Epistemology: Defining the Concept of Learning


Epistemology is the study of how humans acquire knowledge.  Human learning is best defined as a relatively permanent modification of behavior that comes about as the result of experience. Read More →

5 Active Learning Strategies for the Science Classroom

Image Credit: Fuse

Image Credit: Fuse

Active learning is all about engaging students and getting them to actively participate in a lesson. This is the very opposite of traditional science lectures, where students sit passively and make notes while a lecturer talks. Research has shown that the human brain is better at remembering facts, solving problems and stays more engaged when stimulated with an absorbing activity. The five strategies outlined below show how this can be achieved and how your students can become successful active learners in the science classroom:

1. Start with an opening question

The start of a new lesson or lecture should provide a bridge between content previously covered and that which is about to be covered. A quick and simple way of achieving this involves starting with an opening question that provokes thought. For example, a lesson could ask students to think of their own recollections of the 2012 Mars rover landing and give an example of a moment that inspired them. The scene is then set for a brief discussion which everyone can contribute to, before a transition to the main part of the lesson.

2. Think-pair-share

‘Think-pair-share’ is an active learning strategy that requires students to develop their ideas as an individual, as a pair and as part of a larger group. The technique can be used at the start of a lesson to introduce a theme and also mid-way through to summarize the learning that has taken place. In the first step, students are asked to note down their thoughts in response to a question. They then pair up and explain ideas verbally to a partner. Finally, the teacher asks several pairs to share their best ideas with the class. The strategy works well with classes of various sizes and can be completed in as little as two or three minutes, making it a versatile technique which is easily incorporated into lesson plans.

3. Focused listing

Focused listing involves asking students to produce a list in response to a specific question. For example, ‘list ten learning outcomes that were covered in the previous lesson’ or ‘list as many biological characteristics of the human heart as you can’ will quickly generate a large number of responses from the class. The teacher can circulate round the class while students are producing the list and gauge the level of understanding or recollection that is present. Finally, students can be invited to share their lists which can then be summarized with the rest of the class.

4. Brainstorm

Image Credit: Indiana University

Brainstorming works well at the beginning of a lesson and requires students to list what they know about a certain topic. The activity works best when carried out in pairs or small groups, as students can often develop surprising connections between the ideas that are listed. Like the other strategies that have been listed, brainstorming can be adapted to classes of various sizes and requires minimal time to prepare

5. Question and answer pairs

In this technique students are paired together and take it turns to question and answer each other. The activity works well at the end of a lesson (or series of lessons) where a review of the learning needs to take place. Formulating and phrasing questions in the correct way is an excellent way of developing verbal communication skills and improving confidence with course content. If a competitive element is introduced, it can be interesting to see students striving to ask more and more challenging questions to catch their partner out!

Can MOOC’s Really Transform Education?


Traditional colleges often struggle with limited space availability in popular (or even core curriculum) courses. Higher education costs in the U.S. have sky-rocketed in recent years. A recent USA Today article reported that costs to attend a 4-year public university rose a staggering 15% between 2008 and 2010. To make matters worse, many graduates that are coming out of college are unable to find jobs while being saddled with enormous amounts of debt. Higher education in the U.S. is broken.

An Emerging Alternative

Education3The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) paradigm offers a rare opportunity to remedy these situations along with many others. The fact that the term includes the word massive illustrates the fact that such courses can be taken by a virtually unlimited number of students. This is revolutionary in its own right. The problem right now is not with student enrollment numbers, but the fact that organizations currently offering these MOOCs aren’t actually accredited to issue regular course credit to those that do the work. In other words, they don’t translate into college-level work that can be applied towards a degree. While some MOOCs are geared towards students who might want to learn more about a specific topic, most of them are essentially recreational at this point. Even so, individuals are learning new things, in an exciting way, in record numbers…so this is a good thing.

The other issue is (of course) about money. There is no clear indication of how organizations such as Coursera, Udacity, and EdX will sustain their operations in the future. Equally unclear is if/when they start charging students, whether or not costs will be significantly lower than they are today. Plagiarism and other areas need to be addressed as well before these programs become viable degree options. However, existing online schools have found ways to deal with these issues and I’m sure these organizations will as well. Despite the obstacles that remain, the recent popularity of online learning has proven that learners are seeking alternatives to traditional schools in a big way.

The Logical Progression in Education

In the near-term future, MOOCs could ultimately transform the way that education works. Anyone who has done research on the recent success of MOOCs are familiar with the fact that some courses have had tens of thousands of signups. Last year, Google unleashed an open-source MOOC-building tool, and Stanford unveiled Class2Go with two courses. MOOCs are expected to continue to rise in popularity in 2013. While all of this may seem astounding, the idea of virtual teaching has been around for years. For instance, colleges have made use of radio and television in the past to provide instruction to students irrespective of their geographical location. MOOCs are simply the next logical step in this evolution given the rise of the Internet in recent years.

Despite the rise of popularity in online learning in recent years, many traditional institutions have been reluctant to offer full degree programs to people who never step foot inside of a classroom. For some degrees this makes perfect sense. No one would want to issue a medical license to someone who has been taught solely online. On the other hand, it seems relatively innocuous to incorporate distance learning into degree programs in a variety of other areas. As long as standards are created to ensure that learning occurs as designed and appropriate, there is no reason online education should continue to take a backseat to classroom-based learning in the future.

I view MOOCs as the 21st century descendents of the old broadcast instruction programs of the past. As education moves towards this new model, the work that students have done on their own will certainly become more important. Students might be able to customize their own education plans based on all of the courses completed that apply to a particular field. In fact, if MOOCs become more of an integral part of an education plan, credits could become less important. Instead, colleges could focus on how much work students have done in a particular field. Once enough coursework (and even practical application) has been completed, a degree would be awarded.

A Changing Paradigm

Education2Considering that we live in the information age, elements of data are being created at a greater rate than at any other point in time. Aggregation is one of the strongest tools that MOOCs bring to the table. In the near future, software could bring together different bits of information and aggregate it together into a single source for delivery to students. Lesson plans and lectures would be a thing of the past, since information would be produced in real-time. Instead of a rigid curriculum, students could learn from a number of sources and receive a truly well rounded education. And that’s the point here. This isn’t about transforming education for the sake of transformation. This is about making education more accessible and affordable to learners while ensuring that they learn what they need to know in order to be successful in the workforce and society.

What Do the Critics Say?

Critics often point to the fact that online programs permit students to enroll with little or no admissions standards. I maintain that many of these critics are those that are directly threatened by the MOOCs and the promise they hold for their own futures. If I’m the president of a traditional school and seeing my enrollment numbers dwindle because I’m against online learning, than naturally I’m going to be against MOOCs (or any other similar change). While admissions requirements have been important in the past, in the future everyone with an Internet connection will have access to higher education. If they need foundational courses, they will take them online just as they’ve done in the past. This is they way it should be. In fact, today virtually anyone can sign up for courses with EdX and other MOOC providers. That’s a good thing.

Critics also point to the completion rates of these courses. Because they are free, many people sign up for the courses and then fail to complete them. But consider this. If you have 50,000 people sign up for a course and only 5% complete all of the work, you still have 2,500 people that finished, right? How many traditional classrooms does it take to teach 2,500 people? And how many of those 2,500 people would have missed out on the chance to learn the material otherwise? Those in education that would argue against this type of success need to seriously consider a new field.

Education for Everyone

spring sunsetIn the future, with less stringent admissions criteria and much lower costs, students will be able to earn accredited certificates or degrees in record numbers. These individuals can take what they’ve learned to create new businesses or perform better in their own jobs while ultimately becoming lifelong learners. This in turn will hopefully prompt society to transform right along with them. I would argue that along with a more educated population comes a better society. And if we’re not working towards that objective, what the hell are we doing as a species anyway? Whether MOOCs will transform education remains to be seen. There are still a lot of unanswered questions. Regardless, they are a step in the right direction. They have successfully highlighted the need for change in higher education and perhaps more importantly, that individuals are seeking new learning options in today’s increasingly connected world.


Dalal D, Brancati FL, & Sisson SD (2012). Factors affecting learner satisfaction with an internet-based curriculum. Southern medical journal, 105 (8), 387-91 PMID: 22864092

Mark Hochberg, J. (2006). Online Distance Education Pedagogy: Emulating the practice of global business Distance Education, 27 (1), 129-133 DOI: 10.1080/01587910600654841

Forster, A. (2012)., edited by E. Burge, C. Campbell Gibson , and T. Gibson
Distance Education, 33 (3), 429-436 DOI: 10.1080/01587919.2012.723169

Distance Learning for Personal Enrichment

Online learning has been growing in scope and popular appeal for several years now.  The Internet has clearly provided a viable new venue for anyone interested in furthering their education.  Time, distance, and other commitments are no longer justifiable excuses for not achieving your educational goals.

However, distance learning has opened up another area for educational advancements that many people may innocently overlook.  Pursuing your life’s interests and passions, often referred to as personal enrichment, is an area that simply cries out for distance learning supplementation.  Any skill you want to learn, any talent you wish to cultivate, any knowledge you might want to acquire, can all be found with a few strokes on your keyboard.  Likewise, seeking out like-minded friends who share your passions is made easier through social networking sites and blogs devoted to your particular interests.

Have you always wanted to learn another language, simply for the sake of being satisfied with the accomplishment or to help fulfill your dreams of world travel?  Go to your favorite search engine and type in something like “online French lessons.”  You will pull up an amazing number of sites to look into that will get you started in your efforts to become bilingual. The Internet is the perfect medium for language courses. In some cases you might need to purchase a book or CD to supplement your efforts; in other cases you might just find everything you need right online.

Have you been longing to participate in a book club to share your love of reading a good book with other avid readers but just know you could never give up an entire evening once a week or even once a month to pursue this dream?  Or do you feel your particular favorite reading genre is just too quirky for you to ever hope to find enough readers with similar interests in your city or town?  Type “book clubs online” into your favorite search engine and browse through websites devoted to every imaginable genre of reading; you’re sure to find just the place for you.

Do you paint, write, or knit?  Are you an amateur photographer interested in improving your skills?  Are you a history buff intent on analyzing conspiracy theories of the Civil War?  Distance learning can tie you into a class or a complete course of study that will enable you to stoke that fire and thirst for knowledge of a subject just because it is of interest to you.  You will enjoy the added benefit of not having to restructure your family life, your job or your personal lifestyle to accommodate your newfound interests.

The great thing about distance learning for personal enrichment activities is that you can choose the level to which you want to commit yourself.  You may find classes offered through prestigious universities that come with an equally prestigious charge per credit.  You are just as likely to find a course offering at a minimal charge or even at no cost to you.  You can simply audit a class just to get an overview of a subject you’re interested in or you can devote time and money to deep diving into a subject to the extent that you become somewhat of an expert in your own right.  When you’re doing it for yourself, the choices and the commitments are yours alone.

Personal enrichment isn’t just about what distance learning and the Internet can do for you.  It can also be about what you can give back to the world around you.  Do you have a skill that could enrich the life of someone else?  Are you articulate enough to teach that skill to others?  If so, you may be able to find a distance learning platform to offer your skills to others.  Perhaps you can provide that knowledge through a personal blog dedicated to the subject you hold near and dear to your heart. You might even wish to create and facilitate online course through innovative training providers such as Ed2Go or WizIQ.

Personal enrichment is just that, personal and enriching.  It is the stuff inside of you that makes you interesting and interested in the world around you.  Just as distance learning has provided the means for aspiring students to fulfill their formal educational requirements, distance learning can provide any individual with an avenue for satisfying their soul.  So, the next time you find yourself wishing you could bake a beautiful birthday cake for your husband’s birthday instead of going to the expense of buying one, type “online cake decorating classes” into a search engine and you could be on your way this afternoon.

Digital Natives: Learning Styles & Internet Habits

Digital Natives are those people who were born into our current digitally connected, highly technologically advanced environment. One might even go so far as to say that our present crop of Digital Natives has been born into two worlds simultaneously.

First, they’ve entered the literal, physical world – complete with the time and space limitations we all share. Second, they’ve made a grand entrance into the lightning-fast, instant-access, interactive, virtual world of the Internet, video games, cell phones, MP3 players, and other, similar devices. These young people have quite literally never known any other way of interacting with or relating to the wider world than through a variety of totally manipulative digital media. In short, they think, breathe, and act digitally. The intense media focus, innate digital savvy, and natural facility for all things electronic  that define Digital Natives, combine to create a significant difference in learning styles, thought patterns, and problem-solving strategies, between this group and its parents and grandparents.

Though many older people, who have not grown up with digital media (who are known as Digital Immigrants), are making great strides toward acclimating to the newer technology and making fairly competent use of it, the older generations are, on the whole, clearly far less comfortable in a digital environment. Since most teachers fall within this category, the potential for learning difficulties among Digital Natives is great.

Digital Natives process information differently than their elders, which means they both learn and apply what they’ve learned differently, as well. Their learning styles are more interactive and hands-on and less reflective. Digital Natives think differently (less linearly) than their predecessors, they work differently (actively multi-tasking), they access data differently (often randomly and non-sequentially, but always super-fast and with an unwavering preference for graphics over text), they have a much shorter attention span (thanks to the speed of modern technology), and they speak an entirely different language (the language of the Digital Age).

To a great degree, Digital Natives are independent learners, who are totally comfortable using the all-but-unlimited informational resources of the Internet to meet their learning needs. Yet, our schools still face real challenges in adapting outmoded teaching styles and teacher thought patterns to the needs of a new generation of students, whose ways of assimilating knowledge are vastly different from their own – and even from those of the students they may have taught just a few short years ago.

Collaborative Classroom Prepares Future Scientists


Webster University’s East Academic Building unites faculty, staff and students around the world through technology-enhanced learning spaces. According to Erik Palmore, head of Webster’s Faculty Development Center, one of these spaces is the new Collaborative Classroom, whose mix of space, furniture, pedagogy and technology is configured to promote group work and sharing, creative and collaborative problem solving and design thinking. Read More →