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 that included biology instructors of many levels. The topic that particular night centered around the very real challenges of addressing the topic of evolution on the ground level in our classrooms – a topic that is likely this challenging only in the United States of today. When Twitter is repurposed away from purely social banter it 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.
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 And really, considering the cost of one outdated paper biology textbook, $199 per year is a rather easy reach.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. In fact, I have still not found a platform that allows full-html replies within threaded discussions. What this means is that the replies to a topic (when done well) can carry even more weight than the original prompt itself. That fact meets many of my instructional goals in that I prefer to empower students to seek their own 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.
At that point the only “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. It was then 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.
I invite you to take a quick look at the resources. In fact, UCMP’s (@ Berkeley) Understanding Evolution is one of the best resources on the topic I’ve used to date. The content here contains some of the only explicitly-guided web “tutorials” that I’ve had kids walk through step by step. Oh, and for those folks stuck on the idea that vetted resources must come from textbooks… think again. Another off the top of my head is “The Arthropod Story.” This little self-paced experience is one that my Zoology students of the 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.
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 now 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 far more apropos to bring the full breadth, depth, and diversity of the globe to what we do.
We hope you’ll join us.