Online Biology Class – Update #1

This year, for the first time, I’m running a biology class with no physical classroom, and no place in the school timetable.  See also this this earlier post.  The students meet with me online, at mutually suitable times in the evening using a 25 seat Elluminate room and we have a website at Squarespace where we share asynchronously on a group discussion forum.  Each student also has a jounal on the Squarespace site, and there is a calendar, file storage, and various other features.

This is a bit of an experiment, that I feel fortunate to be allowed, and funded to conduct. My intuition tells me that the students who are in this class, will do as well as those who study in traditional biology classes (that’s my hope, at least).  If that is so, then it will make online classrooms a viable option for students in any school – not just a fallback for students in remote locations.

So far, I have been very pleased with how the class has been running. Below, is a short list of some of the impressions and experiences that have surfaced so far, grouped into benefits and challenges but in no particular order within those groups.

The Benefits

  • The students are very enthusiastic – passionate even, in their feelings about how the class compares to their traditional classes.  (see image below, of a post-it note left on my desk by my school principal.)
  • All our meetings are recorded for us – so if a student doesn’t understand something we talk about s/he can go back later and “re-live” that part of the class – something that is not practicable in a traditional class (without quite a bit of extra effort to arrange).

  • Elluminate works really well.  We have had very few technical problems.  It launches quickly and has been surprisingly reliable.  (for some reason launching it at school takes a long time – but at home – where we use it – it is very quick).
  • Elluminate is a much more capable application than I had previously realised.  I am constantly finding new things we can do with it.  For example, I hadn’t previously realised that I can show ANY application on my computer to my students, via Elluminate’s “Application Sharing” feature.
  • Teaching this way de-specifies our work hours. I teach a few hours online in the evening, but I often go home at lunchtime on Friday (in lieu of that time) to have lunch with my wife, or to go shopping.
  • If we get through a class in less than our planned time, we don’t have to work till the end of the period  – we can just finish early.  Likewise if we move slower than expected, we don’t have to finish on time – because after all, students don’t need to get to another class.
  • We can teach and learn wherever we happen to be.  Tonight, for example, I’ll be in a hotel room in Melbourne in readiness for my keynote at the VALA conference tomorrow.  But I will still conduct my biology class right from the comfort of my hotel room.
  • My impression is that teaching this way is more (not less) interactive than a traditional class.  For example:
    • Everyone can draw on the screen simultaneously… which is much more interactive than an IWB. (see image and caption below).
    • There is a built in Multiple-Choice and True/False polling tool – dispensing with the need for an expensive student response system (SRS).
    • The live Chat window acts as a backchannel – providing all the benefits of a backchannel that I have tried to incorporate into my traditional classes using such tools as Today’sMeet.  So even when I am explaining something – students can be asking and answering each other’s questions in the chat window… and I can see what is being said, conveniently on my screen.
    • In these days when everyone is feeling the need for a 1:1 laptop program – this class IS already 1:1 – because they are all sitting at a computer already – even though it may be an old desktop computer in Dad’s study and not a late model laptop.

Students all pointing (with "laser pointers" - see various red dots) at named structures in a cell.

The Challenges

  • One night, there was a storm, and some of our students could not get Internet access … although the other day there was a storm and students were told to stay home from “real” school as well.   But still, the point is that occasionally one or more students will experience Internet issues, which is inevitable.  But if they miss part of a lesson as a result at least it’s recorded.
  • We found that if more than two people are using their microphone at a time (Elluminate will allow six simultaneous speakers) they really need to be wearing a headset (headphones and microphone).
  • Unless everyone has fast Internet, things slow down if everyone turns on their webcam at once.  It works fairly well though with a small number of webcams.  But after initial introductions, we have found that we tend to just turn the webcams off, unless I need to show them something, or use hand gestures in an explanation.  Turning one’s webcam on or off  is as simple as a mouse-click.
  • Not being able to see each other all the time or move around the room using body language, requires a new skill set – and a different teaching style, on the part of a teacher. I am getting better at it, though.
  • Preparation (on my part) needs to be more thorough, and is a little more time consuming than for a traditional class – although I am becoming more expedient in that as well – as I discover more efficient ways of doing things.

Thanks for following this experiment.  I’ll continue to report on it as the year progresses.

12 thoughts on “Online Biology Class – Update #1

  1. Thanks for this Andrew. You continue to be a go to guy for new ideas and ways of approaching education.

  2. Hi Andrew,
    This is an amazing and inspirational project. Your a great innovator in education in the 21st century. I contacted you a year or so ago after I attended one of your pd’s and talked to you about a homework program I was doing with my grade 6 students on msn. I am now teaching VCE Biology and thoroughly enjoying it. It would be great to see one of your lessons in action to get an idea of how I could incorporate something like this even for extra study before exams etc.
    Keep up the great work.

  3. What about labs? Have you found “virtual” replacements? It’s hard to imagine a biology class without a lab component. I’m curious to hear how you’ve addressed this?

  4. NG – good question 🙂 We are still feeling our way a little but for the labs so far, students have needed to come into the school to complete the exercise. This will happen several times a semester. We had one such time last week. We simply arranged a time in an evening, when I opened the lab, and students came in for that session. I think there will be some kinds of labs that we will be able to replace with virtual alternatives – but the research from the USA also indicates that online classes are most effective when students meet together (and with their teacher) sometimes. So I think there is benefit in doing those practical sessions in the lab. Thanks for your question.

  5. As an ex-biol teacher, now librarian cumjack-of-all-trades, I salute you!!! I think it is an eminently do-able thing to run an online biol course. These days we can do it with panache!! There is so much out there to utilize. Look forward to seeing how things go for you and your students.

  6. Hi Douchy:

    This is very exciting to hear about. I wonder what the students results will be like. I teach Chemistry and wonder how we can use this in such a class setting. So, for pracs or SACS, do you set a time when the students come in and do the experiments? Just curious. I would feel comfortable having a set time online with the students but still have classes at least for pracs at least. Oh yeah, I also give my students my number and have had NO hassles at all with this. I really think the students respect this.

    Cheers and keep up the great work!

  7. It truly is remarkable to read articles that are so properly written and spot on as your post is. I did learn alot from it and I have tweeted it to my 2300 fans as well as linking to the blog post.

  8. Andrew, would love to know how the class turned out at the end of the year? What did you find out/learn? Are you doing this again in 2011?

  9. Hi Andrew, I have been searching through you blog for alternatives of assessing the learning that is occurring in the classroom ie learner analytics. Have you written a blog post on how we can measure learning, engagement, excitement etc rather than gathering the traditional data through eg NAPLAN tests, VCE results etc? If you could point me in the direction of any articles, online sites, blog posts with practical examples it would be much appreciated. I have enjoyed surfing around your blog and reading your innovative and challenging posts! I hope that this post, is the most appropriate to leave this comment.

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