Magazine article Times Higher Education

Teaching Innovations Shared Via 'Academic Crowdsourcing'

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Teaching Innovations Shared Via 'Academic Crowdsourcing'

Article excerpt

Technology allows two networks in Australia and the US to blaze new trail. Jon Marcus reports

A number of people on different continents toil over identical laboratory equipment, analysing amino acid sequences in proteins in a process used to answer the crucial question of whether a patient has a particular form of muscular dystrophy.

But these are not scientists or doctors. And this is not a real lab. The people are undergraduate medical students in different settings worldwide whose instructors all use the same virtual lab produced at Australia's University of New South Wales and made available to them for free.

If internet technology can provide a platform for networks of learners, it has now quietly begun to be adapted by networks of teachers to share courses and course content, and to collaborate on better instructional approaches.

"Academic crowdsourcing is what I'm calling it," said Nicholas Hawkins of the University of Queensland, head of the Biomedical Education Skills and Training network (BEST), through which the virtual lab was made available.

BEST has 1,716 registered academic members in more than 30 countries teaching 11 subjects, from nursing and allied health to pathology and physiology. Each member must undergo a vetting process and register with an academic email address.

That network has now been followed by a similar operation based at Arizona State University in the US, driven by technology from the same start-up company and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve basic science instruction.

It is a mirror image of the massive open online course; instead of connecting huge numbers of students, it connects large numbers of teachers to collaborate in ways that academics have not traditionally practised.

"This hasn't really been done before," said Ariel Anbar, an astrobiologist who leads the Arizona State effort, called the Inspark Science Network. "We share material all the time, but we haven't previously used technology in this way."

Unlike BEST, which often covers complex topics in medicine and science, Inspark is meant to engage young undergraduates in introductory science courses that can often derail them. That has won it the support of the Gates Foundation.

The idea is to teach such things as introductory chemistry by asking questions such as whether there is life on Mars.

"Suddenly you're teaching this in a way that somebody cares about," Professor Anbar said. "When you teach that way, people learn better."

But while many academics have developed stimulating and effective courses, the idea of working together on instruction is surprisingly new. After all, say the people involved in this idea, how many instructors are likely to think that someone else can teach in their discipline better than they can? …

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