Byline: Juliana Texley and David Adelstein
One of the most powerful technology tools available to science teachers is often the least used. A course management system (CMS) is a web-based application that provides an online distance learning platform for teachers and students. CMS platforms such as Blackboard, WebCT, Jenzabar, and Desire-2-Learn provide many opportunities for good science instruction. This article touches on just some of the online CMS tools available for the science classroom. [Editor's note: "Moodle" offers a free, open-source software alternative. For more details about using an online course management program, read "Using a Course Management System to Improve Classroom Communication, " another article from The Science Teacher on this topic.]
The gradebook on a CMS is often the most-used function by teachers. The online gradebook is handy and convenient, and there are some solid educational advantages to an open gradebook for students and parents that teachers seldom consider.
Many students find it difficult to plan ahead to achieve results that will not be evident for four or six weeks. This can be especially true for students who have attention or organization difficulties. Therefore, a system that allows students to log in every day and see their grades and missing assignments (with or without their parents) is beneficial. Entering grades punctually can sometimes seem overwhelming to teachers who tend to procrastinate, but those who use platforms as gradebooks often see immediate and significant results in classroom management and achievement.
The second most-used function on CMS platforms is the threaded (asynchronous) discussion or forum. (This is different from a real-time chat because comments can be entered at any time.) Teachers know that today's students want to constantly communicate with their peers-it's sometimes a challenge to pry personal digital assistants (PDAs) or cell phones from students long enough to hold class. Smart teachers know that what you cannot fight you can use.
One way to use an online discussion or forum in the classroom is to ask students to respond through a discussion thread to a mystery picture, an observational challenge in the community, or a demonstration of a discrepant event. Students will need help to structure their conversations in a constructivist way. Students should be reminded that they are having a "discussion"-they are talking to others on a forum, not just putting words in a post. This is to discourage students from "googling" the topic and pasting something unrelated to the discussion. Students should acknowledge the post to which they are responding and add something of their own, or start a new thread with clear information to invite others to join.
Some tips for good asynchronous discussions in online science classrooms include:
Limiting the length of responses. This is a conversation, not a series of monologues.
Cutting the discussion off after a reasonable period of time to stop students from posting after the class has abandoned the thread.
Not allowing students to go back and delete their posts (because the replies after that will not make sense), but allowing them to edit slightly.
Reminding students to acknowledge, complement, and question one another politely and respectfully.
Encouraging students to use science vocabulary but define terms that may be unfamiliar to their peers.
For the mystery picture activity, a picture can be posted as an attachment to the discussion thread introduction, or right at the "door" of the online classroom. Great photos are available in the image libraries from NASA (www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/index.html), the U.S. Geological Survey's Earthshots (http://earthshots.usgs.gov), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (http://images.fws.gov), or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (www.photolib.noaa.gov).
Even though the CMS platform may be gated, the legal status of this "semi-private" space is still questionable. Since some court decisions have viewed platforms as public spaces, teachers must be careful not to post copyrighted materials beyond the limits of "fair use." This also models appropriate use for students, and can help teach them about intellectual property rights and proper reference citation.
Aside from posting images, discussion threads may also introduce observational challenges or scenarios. For example, teachers could ask students to observe their neighborhood for specific signs of the arrival of winter and contribute their observations to discussion threads. Another example would be to ask students to watch the movie Star Wars and then discuss online the errors found in that movie and other popular science fiction movies.
Teachers often find that students who do not contribute much in class participate more online. Threaded discussions offer "infinite" wait time, and support visual (rather than auditory) learners. English language learners are often more comfortable when they have the option of checking their text before they post a response. All students benefit from having time to stop and think about their responses, permitting deeper analysis of the ideas under discussion.
Almost all CMS platforms also have the option of a "real-time chat," which is similar to instant messaging but can be set up for groups. During these chats, participants can look at PowerPoint presentations, websites, or even streaming video while they are chatting. A real-time chat is useful for receiving immediate feedback for an observation that the teacher wants students to make outside of class time. For example, teachers could ask students to log on the system at 6 p.m. and record the exact temperature taken on their front lawn at home in an effort to study the micro-weather around town. Or, in the event of a lunar eclipse, teachers could have students log on immediately following the eclipse to discuss the event and their observations.
Involving guest chatters is also effective. A local doctor or researcher might be more willing to answer questions from home or work versus traveling to school. A teacher could also masquerade as a famous "mystery scientist" and tell students the mystery guest will be appearing (through time and space) on their chat board. For example, the teacher could post a picture of Lavoisier's first calorimeter or early astronomical epicycles on the display (either from a website or file) and students are in for a challenging treat "as they question the virtual Lavoisier."
Teachers who have used real-time chat have realized that the tool does not work well with large groups. Large groups can be unwieldy, as it becomes difficult to follow too many conversation threads at once. But the chats are ideal for small groups. The class can be divided into groups of three or four and assigned projects via the platform. This allows students to brainstorm and share their ideas in text or visual form, and privately discuss their project within the small group dynamic. Small group work allows the teacher to archive student work and fairly evaluate whether everyone in the group is participating equally.
Almost all CMS platforms have the option of putting tests online. Teachers may view this tool suspiciously, because it is possible for students to get test help outside of class. However, a working scientist is not expected to memorize all the information they research. Ungraded online assessments can be used for pretest review, or for assessing prior knowledge before beginning a unit. If assessments are to be graded, online tests might contain less objective recall-type questions and more higher-order analysis questions.
A big advantage of online assessment is having students discuss their answer choices online. This sort of "metacognition" can be a real eye-opener to a teacher. Imagine a cluster of objective questions about a dataset or graph. After the multiple-choice items, the teacher can insert a short essay question, asking students to explain why they answered the way they did for a specific item. Or after the time limit has expired on a traditional objective test, the teacher can set up an online discussion thread asking: "Which question on the test was most difficult? Why?" or "Describe a mistake you made on the test and how you will avoid it in the future." Compared to classroom discussions, online reflection can be much less threatening for students. Teachers are often amazed at the logic-or lack of it-that students show when they share their thought processes. Discussions like these also help teachers identify lingering student misunderstandings and points of confusion.
Feature student work
Many teachers are wary of displaying individual student work since several Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) decisions have reinforced a student's right to privacy. A CMS platform, however, makes it easy for students to feature their own work on various themes.
For example, students can be asked to post one good paragraph from their research paper on climate change, which describes the main idea of their project. Or, teachers can create a space for students to post one slide of a show on plant adaptations in our ecosystem. The slides can then be combined and the dialogue in the discussion threads can be used for the audio narration. Students can interview their grandparents about the first time they watched television or another technological first, and post the responses as an MP3 audio file, or even create an ongoing podcast (using the free Audacity digital editing software program).
Platforms versus paper
CMS platforms can maximize student responsibility and accountability." Teacher-created pages can contain favorite links, worksheets, policies, schedules, and procedures. When important course information is available online, students never encounter the problem of not knowing what the homework is or other important class information.
Many platforms also have the special option of tracking and graphing when and where students participate. This is particularly handy when parents ask: "Since Junior studied, why did he do so poorly on the test?" You can remind parents that last-minute panic does not make up for steady progress over time and produce the graphs to prove it.
Teachers often have well-placed concern about the "digital divide" and unequal access to computers and online sources. Today, between schools, libraries, and friends, there are many ways for students to access the school's platform for the activities. Teachers can help students by compiling a list of local sites that have free internet access.
More and more schools have created platforms for online distance learning and course management. This technology can allow teachers to enrich their programs for many diverse learning styles, and establish more efficient and meaningful teacher-student and student-student communication. All it takes is an inventive mind and the willingness to be creative.
Juliana Texley (email@example.com) is a lead reviewer for NSTA Recommends, 5500 Northwest 2nd Avenue, 617, Boca Raton, FL 33467; and David Adelstein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graduate student in technology administration at Central Michigan University and a teacher at Highland Middle School, 305 John Street, Highland, MI 48357.…