide on the side” mentality and role, rather than that of the “sage of the stage.” It helps move a classroom culture towards student construction of knowledge rather than the teacher having to tell the knowledge to students. Even Salman Khan says that the teacher is now “liberated to communicate with [their students].”

We were talking about this in our discussion today: how do we get students to use their strengths to help them to become effective learners? Well, if you can spend time in class working with students individually, or at least in smaller groups — instead of one big lecture — you can start getting there.

So, how does this relate to eBooks? Well, I moved to an eBook in Ecology at least two years ago. It’s a unique eBook — it’s not a PDF, it’s actually software, with embedded questions, interactive models, and more. (Link: SimUText Ecology, by Simbiotic Software.)

My class isn’t in a computer lab (at 40+, it wouldn’t fit). The software won’t run on an iPad, and I can’t exactly require the students to bring laptops. So, they have to do the work in the text outside of class. In fact, the assignments are due 3-4 hours before class starts. This gives me time to look over the answers, and adjust what I do in class accordingly.

So, what do I do in class? Well, today I did lecture. We’re covering Competition, which involves mathematical models that are more complex than most of my biology or health science majors have seen (and they’re mostly seniors). They didn’t begin those for homework today — they went over basic concepts of competition, and the models are part of Wednesday’s homework. But, after 5 or so years of teaching this, I know that they understand the book better if I’ve walked them through it in class beforehand. The interactive models in this text make it far superior to a static text — I actually told them a few things to try when they work through the unit in the next two days. (Some of the results appear to be counterintuitive when one doesn’t fully understand the model.)

In class next time, I’ll review if needed, or if requested, and then they’ll get a problem set. I like this one: it’s built using data from a lab I’ve used a few times in the associated ecology lab. So the students get real data, and get into building the equations. (Here’s the lab: Exploring the Lotka-Volterra Competition Model… ) The students work in small groups, and I can walk around the room and help them work through it. Even with 42, in groups of 3-4, I can visit with every group, and make sure that everyone is staying on task.

wasps (No wasps are used in the problem set. And when they were in the lab, these wasps are smaller than the fruit flies from genetics lab…)

I’ve flipped the classroom. I don’t lecture every day. I can see where students are — and will give them a homework assignment to take home next time to practice yet more. (And the problem set will be fully worked out and shared on D2L later in the week.)

This is possibly the unit that used to cause the most trouble for my students, and it’s now the one that is most predetermined long before I get here. But, more students seem to be understanding the concepts now. Not all — some will skip the homework, or the pre-class work, or class — and those are the ones I can’t help much. Yes, if they come to office hours, I’ll help, but we know they won’t…


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