Biology Educators Network Builds Partnership

The need arises

A couple of years ago a few of my digital friends and I brought this space to life: The Synapse. A week later I wrote about it here.  The site derives its origin directly from a frustrating discussion in the Twittersphere between biology instructors of many levels. The topic one particular night centered around the very real challenges of addressing evolution on the ground level in our classrooms – a topic that is this challenging likely only in the United States of today. Twitter repurposed away from purely social banter is a fantastic way for professionals to connect and share resources. However, the 140 character limit falls terribly short for the sort of deep back and forth required for anything as rigorous as what we were discussing that night.

On that day, it was decided that we needed a central place to meet, share, and support one another from afar. We needed a place for busy professionals to meet asynchronously and discuss strategies to become better at what we do on a daily basis. During winter break that year, I sat down and established the roots of The Synapse. The design now needs a clean refresh in my opinion, but hey, it was custom and “ours” for the time being.

The Synapse

Ning in education

Enter the Ning debacle that left educator-created networks in a very uncertain place: a switch in business model (read: the need to find a business model) meant that free now meant freemium and anything above the bare essentials would now come at a cost for educators — even with Pearson’s general sponsorship. Unlike many, this didn’t come as a shock to me. And really, considering the cost of one outdated paper biology textbook, $199 per year is a rather easy reach.

I still love the features of this platform. I have still not found a single platform that allows full html replies within threaded discussions. What this means is that the replies to a topic (when done well) carry more weight than the original prompt itself. This fact meets many of my instructional goals in that my words are meant more to empower students to seek resources in building their own understandings and those of their classmates. It’s a small thing technically, but a big one in terms of learning. I still maintain a network there for my Marine Biology classroom, as well as one for our entire district.

Enter: Biocollage

The problem with The Synapse was that it was a true collaboration of weak ties from across the country and beyond. It seems odd to associate any of that with a problem, but I digress. The bottom line: who was going to foot the bill? None of the collaborators could pay for the site from their own budgets or pockets. At one point, I wondered if we’d just fade away and move to other avenues of sharing. At that point I thought it might be worth a shot to just ask. I crafted a letter describing the situation and tossed it out to what I saw were the dominant supporters of biology education in America. Synapse member Susan Musante, Education Programs Manager at AIBS responded and what follows here is the rest of the story. Or rather, the beginning of the next phase of the story…


If you are a biology teacher, you owe it to yourself to be aware of the work done by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), and the University of California’s Museum of Paleontology (UCMP). All three in collaboration offer some of the best resources for biology teachers to be found. BioCollage is now the synthesis of the three organizations. If these were the first three batters in the lineup of a biology teacher’s arsenal, the need for a steroid-pumping cleanup hitter would be lessened. Or something like that.

In fact, UCMP’s (@ Berkeley) Understanding Evolution is one of the best resources on the topic I’ve ever used to date. The content here contains some of the only web “tutorials” that I’ve had kids walk through step by step. For those folks stuck on the idea that vetted resources must come from textbooks…  think again. One I remember off the top of my head is “The Arthropod Story.” This little self-paced experience is one that my zoology students of day past found more than useful. Fast forward to today, and if bedbugs have got you down, check out this page from September 2010 on the topic. An evolutionary perspective on this issue will help to bring sense to the media mayhem.

The Arthropod Story

The future

Whatever the future of this collaboration may bring, we can be more than happy to be holding hands virtually with BioCollage. In fact, I’m more excited than ever about The Synapse.  Even though my day to day work has changed since that initial creation, one truth still remains: building a district-level site for biology collaboration didn’t make sense when available digital tools had essentially collapsed space and time. I thought it more apropos to bring the full diversity of the globe to what we do.

We hope you’ll join us.


Collaborative social media: How do you do business?

Shifting practices

Not long ago, the MS Office suite comprised the bulk of computer applications in the world of mainstream business.  I have to admit that as a career biology educator and instructional coach, I have precious little knowledge of the “real” business world.  That said, this past year I have found my work overlapping many trends in business as I explore the efficacy of collaborative online applications in education.  I am deeply interested in them as a framework for professional development as well as for classroom utilization.

“Yeah, but mainstream businesses aren’t using the Web 2.0 stuff…  those are mostly a few cutting edge companies with money to burn.”

How much more “mainstream” can you get than Best BuyWill Richardson pointed to the above video a couple of days back on Twitter, and I have held that browser window open since that time.  I really enjoy some of the language found within.  For example, one gentleman interviewed said that Web 2.0 applications allow the workforce to “…try a lot of different things, fail really fast, and then try things again.”  I dig that attitude in almost any endeavor.  To me it is pretty clear that being fearless and willing to innovate is a big plus in much of the business world as well as in education.  I also like the fact that another interviewee listed the following things as benefits to social media applications being implemented within the company structure:

  • better loyalty
  • less office politics
  • ability to meet other individuals passionate about the same things
  • ability to stretch an idea across an entire organization

fail gloriously

Shifting schools

Now which of those things is not good as well for a school faculty?  Of course blind loyalty leads often to the Abilene Paradox, and this is never a good thing.  However, other than that, I’m betting that this list of four things is something all school administrators and staff would value in their world as well.

Those four items, as well as a few others, are a target of our school’s shiny new social network- Virtual Southside.  This site was piloted by a cohort of 20 teachers and administrators at Benton High this year in the midst of an academic technology integration program.  Starting next year, with our entire staff online in the program, this site will be a major part of how we conduct asynchronous staff professional development.  Today I interviewed several cohort members about the benefits of working within our social network this past school year.  A short list of their replies about our foray into social media is as follows:

  • develop general comfort with social media
  • ability to collaborate asynchronously
  • differentiated professional development
  • makes all staff a “professional developer”
  • makes professional work transparent
  • allows feedback from a wider dynamic of personalities
  • provides an archival record
  • creates an avenue for extrinsic motivation

virtual southside

Nearing the end of our first year employing social media in our school and in our classrooms, I am excited to see some of the benefits rolling in.  In my opinion, the featured video showing similar strategies in a mainstream business model provides another interesting nod to the value of utilizing these strategies with our teachers and students as well.  Are collaborative social tools being used currently where you work?  What role do you see for social media in our schools and with our students?

Artwork thanks:

*Thanks to Stephen Collins for the “fail gloriously” slide image.

Connecting Biology Educators Worldwide

I have a brand-spanking new site to share with you and your colleagues who might teach biology/life science. The new site is a worldwide professional network I created with the help of five super collaborators from across the country. This new public network is called: The Synapse.

header for: The Synapse

For my non biology-geek readers (the majority) please allow a quick define of both a synapse and the site itself:

A SYNAPSE is a minute gap between nerve cells which transmits crucial information through the nervous system. The goal of this network is to perform a similar “synaptic” function between biology instructors of all levels and locations.

The Synapse is a science content-focused site on the Ning platform. Though it is managed by six people who are all relatively well versed in educational technology, it is not the primary focus of the network. It was designed primarily as a site for life science educators to connect with others without any geographical barriers.  In fact, the site owes its origin directly from a frustrating discussion in the Twittersphere between biology instructors of many levels.  On that day, it was decided that we needed a central place to meet, share and support one another from afar.

“What’s in it for me?”

Here, teachers can sign in to create a free profile to begin commenting, sharing, etc.  The Synapse is a professional social network that features a discussion forum, blogs, event listings, images, videos, chat, etc. This is a perfect place to troll for ideas on an upcoming unit, a new strategy or approach you’d like to attempt in the classroom, etc. On The Synapse, teachers can log requests for ideas, tips or suggestions for teaching those most challenging topics or using new strategies. Teachers will also notice the ability to join or form their own subgroups within the network based on region, content focus, instructional strategy, etc.

Admins of The Synapse

The facilitators of this network represent different regions across the country, varying grade levels, varying approaches, varying years of experience.  In fact, diversity within the network will certainly grow quickly even more over time. As this new network begins to expand, the power of numbers will work to produce results in an even more timely fashion.  I look forward here to what James Surowiecki quite simply called The Wisdom of Crowds.”

The real potential beauty of this network is its goal of decentralized intelligence. Online social networks such as this one harness the power of asynchronous communication to allow teachers to collaborate when and where possible within our increasingly busy lives.  Sure, your brain has a ton of neurons…  on the order of about 10 billion.  However, it also contains around 100 billion synapses.  That is, connections between neurons.  It could thus be said that the connections between these brain cells are in some ways a larger factor than the brain cells themselves.  Play that metaphor out in terms of this project.  The connections we make here are potentially larger than any of us as individuals.

Sign in

The first step is to join. The second: poke around. See what this site can do for you as a teacher who is constantly looking to improve his or her practice. The final step: share. If everyone adds that minimum of one or two special things they have to share, this site will quickly be a huge part of your personal learning network.  In fact, in the words of Dr. Geoffrey Hinton:

Learning occurs as a result of changing the effectiveness of synapses so that their influence on other neurons also changes… Learning is a function of the effectiveness of synapses to propagate signals and initiate new signals along connecting neurons. Learning and experience change the structure of the neural networks. (Geoffrey Hinton, “How Neural Networks Learn from Experience,” Scientific American, 267:3, September 1992, 145.)

Experience affects efficacy when it comes to your brain.  Aren’t we magnificently plastic creatures?  (Check out the related discussion between Dr. Doyle & I on this post.)  The fact that you could alter the structure (and thus the function) of the only brain you’ll likely ever own, is a really powerful idea.  So what on Earth are you waiting for?  Jump in.  Become one of the collaborators (neurotransmitters) within this newly-forming network.  If you aren’t one who teaches life science…  forward this post to a colleague who does.  They might just thank you.

Outpost Motel

So welcome to another outpost on the rapidly expanding web that potentially connects professional educators worldwide. With a bit of help, this tiny outpost could turn into a metropolis. We think the infrastructure is ready. What do you think?

Artwork thanks:

Outpost Motel” by Allen “Roadsidepictures” on Flickr.
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Give Slideshare a Chance to Transform

What is Slideshare?
OK, allow me to say in advance: this tool has far more potential than you will even realize at first.
Give this one a chance:
Here is an example of what this can embed directly into your network, blog, wiki, etc…

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: symbiosis commensalism)

Ewwww…. he said PowerPoint
Slideshow software almost has an “evil” connotation in the world of K-12 education right now… not to mention within many communities just beginning a study of constructivism. However, this is certainly a perfect case of where the TOOL isn’t a bad thing… but sloppy or lazy USE of the tool is a bad thing.

For some, PowerPoint became an easy way to slap one’s yellowed overhead “notes” into a digital media and call it “progress.” Careful use of presentation software to enhance and inspire discussion, debate and visualization is impressive. I believe it is something worth studying in much more depth. If PPT is boring… then it is because it is being used for little more than to lay a ton of text on sitting children who are being expected to receive information from a talking head.

With slideshare, you can also allow full-size downloads of .ppt or .pdf slideshows, you can publish to the planet, restrict access to a certain contact list, or restrict usage of a presentation to only yourself. With slideshare, you could potentially not even drag a laptop to a remote presentation (though I cannot imagine no backup strategy).

Flipping the classroom
Check out this example (from The Fischbowl) of how archiving lectures allows these chemistry teachers to turn their daily in-class sessions into chemistry workshops. There is a sample screencast from an Arapahoe HS chemistry class embedded within this blog post as well.

Chemistry workshops. That idea won’t sound bad to any science teacher. It sounds… natural. It sort of rolls off the tongue. It also sounds scary, because it means shifting the focus of the classroom environment from you- the teacher, to your students- the learners.

But Fear is Fun
The ideas presented in this blog post are so exciting to me. Think about it- flip your use of slideshow technology. Post your lectures, screencasts, podcasts… assign those for homework. Allow class time for exploration, extension, remediation, and correction of misconception. Think about how much more you would have to figure out formative assessment strategies. Think about how much more dynamic your classroom could be. Take a baby step. Try it once. Tell us about it. I dare you.

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The New C0LL4B0R4710|\|

Professional conferences have always brought opportunities for networking. To those taking the initiative they also provide a hotbed for potential collaboration with peers near and far. However, for me, NECC 2008 represents the leading edge of the new world of digital networking made feasible by free Web 2.0 tools.

Already, I have met two dynamic people from two very different parts of the world and who live and work in very different environments, and yet we three are united in the communication and collaboration technologies made possible by the digital age. Huzefa Dossaji is a new teacher in Louisiana who hails originally from Kenya. His “how I became a teacher” story is quite worth hearing. In the few years of his former profession as a pharmacist, he became frustrated at the level of “pill dispensing” (as he put it) he was doing on a regular basis.

His life change came in the wake of the damage wrought by hurricane Katrina. The area is badly in need of teachers. In response to the situation, several initiatives have been launched to allow professionals to gain alternative certifications in education. This is what pulled Huzefa out of the white coat and into the classroom. I was fascinated with his stories of showing up at the school, his own laptop in hand, and “requiring” a digital projection in order to teach science. We shared tons of common ground about how students can and will learn science. The commons threads of common sense in science education that joined a teacher of sixteen years and a new convert without formal training, were inspiring. We are now connected for future communication via text message on phone, via e-mail as well as the connections of

My second connection was made with Amanda Rablin, who currently works as the Education Officer of Learning Management for Brisbane Catholic Education, supporting e-learning initiatives across its 132 schools. While wearing another hat, she serves schools and teachers across the whole of Queensland. While sitting in the back of a workshop connecting TPCK to the NETS standards, we were first joined by the electrical power made available by the only public outlet in the conference room. While sitting side by side, we quickly realized that we were not only using the same laptop, but in much the same way. After we both tossed back and forth between a dozen open windows, tab after tab, made posts to twitter, clicked key to post in blogs, I couldn’t help but laugh quietly at what was a common workflow by two people from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean.

During the workshop -with brains in full parallel-processing mode- we shared: two very cool Facebook apps., twitter account names, blog addresses, became “friends” on favorite sites, career commonalities, and even cellphone images:

Amanda shared what I think is a fantastic publication she authored on “learning landscapes” which is a really cool discussion-stirring piece on imagining and exploring learning in the 21st century. I am excited to share this resources with not only my tech integration cohort but my instructional coaching family as well.

I am now connected with like-minded people who have helped me put a face on the world of new digital learning as it appears outside of little ol’ Saint Joseph, Missouri.