Illinois Faculty Summer Institute 2011

A couple of weeks ago, the University of Illinois held its annual Faculty Summer Institute, a conference for Illinois collegiate educators. A large focus of the conference, luckily for me, involved educational technology—how to implement it, how to teach with it, how to assess with it, etc. I had the privilege of presenting some of the technology we use in the chemistry department at UIUC (specifically in our large non-major organic chemistry courses). It’s amazing to see educators across the board embracing technology as a medium for instruction—really an exciting time to be an educational technology junkie!

One of my favorite presentations, addressing how to assess student engagement online, was given by Diane Hamilton-Hancock and her colleagues at Western Illinois University. Understanding student engagement online is a tough but interesting problem because, as Diane skillfully demonstrated through a group exercise, losing the ability to interpret non-verbal cues significantly affects our ability to understand each other! In many ways, though, instructors can structure and investigate online interactions (e.g., forum posts) in ways that are impossible in a traditional classroom. We all recognize the self-motivated, independent student as the ideal for both face-to-face and online education. By laying down expectations early, identifying and rewarding positive behaviors, and serving as examples for students, we can make this ideal the expected norm online—basically doing what we’d do in a classroom anyway, with a somewhat greater degree of control.

Here’s where things get interesting (for me, anyway): some of Diane’s co-workers took student forum posts and analyzed them for depth and critical thinking, using frameworks developed by Garrison and based on Bloom’s taxonomy (see this paper for a very similar idea). General trends were difficult to pin down, but there was a definite “ebb and flow” to the depth and content of forum posts as the semester progressed. Generally, periods of very low critical thinking preceded large “surges,” during which students would build on one another’s ideas toward greater and greater complexity. Imagine a forum that automatically detected these surges…remarkable insight for educators there, no?

The FSI’s key speaker was Cable Green, a champion of open educational resources at Creative Commons. There’s a very interesting battle going on right now concerning open educational resources, with the majority of conscientious educators on one side and what I’ll call the “big businesses of education” on the other. I’ll leave it at that—that’s a post for another day. All in all, the FSI was a phenomenal event, and I recommend it to all Illinois educators!

Coming next week: I managed to track down a stupendous Javascript library for network visualization—the Javascript InfoVis Toolkit. Tuesday I’ll begin a series on building a web-based concept map builder (and important things to think about as far as analysis of maps is concerned). The pages and code will be available on my personal domain, so hopefully you’ll be able to use it too, when it’s all said and done. In a nutshell, I think I’m finally climbing aboard the concept map bandwagon…

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Tuesdays are my Kryptonite

Well here we are at yet another Tuesday, and yet the world is slightly different. Fair warning: this is a post full of shameless plugs. First things first, I can personally vouch for the quality of Hartwig’s book, if you’re into organometallic chemistry. It was good as a bunch of PDF files with hand-drawn figures, and it’s even better in pretty hardback form. His writing style didn’t always resonate with my brain (sometimes I found I’d “read” a paragraph by doing little more than moving my eyes over it), but if you want to know something about organometallic chemistry, it’s in there. Stamp it.

Secondly, I wanted to point the blogosphere to a project that organic chemistry students at the University of Illinois have begun this semester (it’s going to be pretty sweet, trust me…just read on). We are having student teams create web pages illustrating the properties and mechanism of a compound of their choice…and when I say “illustrate,” what I actually mean is “awesome-ize.” This thing is going to be bigger than dinky images and hollow text. I’m hoping students take the Jmol and MarvinSketch instruction we’ve provided and run with them. In fact, I’d like the thing to turn into nothing less than the Wikipedia of interactive mechanisms. We’ll see. Truth be told I’m a little nervous about it—trusting students never seems like a good idea. Still, I’ve been surprised so far this semester with what students have produced. If you want to know more, check out the Molmodac project homepage or my cyclic AMP example page. This project is my baby this semester, so you’ll probably be hearing about it again.