Introducing Evolution Using Online Activities in a Nonmajor Biology Course

Article excerpt

Byline: Jorge Rodriguez, Ismara Ortiz, and Elizabeth Dvorsky

Effective virtual education requires activities that promote application of scientific thinking skills, elaboration of research questions, hypothesis proposal, experimental design, and result presentation in a collaborative environment. Blackboard is online education software that provides an excellent platform for creative design and evaluation of these activities. We demonstrate its effectiveness in promoting student learning and comprehension.

Each year during the past five years, approximately 3,000 nonmajor biology undergraduate students at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus, have taken the introductory biological sciences courses I and II (CIBI 3001 and 3002, respectively).

Students usually register for CIBI 3001 during the first semester of the academic year. This course is a prerequisite for CIBI 3002. Both courses are required for most university students as part of their general education-natural sciences majors take a general biology course for majors instead.

The scientific method and the discussion of scientific literature are important components of innovative teaching methods (Sticker 2002). The learning objectives established for both nonmajor biology courses include the development of activities that allow students to apply scientific thinking skills, elaborate research questions, propose hypotheses, design experiments, and present their results. Due to the large number of yearly admissions at our university, both introductory courses are in great demand. Therefore, it is difficult to provide weekly laboratory sessions to all students; some experiences are offered as workshops discussed in class.

There is research that recommends the use of technology in education reform (NRC 2003). This has motivated our interest in developing activities that require both the use of technology and application of scientific thinking skills. Incorporating these activities into the curriculum allows students and faculty members to assume a role in creating virtual learning communities.

Blackboard is an affordable, sophisticated, and easy-to-use online education software platform. We have been using this platform for the past three years at our campus as part of the CIBI 3002 biology course for nonmajors. This course incorporates four major topics: reproduction, genetics, evolution, and ecology.

In the beginning, our online course was just a supplement to the face-to-face traditional course, and included the syllabus, homework assignments, and recommended websites. Immediately, we began to provide students with richer learning experiences using question-and-answer modules to keep students actively involved. Similar to Johnson (2002), some of these modules included the use of a CD-ROM accompanying the textbook Biology: The Unity and Diversity of Life (Starr and Taggart 2001). Although many of these activities were well received by students, we knew that we were not developing online experiences that allowed for the construction of knowledge in a virtual environment. Our virtual course followed what Haavind and colleagues (2002) described as "the online supplement model," or "the online self-paced model," which provides little possibility for taking advantage of the technology available. As an alternative, they proposed a design known as guided collaboration, which is similar to a well-run seminar, where the participants create their own learning through thoughtful conversation and collaboration, guided by a knowledgeable instructor who is an expert in facilitating online groups. According to Haavind et al. (2002) "this design is pedagogically superior to other designs because it is based in social constructivist learning principles: having learners create their own understandings based on group conversations." We believe that the development of student work groups, even in a virtual environment, can also be carried out using a constructivist approach. …