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Embracing the Challenges and Opportunities of Offline/Online Teaching Strategies in Biology

~By Associate Professor of Biology, Dr. David Susko

This post is part of a series from the Hub Department Liaisons Program, Winter 2023 Focus: Offline/Online Teaching Strategies

Biology is simply the scientific study of life. It is a large, diverse, and complex field that may include investigating the structure, function, genetics, behavior, distribution, and evolution of living organisms. I have been fortunate to have taught a variety of biology courses in academia at several different universities for more than two decades. To me, these past few years have seen an unprecedented shift in how, where, and when we teach biology classes. Our instructional methods and technologies have come a long way since the late 1990s when I was still a graduate student at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.  Back then, the first course that I ever I taught was an introductory biology “distance learning” course – the predecessor of remote learning and online courses. Students in that course were mailed a coursebook at the start of the semester, along with about a dozen or so audio cassette tapes with pre-recorded lectures. Assignments from the coursebook were submitted through the mail to me by specific deadlines. I graded the assignments by hand and then mailed them back. Instructor office hours took place over the phone via mostly long-distance calls over two designated hours during the week. When I started teaching undergraduate biology courses at the University of Western Ontario as a post doctoral research associate a few years later, my in-person lectures consisted of displaying my notes on transparency sheets via an overhead projector. I vividly remember the curious ritual that took place each time I placed a new transparency on display. This action was immediately followed by 30-40 seconds of an undulating sea of heads in the audience nodding up and down as students furiously attempted to transcribe the notes and my additional commentary. When the heads in the rows were stilled, I knew that I could proceed with my next topic and transparency. 

Fast forward to today, and these instructional techniques may seem truly archaic. Even before Covid struck in 2020, there was a concerted effort by many institutions of higher education, including my own, to offer more courses online, and to incorporate more technologies for enhanced access, communication, and student learning. Out of necessity, the Covid pandemic catalysed the almost immediate conversion of offline courses to an online modality. Most instructors with limited or no online teaching experience, myself included, were thrust into a frantic race to upload all their course content and assessments online, all the while trying to master the art of using Zoom for sharing and/or recording their lectures. Teachers were stressed. Students were overwhelmed. From those sometimes-intense experiences, however, many of us learned valuable lessons, including the need to embrace the challenges and opportunities of teaching using different modalities in the 21st century. 

In my conversations with my fellow faculty in the Biology Discipline of the Department of Natural Sciences at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, I identified some common issues with offline (in-person) vs. online teaching. The first is that we each prefer in-person instruction. Maybe this reflects to a degree our own comfort and familiarity with the types of lectures we experienced as students ourselves. However, we also all recognize that our interactions with students in person are more genuine, immediate, and transparent. There is much to be said about looking directly into the faces of people to gauge whether they understand a concept or whether a glazed-over visage stares back at you. However, for an online course, how can we connect with students who might be sitting at home or a coffee shop?

Synchronous online activities are more amenable to direct interactions than are asynchronous ones. For the former, students can be encouraged to enter questions or comments using open chat lines during a given lecture. Most platforms, like Zoom, allow for subsets of participants to join breakout rooms for live, time-limited group discussions.  In fact, most faculty reported that these kinds of discussions seem to generate more activity and engagement than do in-person group activities. One tool that two of my colleagues, Professors Katie LaCommare and Judy Nesmith, each employ when instructing an introductory biology course is to ask questions during lecture using the polling platform called iClicker. This tool can be used on either the web or mobile devices. Instructors can solicit student responses to prepared questions or ones that are developed on the fly. It allows for near-instant engagement and feedback, quick summary results, and has the added benefit of tracking attendance and participation. In addition, iClicker works equally well in both in-person and online courses.  

Real-time chats and polling questions during live lectures simply aren’t possible for asynchronous courses, though. Instead, instructors may opt for discussion boards and forums available as features in web-based learning management systems like Canvas or Blackboard.  Participation in these types of venues can be encouraged by awarding points for student responses to topics and/or other student comments.  Professor Matt Heinicke extensively uses online discussions in his upper division genetics course. He believes that although engagement may not be as immediate as in person, the less time-constrained responses may allow for more contemplation and analysis resulting in richer responses. He also suspects that shy students who are reluctant to speak out during in person settings may feel freer to participate in asynchronous group activities. For online discussions, Microbiology Professor Chris Alteri believes that the key to their success in engaging students may be connecting them to current events. During these past few years of Covid, headline news stories in the media concerning disease outbreaks and vaccine developments have provided him with numerous opportunities for incorporating case studies and discussions with students in his Pathogenic Microbiology course. As a result, he firmly believes that his students have been better able to recall information and apply it knowing its clinical relevance in society today.  While Canvas can be used to manage asynchronous online assignments and discussion posts, Professor Anne Danielson-Francois has been experimenting with Flip, an app that permits educators to create asynchronous online groups for students to express their ideas via texts or videos. Her students are also encouraged to comment on their peers’ posts. So far, the response from students has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and she had noted increased and sustained student engagement.

One instructional tool that all of my biology colleagues use extensively today, much more than during the pandemic, is Canvas. Before Covid, most of us posted our syllabus and perhaps our lecture notes on Canvas, but that was about all. Once nearly all activities shifted to remote learning, we were forced to scramble to get everything online. As a result, recorded lectures were uploaded and posted, online quizzes and tests were created, and assignments were accepted through online submissions. The flurry of online additions necessitated more management and structure in Canvas, so most of us resorted to developing modules where weekly tasks could be assembled and to-do items could be identified with deadlines and possible point scores. The greater number of online activities also meant that we increased our frequency of emails or announcements sent to students. Several faculty members regularly post weekly “action items” reminding students of what to expect in the course over the coming days. While the pandemic may have triggered many of these changes, it is clear that they have increased communication and engagement with students outside of specific class times, so they continue to be used in both our offline and online courses. 

One challenge and universal frustration that my faculty peers and I identified in regards to online instruction is the problem of assessment.  As per numerous studies on college grade inflation, all of us recognize the need to adapt the types of assessment we have traditionally employed in our in-person courses to their online versions. Typically, this means, we have drastically reduced the numbers and types of recall and understanding questions on quizzes and exams – the kinds of which can be readily answered using an internet search engine like Google. These have been replaced with higher-level questions associated with the framework of Bloom’s Taxonomy that are more applied and synthesized. By using our own research data and having students analyze results in tabular and graphical form, we are challenging them to formulate, critique and defend ideas, much like what happens during the peer-review process for scientific publications of research articles.  While these sorts of questions require much more thought and time to develop, we see their value in helping to prepare the next generation of scientists.

Teaching in such a broad field as biology comes with many challenges, especially as more content and assessments are delivered partially or solely online. However, much like how populations of living organisms evolve in response to changing environmental conditions, biology educators are adapting their instructional methods to meet the needs and interests of their present and future cohorts of students. Chalkboards and overheads ably served teacher needs in the past, but today’s tech-savvy students both expect and can benefit from the use of new instructional tools and modalities if they ultimately enhance the student learning experience. 

Image by Giovanna Cornelio from Pixabay