Tech Doesn't Teach… But it can Help

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

A quick post that’s slightly off topic

I worry about writing anything on this topic because my goal is not to have some sort of focus for a creationist ‘debate’, but I recently saw an article about the construction of an Ark in the Netherlands. ( I don’t know what to make of this article – or more to the point, of the subject that the article addresses. There’s nothing I find objectionable about someone building whatever it is that they want to with their money. But I can’t overlook the statement that the “the Dutch creationist and millionaire building contractor Johan Huibers”. What can’t I overlook? “Creationist”

There it is, I’ve done it. I opened the door. What’s so objectionable about being a creationist? Well, it’s not the man himself that I care about. What I do care about is that the purpose of this thing is to serve as some sort of creationist ‘museum’. We already have one of those in the States. It’s located in Kentucky (where else?), but you can check it out right here:


I’m not sure how I should phrase this in order to communicate my point best, but I find it to be a severe obstacle to education that these institutions are out there. I have no problem with the religious story of creation (any of them), but there is a problem with the relationship that Churches have with the rest of the world. That is, in order to be tolerant of all religions and to respect the distinction between religion and science, nothing can be said about any claim that has the word ‘religious’ tacked to it.  

I think most scientists are OK with the fact that religious questions are outside of the purview of science (most – not all). Whenever there is a discussion about something that cannot be tested scientifically, I’m happy to say, “well, science can’t address that question.” and let it go. 

But fundamentalist religions don’t respect that division any more than scientists like Richard Dawkins (Whom I respect greatly even when he is attacking religion – I just don’t think it’s a good idea). I’m talking about creationists that want to make claims about the real world that are testable, but they either don’t want to test these claims or don’t respect the power of a persuasive argument against their position. 

Scientists dislike this for several reasons. First, creationists approach the question with the answer in hand and don’t  give credence to any non-supporting evidence. Second, scientists think it’s not playing by the rules if you don’t give up a flawed argument (it’s the hardest thing to learn as a science student: you are not your argument. If your argument is wrong, let it go) Lastly, science isn’t going to admit “it’s in the bible” as evidence – and I think this offends fundamentalists.

Why don’t scientists accept biblical truth? Well, because there’s no reason to. Even if everything in the bible happened exactly as it was originally told, the fact that the bible was cobbled together from a handful of oral histories after floating around for a number of years makes that pretty hard to accept as evidence. A court won’t accept hearsay even if it’s only a couple of weeks old. The game ‘telephone’ has as its entire premise that people can’t repeat what they’ve heard just a second before.

OK, I’m ranting here – and it’s exactly what I didn’t want to do, but I teach biology and I have had students come to my class with ideas supported by creationists and creation museums before and it’s very difficult to navigate / remedy.

And one last thing – on a personal note: Just as the mathematicians and astronomers of the 17th century were in awe of the motion of the planets and how wonderfully sensible God’s creation appeared to them, there really are a lot of scientists who marvel at the beauty of God’s creation in setting life in motion to follow the elegant rules of evolution over time.




Assessment and Technology

Assessment has emerged as a touchstone in education. Although assessment of the student has always been a central part of education, it has also become a critical measuring stick for whole institutions. With the passing of “No Child Left Behind,” educational assessment changed from determining whether a student had learned enough to merit a passing grade into determining whether whole institutions should live or die.


It is valuable to ask what some good reasons for assessment are…

  1. Pace – Assessing whether a class is following a lesson or more time is needed.
  2. Methodology -Determining which teaching methods are more or less effective
  3. Teacher Centered – Assisting educators in refining their art
  4. Student Centered – Ensuring that students take an appropriate level of comprehension from a lesson


The first two points concern how teachers manage the classroom in order to ensure that students learn. The third point is really the sum of the first two and helps the educator determine what material should be presented and how it should be done. Further, it is intended to evaluate the skill of the teacher. Finally, the last point is the most important of all, given everything that came before, have students learned the material?


It is the second last points that I want to consider here. How do we know what students have learned and what methods get us the best results?


“If I could just meet you in the hallway and talk to you once in a while that would be enough for me to know whether you’ve learned all you can here or not. If it were up to me, that would be it. There’s no reason we really need to do the dissertation…”

                                                            -A loose quotation from an academic advisor


Knowing what to assess and how to assess it is critical to determining whether a lesson or whole course is working for students. When working one-on-one with advanced students a good assessment can be as easy as the quotation above suggests. The advisor’s point was that objectivity is an illusion and in graduate education, the first three purposes of assessment are often not in question. However, when working with a larger class of introductory students, more quantifiable assessments become valuable.


Simply asking a class whether they understand as you go along a lecture or other classroom activity is no help. Teachers know that the answer to this question is, more often than not, a murmur of agreement – only to find that only a small fraction of the class can demonstrate their comprehension (personal anecdote).


Why is this? Do students think they understand when they don’t? Do they expect that they can figure it out later? Do they just not care? Perhaps they get the ‘gist’ of a lesson, but just can’t deliver on the details.


Pop quizzes are one way to make assessments in these situations. But this method has some drawbacks. First, it requires a substantial break in the class to administer. Second, even if a quiz can be administered without loss of time or the disrupting class, it is difficult to assess the results and move forward appropriately without taking more time out to grade.


Technology in assessment


Clickers have provided a high tech answer to this problem. Without allowing students to shape their answer by their peers in a call of hands, clickers (or similar feedback) provide a way for educators to poll a classroom and get real-time, honest feedback on specific questions in a way that does not seriously jeopardize the flow of a class.


Another way to use technology in support of a lesson and its assessment is to use games that are played within or outside of the classroom. With the advent of new devices, this is becoming increasingly possible. Further, because information can be shared between devices over WiFi, it is now possible to have collaborative games in which measurements can be taken not only of final outcomes, but also of the collaborative steps taken to attain these outcomes.


Collaborative peer learning has been shown to be a successful approach to teaching 1, one would expect to see a direct correlation between instances of shared information and final assessment scores. To my knowledge, such ‘real-time’ collaboration assessments have not been made. This could be one avenue to improving student outcomes that could change the way content is delivered.


I am still relatively new to teaching having only been at it for a couple years, but I am very interested in improving my techniques. In a recent conversation with a program officer for the NIH, he indicated that making assessments of new classroom materials was vital to obtaining grant money for developing those materials. I am now very interested in learning how to measure this and determining what questions I should be asking in evaluating new technology in the classroom.


What assessment tools have you found to guide how your classroom functions?

Other than a strict measure of whether students can reproduce material they have been exposed to, what other questions are valuable in assessing a lesson plan/ strategy / technology?


1.         Johnson, D. & Johnson, R. Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom. (Interaction Book Company: Edina, MN, 1991).

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