Online Learning Networks in Science – An Interview

In keeping with the concept of using this blog as not only a synthesis of what I think, but also of what I do, I add this post. Last week I recorded a telephone interview with the folks at natureEDUCATION on the topic of online learning networks in science education. The time I spent on the phone with Ilona Miko, Senior Scientific Editor for Life Sciences, made me realize why it is that she is doing the podcast and I typically stick to the printed (digitally) word. She’s a pro from the word go.

You wouldn’t think I have a fear of publishing or sharing in any way. And yet, I’ve always had a distaste for the sound of my own voice. I cherish real human communication. I thrive on face to face chats…  even virtual versions via Skype, etc. However, hearing a recorded version of my voice always reminds of of Kermit the frog with laryngitis. Perhaps even share-junkies have their Achilles heel. Now that I think about it, considering my avatar, some of you might even see the first image of my mug where I appear sane.

Nature EdCast

Scitable is an open online collaborative learning space within the nature publishing group. If you are a science teacher, or you know one, you’d be doing a favor by forwarding the link to a friend or colleague. NatureEdCast is a podcast featuring some interesting folks from many perspectives.  If you get a chance, check out some of the previous twelve episodes here.  I’m honored to have been selected to share a few minutes on this program. I think I sound like I’m having a phone conversation (complete with near giggles a couple of times), but hey… I guess I actually was. By the end I think we hit on some issues that are important to the world of education, and even science education in particular.  See what you think.

If I had to pick the one thing from the episode I’m most proud of, it would be the fact that although the title features the text “Online Learning Networks,” a significant portion of the program is about students being outdoors, on-site, in nature, and learning with all five senses. Living online is not my style. I’d never want to build a name for that. Although, if done well, extending our classrooms through space and time into the digital world can enhance learning for all students. For that, I’ll sign my name.


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.


When The Classroom Lacks Walls

How do you see to it that your classroom studies are authentic?  I’m a fan of immersion.  For the past decade my Midwestern Marine Biology class has included a week long field study to the coral reefs and mangrove communities of either The Bahamas or the Florida Keys.  This field study is conducted with chartered sailing yachts as a base of operations.  This allows the maximum amount of time on and in the water.  Many of my students make their first trip to any ocean as a member of this class.  In fact, many over the years have even made their first trip aboard an airplane as a result of this study.  Whether or not they move on to study marine biology as a career, as surprisingly large percentage actually do, there’s no doubt that building rich background knowledge about the world in which we live is an overall win.

If you choose to view this set of 270 photos via the slideshow above, be sure to select the “full screen” option.  However, if you want the full educational perspective, go back to view the images as they appear on the Flickr set itself.  Here, you will find rather involved descriptions and discussions about the content contained in many of the images.  Many of these photos will serve as open starting points for further connections with the community of marine biologists who can continue to inform our inquiries.  You’ll find images of organisms rarely photographed as well as discussions of questionable identifications for further study.

For the past ten years we have journeyed to the Andros Bank/barrier reef off the Eastern coast of Andros Island in The Bahamas.  Image sets from our previous two field experiences can also be found on Flickr here and here.  For many reasons, we switched our study site to that of the reefs and mangrove communities of the Florida Keys reef tract.  This switch instantly provided the ability to make direct comparisons of these two areas.  While the coral communities of the Florida Keys are no doubt less pristine than those of the Andros reef, there is still a wealth of life to study.  In fact, for a course of this nature we were able to observe equally as many elements of these amazing communities in Florida.  Furthermore… since every day on the ocean is different, we were lucky this year to be in the midst of several localized blooms of organisms we were never able to encounter in The Bahamas.  We swam with gangs of By-The-Wind Sailors and dodged many a Portuguese Man o’ War.

Lauren collects reef fish species data

If it were feasible, I dream of a course like this where students begin a year of study with a field experience like this one…  then spend a year studying, only to return to the reef in the Spring to make connections, etc.  Though perhaps not economically feasible, I’ve learned enough in the past 18 years of classroom education to know that when I allow students to make connections first… before I ever open my big mouth…  that engagement and understanding ultimately emerge.  There is no doubt that a second visit to such an overwhelmingly busy and vibrant ecosystem would allow a clarity of understanding unlike what we are currently able to do.  Always asking for more, aren’t I?  To tell the truth, my students and I are more than fortunate to be a part of a school district that values risk-taking and innovation whenever possible.  In today’s educational environment, this is far…  far from the norm.  For without this support, we’d still be learning marine biology secondhand from Missouri.  In my mind, I am constantly imagining ways to make all courses of study include a live component where learning about real life by proxy is a thing of the past.

SaintJoe H2O

For more on this program, check out our classroom network on the Ning platform.  Much has been said of Ning’s recent move away from providing totally free networks.  One thing I can say for certain from where I sit today is that whatever the cost (within reason) I’ll pay to keep this network alive.  We have reaped countless benefits from the collaborative environment it provides in a very open way.  We gain from sharing our work publicly for a real audience.  We gain from the ability to easily aggregate all of the things we bring in to examine… and all of the things we continue to create.  But most of all, we gain from the ability to create a seamless and persistent network of people from student to former student, from expert to author, in facilitation of our learning.  In short, our students never leave us.  Several of our former students now working in or finishing up PhD work in the field stop by to share what they are doing and check up on the latest in our world.  There is continuing authentic value in that.  I’ll pay for that with pleasure.  In fact, I’m betting that I’ll be able to pay for that for less than the cost of a single textbook per year.


The Extended Value of Classroom Networks


An interesting thing happened on the way home from Educon 2.2 last Sunday night.  Walking through the terminal and against my exhaustion, I reflexively checked my mail.  Lazy eyes lifted open, I flicked my thumb scrolling… trolling for a demand of action.   I’m hyper-connected.  I pay for it.  And yet, I’m a better teacher and leader because of it.  Cutting to the chase, here is the simple, yet interesting email I received:

self-sustaining networks


Here are the things you must know/appreciate/love about the aforementioned interaction…

  • Principles of Biology is the learning network we continue to create within our class on the Ning platform.  Begun only last year, I believe it really is a solid example of open student discourse in a core content area.
  • Kristen Sheehan is no longer a student at Benton High School.  Although she has graduated and moved on to the University world…  she remains a member of our network.
  • What is Life?” was a rather intense classroom discussion back near the beginning of this school year that continued in our online space.
  • Kristen courteously informs and carefully cites the original work.

Here is one explicit snippet providing a specific example of continued value added to the lives of our students.  Here, a former student used a current student’s online reflection as an opinion-based piece in her current English studies at the university level.  That is a pretty obvious sign that work done in this educational network is of continued value beyond the initial grade earned for the work.  If that isn’t an indicator of the continued educational value of a network then I don’t know what is.

It’s certainly not the first time we have collected evidence of this kind from our work done online.  In this network, as well as our Marine Biology network (implemented rather differently), former students often stop in to add something significant they run across in their lives after our time together in the classroom.  This might be to share an interesting experience, reflection, testimonial, news story, image, video, or webpage.  It might be to share good fortune, changes or advances in educational plans, or to announce landing a new job. Or perhaps you’re just planning to live-blog the hurricane that smashed your campus- causing you to live inland in Texas to finish out the year.  And really, these are just the public communications.  Many folks are more shy about their comings and goings after school, and send only direct messages…  and this of course is very cool as well.

PhotonQ-Woman 's Thoughts aKa Complex Memetics


I always wonder how often these former students just browse on in to do some version of a “virtual walkthrough” to see what sorts of new things are shaking in an environment they were once part of.  I wonder if those that do so actually realize that they too are still an element of our learning environment?  I wonder how I can further facilitate what is already happening organically as a result of these networks.

I try to remind myself to see examples like this one as starting points to build upon…  as opposed to merely “evidence of prior good.”  Thoughts?


*”PhotonQ-Woman ‘s Thoughts aKa Complex Memetics” by PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE on Flickr
*My personal iPhone screenshot.  You know it’s art.  Come on…


From Day One: Information Literacy In Core Content

Establishing tone

I believe information literacy is the responsibility of all content teachers.  The following piece is a bit about how I tend to kick off a new year, and how to easily aim at info literacy from very early on.  As I have said here before, I do not like to go shy into the new school year.  Our students are learning from us every second of every day.  The real question then is what are they learning.  As the lead learners in the classroom, this is under our control.


With this in mind, it is my goal to have my students leave the room on that first day with a few things spinning around in their heads like…

1.  “Wow. This class is active.  I was working with ideas and classmates the entire period.”

2.  “This guy means business.  He is infectiously passionate and serious about this class, and yet has room for humor within all of the intensity.”

3.  “He seems to have a longview for us in the class.  I can tell he has plans for us and cares that we are “in” as much as he is.”

4.  “I might be headed for a music major in college next year, and this will likely be my last formal science course, but I am actually thinking this class might be built with people like me (as well as the biology geeks) in mind.”

5.  “I had better get used to sharing my learning.  This class is open.  I will certainly have to step out of my comfort zone a little on this one.”

6.  “Not sure how I feel about construc…. whatever he called it…  but if it means I won’t have to sit while he talks all period, then I’m for it.”

I obviously believe in creating the ultimate mental model, and then working from there with my planning framed by those ideals.  This year we started the school year with built-in early release days and short periods.  Last Wednesday was our first full period of instruction.  I just don’t believe that on that first day you can just go gently into your course.  It is my philosophy to swing hard from day one.

So how can you teach your students who you are, what to expect, what you stand for, what and how they’ll be learning during the year…  all in one day?  As usual, I’m still debriefing the success of this one lesson, but I do believe that all of this is possible.  Stick with me on this one.  Here in a bit, I’ll ask you to help me assess some of this by scanning through the pages of online student writing about this lesson.  Here’s a small sample as a preview:

I believe this type of learning is important… the activity split up our class in two sections making each side work together in a very short amount of time. This helps build chemistry between everyone in our class which I believe is very important since we’ll be around each other for a whole year. It was also important, because it made all of us think and learn about a topic we most likely hadn’t heard anything about. Science has a lot to do with the unknown and I believe this issue on shark cartilage really challenged us on something we had no clue about. We had to work to decide whether or not the shark cartilage was effective and for that matter whether or not the information we were given was reliable.” ~Kerstyn Bolton

Day one

I don’t do stand-alone “ice breakers” any longer.  That’s not a criticism of those who do, but in my thinking that says to the students:  “we had to construct a special event outside of our normal work in this class in order to talk to and learn about one another.”  I design my first day to be authentic collaboration and sharing among students where classmates must rely on one another to complete a content-related task, or solve a content-related problem.

My learning goals for the day were rather broad.  It was day one.  They were as follows:   1. Setting classroom tone.  2. Building the foundation of a learning environment.  3. Proving the concrete, daily value of science.  4. Team-building.  5.  Evaluating and debating a scientific assertion in the field of medicine.  6.  Establishing an academic spirit for our first online work at Principles of Biology.

Principles of Biology

Shark cartilage?

So, to trim down a rather complex story…  We divided into two large groups (10 students each side) to examine the idea that shark cartilage supplements can be used as a safe and effective treatment for some types of cancer.  This is fringe alternative-medicine stuff.  There is a ton of web chatter on both sides of this issue.  Though the medical community is rather aligned on this issue, as with any “natural” treatment, there are many proponents on the fringes.  The data found on the web is, in short, a big area of gray to most people.

The information on this issue is all over the board.  There are a few freely accessible journal articles on the web, there are terribly crackpot e-commerce sites, and there are hundreds of examples in the gray area between the two.  Because I had to have a brisk pace to finish in one period, I constructed two packets… one for each group.  One group of ten got a packet full of public websites representing the “for” side of using shark cartilage supplements as a treatment for cancer.  The other group of ten were given a packet representing sites that represented the “against” side of the issue.

shark cartilage

With no formal instruction on argument nor debate, the students were led through a protocol to digest the content of the packet in short order and prepare a speedy argument aligned with their given viewpoint.  I led them through a series of skimming, compiling, active reading, and sharing tasks to help them build structure for an argument in about 20 minutes.  Considering this was a group of ten working with a subject they knew nothing about, that is saying something.  The action was fast and furious.  Frankly, they ended up engaging in a better debate than I had even anticipated.  Battles over sources cited and inherent biases came out without being prompted.

“I LOVED learning like this because I think it gave everyone a chance to teach everyone else.” ~Hannah Rush

Ultimately, they were to take their thoughts from the day and reflect on both the content learning as well as the process of the day’s learning events.  To me, I never go a day without sharing the strategic purpose for that particular event.  If I don’t have a best-practice reason for doing what I’m doing the way I’m doing it…   then I (and they by default) would quite possibly be wasting time.  This keeps us all on our toes and makes the “game of school” completely transparent within my class.

So let’s see where the rubber meets to road on this one.  If you haven’t been tempted to click through to the discussion thread on this already, please do so now.  I think you’ll be pleasantly impressed by the willingness to dive head first into this one and really discuss the issues.  As of this morning, there are seven pages of student discourse.  I think you’ll appreciate this look into how students approach the task of reflecting deeply over their learning in this class.

“I really thought what you said about “You learn only 10% of what you read, but you learn 95% of what you teach” was very interesting…  …This makes our activity in class so much more exciting to me! I remember a lot of what my section said about shark cartilage and that’s because I had to, because my team needed me…” ~Kerstyn Bolton

My LMS can beat up your LMS

Not only should information literacy not be an add-on, nor should your Library Media Specialist.  At Benton, we are undergoing a true paradigm shift in library media services.  By hiring Melissa Corey, we have in the span of a summer updated our services to bring the library’s digital tendrils into every classroom in our building.  Last year, the physical space of our library was scrapped for a full redo to bring it up to date as a learning space for 2010.  This year, we have the personnel to put the plan into action.

As this lesson was unfolding, I realized that I was setting up our new Library Media Specialist to fly in the next period, cape and all, to deliver the way to a more rigorous online research process.  What I didn’t know is how personalized this service would be.  Boy-  were we in for a surprise.  For starters, here is the slide show she used to help deliver our learning for the day:

What is amazing about this interaction was not the beautiful and informative slide set, nor her thoughtful and pleasant presentation.  What was inspiring is the fact that she stayed up the night before to craft an absolutely perfect example of “just in time learning” for my students.  Slides 4 through 7 show screenshot examples of the actual resources the students had used in this exercise on page after page of our discussion thread.  These resources are marked up and annotated with questions aimed at the authority, accuracy, currency and content of the piece.

The students were then led through a lesson on the peer review process as well as online database searches through peer reviewed material.  They were then to go back to the same thread and post some follow-up commentary after this latest search experience.

Extensions and infiltrations

As if polishing our lesson to a fine shine were not enough, Mrs. Corey (who as “BHS LMC” is a direct member of our classroom network) also took the time to post follow up connections and extensions to the lesson in the form of a blog post.  She also took a spontaneous conversation from our day…  discussion about a group of crows that were supposedly using cars to crack nuts… and created a completely separate extension in the form of a media-rich blog post (along the lines of info literacy in science) for our network.

screenshot from biology network

I cannot tell you how exciting it is to have such a partner in crime in my own building.  Forget the archetypal image of a librarian still etched into your brain.  Rather than archiving books and telling students to “shuuush,” my LMS is deeply passionate about pushing out into classrooms to help our students find, evaluate, and manage information in all subject areas.  My students now not only feel like they can walk to the library to visit our new librarian for help…  they know that within a single click on our classroom network, they can tap our building’s very own information specialist.  Did I mention the fact that she’s been working with students and staff here not for just two weeks?

Our “library” was until very recently defined as a “remodeled room in the annex… with books.”  The following image now better represents the effective size of our LMC:

Benton High School  --  CLOSE

Pretty stately-looking library for a public school, eh?  In reality though, like anything really useful…  it is becoming invisible.  Our media center and staff are now as ubiquitous as our student laptops.  Once they begin to follow our students home, we will extend the reach of our learning environment even further…


*Lattice by Todd Huffman on Flickr.
*Shark cartilage image courtesy of The Vet Shed.  Apparently, dogs eat this stuff.
*Image of Benton High School:  me.
*Student comments (featuring Kerstyn & Hannah) courtesy of our class network.
*The collaboration of Melissa Corey, LMS at Benton High School, in Saint Joseph Missouri.