Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Social media use among high school students - is it a useful way to set up a learning blog?

Which social media platforms are most popular with students? Clearly most, if not all, of our students are using social media of one kind or another, and for a variety of reasons. I hope to utilise social media as a tool for engaging learners, and for setting up a learning blog, so it seemed logical to find out which platforms are most popular, then use that knowledge to proceed with my plans.

I carried out a survey of upper high school students (Grades 10-12) in the Maths-Science stream at my school. The survey instrument was administered using a Google Form. 

Out of a possible 70 students, 64 responded, and the results are shown below. These results show all social media platforms used by each student who responded.

The most popular social media platform among students was Line, with 94% of respondents reporting that they used it. Originally developed in Japan, Line is very popular here in southeast Asia. This was followed by Facebook (86%), then Instagram (64%). Twitter proved to be much less popular (27%), as did Google+ (20%). 

My original thinking before carrying out this survey was to use social media in order to encourage my students to discuss and reflect on what they have learned each week. Essentially it will be a kind of informal learning blog. I decided to use Facebook for this purpose, as it is clearly popular with students, and I feel it lends itself better to what I want to achieve than Line. I have set up a class Facebook page, which I have asked students to join. (I do not accept friend requests from my students, so the page is strictly limited to classroom-related activities). 

Each week I plan to ask one student, at random initially, to post a brief summary of what we learned in class that week. I will then encourage other students to discuss with each other what they feel they have learned, and hopefully help each other out with any areas of concern. I will also participate and use the students' posts as part of my formative assessment. 

However, the class Facebook page has been up for a couple of weeks now, and there hasn't been a huge amount of enthusiasm shown by students to engage with it. This may be because it is still early days. It may also be because they know I will be participating, and even though I have stressed that it is a safe (i.e. grade-free) space, they may still be reluctant to share openly in such a forum. 

There is another possible reason. As I mentioned earlier, I do not become Facebook friends with students - as much as anything, I want Facebook to be a place where I can interact with friends and family without a work aspect to it. My students have various ways they can contact me, for example via email or our LMS. Therefore it may simply be that my students also view Facebook as a leisure pursuit, and do not want it linked with school work to any great degree. 

I plan to continue with this trial for the rest of the semester - if it is still proving to be an unpopular way to conduct a learning blog I will try a different approach. 

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Introducing learners to real-world scientists

This week some of my learners had a fantastic opportunity in the form of a mathematical modelling workshop. It included both epidemiological and health economics modelling, and was instigated by myself and my colleague James, who is head of maths at my school. The workshop was run by a team of international researchers from the mathematical modelling group of the Mahidol-Oxford Research Unit here in Bangkok. 

After a brief introduction, the day began with a practical simulation of infectious disease transmission.

This was followed by practical sessions using mathematical modelling software to simulate epidemics. 

There were various presentations throughout the day.

We finished off with a group activity to develop ideas for mathematical modelling research, followed by the obligatory group photo!

Saturday, 13 June 2015

High school lab classes - are they obsolete?

Are high school lab classes still relevant or necessary any more? Or are they an obsolete approach from a bygone era?

Many have argued that science practical classes are formulaic and lack challenge and interest for learners. The argument is that such classes should give opportunities for students to undertake experimental design, and analyse and interpret data - in short, to practice science as it is practiced in the real world.

In principle these are good ideas - blurring the distinction between the classroom and the real-world by moving deeper into the ways a community of practice actually operates. The problem is, as so often, one of time. How can learners be expected to design an experiment, for example, if they have yet to have hands-on experience of basic lab techniques? How can they identify potential areas of error if they simply have not encountered these situations before?

I would argue that there is a place for both relatively structured practical classes, and for open-ended, investigative classes - they do not have to be mutually exclusive, or have one approach ditched in favour of the other. 

In practice, the emphasis of a lab class would vary depending on which skills are being highlighted. For example, an experiment investigating the effect of temperature on enzyme activity is relatively simple to design, and learners could be expected to do a reasonable job of it. However, I see it more as an opportunity to practice a wider range of skills, including not just taking and recording measurements, but also data analysis, interpretation, and error identification. Groups could compare their own results with the rest of the class, and gain an appreciation of the importance of pooling larger datasets for greater accuracy. These are exactly the skills advocated by those who suggest lab classes are formulaic. Once these basic skills are in place, then learners would be ready to take on a more in-depth, open-ended inquiry of their own. 

We cannot expect learners to come as ready-formed junior scientists in the making. It is still the role of science teachers to guide learners, whilst providing opportunities for more exploration and open-ended investigation once they have mastered the basics. 

I'd love to hear others' opinions on this...

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Extended scientific writing with EALs

This week I will be assigning the major piece of coursework for my Grade 12 students this semester – a 1500 word scientific essay, on a biology topic of their choice. This is a challenging activity for my learners, given that they are EALs. However, I feel it’s a great way to have them practice important transferrable skills that will be invaluable to them when they go to university next year. Some of my learners will go on to study in the UK or the US, while many others will take up places in international programmes in Thai universities where the medium of instruction is English. Academic writing, paraphrasing, and the correct use of citations and referencing, are skills that most, if not all of them, will likely be facing in the coming years.

Image: Graham Holliday via Flickr http://bit.ly/1FHA65t

I hope that by giving learners free reign in terms of choosing their topic, it goes some way to lightening the burden of this task. They can choose any topic they like relating to biology. For those who may be less interested in biological sciences as a subject, or will not be pursuing a degree in that field, I will accept essays with a biology angle. For example, in previous years I received essays based on biomechanical engineering and sleep deprivation studies, which obviously lean more towards engineering and psychology, respectively.

Before getting started on the essay itself, I set a couple of pre-essay activities. These give learners an opportunity to review and practice a number of key skills I am hoping to reinforce with this assignment. The first pre-essay activity involves the correct use of in-text citations and references. The second gives learners a series of short extracts from primary scientific literature that they must summarise and paraphrase. They are also expected to find an example of a recent research article of their own and write a two or three sentence summary of it.

Grade 12 students here in Thailand have an awful lot of pressures piling up on them during this, their final year of school. Many of them will be preparing for and sitting multiple exams, for example SATs and university entrance exams. Therefore I do not assign a lot of homework, with this essay being their one major task to be done outside of class time. As a result, the deadline for this work is two months from now, in early September. I also make it clear to my students that they are free to submit their essay at any time between now and the deadline. This is partly to help them avoid the typical bottleneck of deadlines that build up at the end of term. However, teenagers being teenagers, I can count on one hand the number of essays that have been turned in much before the deadline in the past!