Free the information and free yourself

I watched the video on Aaron Schwartz the other day. I admit that at first I was not all that interested in watching it but after a short I was I sucked into the story. The part that hit home with me was the point about the access to information, in this case scientific papers, that was controlled by several large entities. I had never really thought about how access was limited to those with subscriptions as I have always been associated with a University or company that had access. It got me to thinking about the access to other information sources, in particular the information in textbooks. These books are “controlled” by a few relatively large companies and students pay through the nose for them. The information in these books though can be found online in many different places and while maybe all of them are not written by research scientists or scientific authors that does not make them less valid. What if you had the capability to allow your students to “create” the course textbook from materials freely available on the web. Would that not foster skills in critical thinking and analysis as they would need to vet the sources? Wouldnt it be great to be free of the costly overrated textbooks that we are chained to now?

Qualms about openness

I was reading Kevin’s post ( this morning and it really pinpointed one of my concerns in bringing an open online component into the Freshman course I teach. I do worry about creating an open space that could have the potential to impact the students later.  If I require them to participate how do I ensure that what they create only reflects positively on them later without rendering the experience meaningless? It may be that I worry to much about it and that the students are more capable of protecting and projecting their own online identities than I think but I’d rather not have an experience where I lost the student’s trust in me.

The big WHY of Intro Biology

Cells     Each time I teach Intro Bio I spend time thinking about the Why of the course as a whole and of the different pieces. The fact was driven home to me quite clearly one semester when I had a student of the course stand in the doorway of my office and say “I don’t understand why I need to know all this stuff about cells, I am going to be a doctor”. Talk about a disconnect between the course and their life (my first thought however, was “not my doctor”). Here I thought I was doing a great job of showing them why what we were learning was relevant to them, but I missed the mark with this student. In a course that traditionally is very content driven, it is hard to let go of the content and focus on conveying to the students why they need to understand how living things work at the cellular and molecular level.

Why do they need intro bio and all its content? Simple answer is that we are made of cells and how we function, live, breathe, get sick, age, etc is related to the molecules in our cells. If we can begin to understand ourselves at the molecular level we can begin to understand how we can affect our own lives and the world around us.  It is at the cellular level that we share the most with the other living organisms on our planet. Now, to figure out how to share that why with the students.

Getting connected

This summer I taught a course with a fellow faculty member at VCU that I had been developing over several years. It was a hybrid field based biology course with a online “lecture” component and a field based lab. We had been struggling for years to find a means to have the students create a field notebook that included digital pictures that they could upload from the field. By chance I dropped in on a discussion of wordpress on campus and an idea was borne. We gave each student a blog page that fed into a central class one and A Guide to the Plants of the James River was borne. It was a amazing experience for everyone and one I would like to take into some of the other courses I teach.