Teaching Genetics/Learning Genetics I - On line courses: The joy of a noisy classroom

The following article is drawn from presentations in the Genetics Education Workshop, facilitated by Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Simon Fraser University) and Vett Lloyd (Dalhousie University) at the 2003 GSC meetings in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The goal of the workshop was to share experiences and explore ideas on teaching genetics. The first portion of the workshop focussed on the value of on-line vs. "live" lectures. While the relative merits of on-line learning have been much discussed, much of the discussion has focused on cost and intellectual property issues ("oh we'll just get some prof's notes, put them on the web and get a TA to mark - it'll be great, really). This has engendered a fairly predictable (and perhaps justifiable) knee-jerk negative reaction from the academic community. In this article we deal with the issue of on-line courses from the point of view of the course instructor. Dave Patriquin is in the Biology Department at Dalhousie and has been teaching third year undergraduate class using an integrated online/class approach since 1998 and is now working on introducing an on-line version of the large introductory biology class.

David Patriquin:
My main interest has been integrating online and classroom work so I don't really view these as alternatives. I'm interested in the challenge and the opportunity provided by the rapid development of web-based venues. Much more content can now be delivered via the web and thereby allow us to make better use of the classroom as an active learning environment. In other words, because we can deliver a lot more stuff via the web we can do different kinds of things in the classroom. For example, we don't need to do most of the scheduling and organisational tasks in the classroom. Recently, I've experimented successfully with that sort of approach in my upper level class. We are make use of the web as an organizational and communication tool, particularly to facilitate student collaboration outside of the classroom. When presented with group projects, students often comment that it is difficult to get together outside of the classroom. Thus I assign classroom time for group work and set up systems that allow students to work collaboratively outside of class times via the web. In turn, the classroom becomes as an active learning venue; people are all there and talking. (Attendance of classes is compulsory. )

In exploring this concept I have come to a couple of conclusions about standard classroom teaching. First of all the idea of giving two or three lectures per week is, I think, based on a nineteenth century or even earlier model. We don't have to do it this way any more and I really don't think we should because the schedule of today's student is so complicated. So for my class I moved from two 1.5 hour classroom sessions per week to one 3 hour session each week. This halves the number of classes, which is a tremendous saving of everybody's time just going back and forth. It's a very simple thing. Second, I use almost all of the time for student based activities. They are organised into groups of 4-6 students and we alternate between factual and concept-oriented sessions and problem-solving sessions. For the former, students are given assigned reading; they write an individual short-answer quiz on the reading at the beginning of class, hand that in and then the group does the quiz, discussing the questions within the group as they do. Then the whole class considers the quiz and discusses the concepts. We operate similarly in the problem-solving sessions. One of the groups reports on the whole process and posts the report on the web for everyone to view. So, that was my initial experience with on-line teaching.

I like interacting with students so I wasn't really interested in totally online classes, however, as the technology improved, I began to see the possibility for totally online classes to be student-friendly and effective. And so I proposed to our department a year ago that we develop online versions of our two introductory biology classes. There were four main reasons for this proposal. Firstly, it was technically feasible. WebCT and similar tools that have now been around for three or four years have improved tremendously and there are many high quality electronic resources available in association with textbooks and on the web. Secondly, the nature of the material is appropriate; the content is well-defined and generic so intellectual ownership issue is less contentious than it might be for a more advanced class. Thirdly, introductory classes in science involve mostly lower order cognitive skills. They are mainly dealing with well-structured problems (as in genetics). Web-based methods have already proved effective for delivering that type of material. The forth rationale is one of accessibility and demand. If students can take one or two classes online, that greatly simplifies their schedule particularly if they can start it at several times throughout the year. That would simplify their life and we felt that there is a demand for that.

Essentially the on-line classes, as we are now designing them, are going to be offered three times a year online. These are highly structured classes. There are weekly lessons with exercises, readings, and mandatory on-line communication. So the flexibility is when in the week they can do it (not what week they can do it). They have to keep up with it. Each group of 20-25 students will be the responsibility of one Teaching Assistant.

So, where do I see this going? My vision is that in the future, in a typical class you would have a core of electronic resources. You could have online "classes" and classroom classes which make use of the same core materials. I am still very much in favour of the classroom experience, but having these options available are good for the student. By making use of this venue, we can do different things in the classroom such as a lot more human interaction for things like problem-solving. It's much more interesting. I like a noisy classroom in which the students are doing the talking; it shows that they are fully engaged in the learning process.