Learning and Teaching in the Sciences (conference report, part 3)

The fact that you are reading this blog entry at all means that you are already engaging with Web 2.0, which has been defined on Wikipedia as “a perceived second-generation of Web-based services such as social networking sites, wikis, communication tools, and folksonomies that emphasize online collaboration and sharing among users”.  In the third talk at the University of Leicester Learning and Teaching in the Sciences conference on 23rd May 2007, Alan Cann raised the potential impact of Web 2.0 technologies in science teaching.

Dr Cann began with the definition of Web 2.0 given in the previous paragraph, and illustrated how broadly we have come to accept interactive aspects of the web with reference to Amazon.  Ostensibly an online shop, Amazon offers us the opportunity to review the goods on sale, even allowing us to give critical reports.  Similarly, we are invited to rate the performance of sellers for whom Amazon has acted as middleman.

Alan highlighted the fact that, when asked to write an essay, the default strategy of today’s student is to turn to Google and Wikipedia.  We may not like it, but this does not change the reality and, setting the pattern that was to run throughout his presentation, Dr Cann challenged us to think about ways that we can work with and develop the students’ study habits rather than fighting against them.  So, for example, we should teach students how to use Google more effectively to obtain the best quality information, rather than simply chastising them for using such a shoddy tool and brow-beating them into using the ‘proper’ searches.  This does not mean that we abandon training sessions on PubMed, Web of Science and the like, far from it.  We start with Google and move on to the more professional tools as an extension of good practice.

Against that backdrop, what is the place of wikis, blogs, podcasts and the like in the teaching of science? Alan suggested that, used appropriately, these Web 2.0 technologies can be particularly helpful in engaging the ‘long-tail’ of less able and less motivated students who do not respond well to the traditional approaches.  Clearly we need to adapt our writing style to be appropriate to the medium – the academic journal genre is not appropriate for blog entries which must be more bitesized and engaging.

What about podcasts and ‘viral’ video?  Dr Cann shared some insights from his personal experience and research projects conducted over the previous couple of years.  Alan has been developing blogs, podcasts and online video for the public understanding of science (specifically microbiology), for using in teaching statistics to first year undergraduates at the University of Leicester, and to share his virtual frogroom with fellow tropical frog enthusiasts. In doing so he has gathered both statistical data and qualitative comments from users concerning the relative merits of different approaches.  His observations included:
(1) A general dislike for the ‘push’ model of subscription via RSS feed, people prefer to ‘pull’ material to their computer as and when it looks of interest to them.
(2) Students are happy to listen to ‘work’-related podcasts on their computer, but reserve use of their mp3 player for ‘entertainment’.
(3) More students watch online videos via YouTube, and the like, than listen to podcasts.

Dr Cann finished by reiterating the point that this is not a call to ‘dumbing down’ and that the intention was to offer Web 2.0 resources to students in addition to traditional approaches.  The materials produced must remain academically robust, but should be offered in a format that is comfortable and familiar for 21st Century undergraduates.

1 Comment

  1. […] talks at the Learning and Teaching in the Sciences conference, by Norman Reid and by Alan Cann,  are discussed elsewhere on this […]

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