DOLCE Recap: Susan Keen

Friday, October 5, was the first DOLCE (Discussing Online Learning and Collaborative Education) meeting of the quarter. DOLCE is the new iteration of the Faculty Users of SmartSite meetings that began last year; we changed the title because we found that our conversations often strayed beyond SmartSite.

Last week, we had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Susan Keen, the newly appointed Associate Dean of Undergraduate Academic Programs for the College of Biological Sciences. Funded by an NSF grant, Keen has been developing a about animal development.

The modules include a series of animations (created by ATS programmer Bob Burnett) that demonstrate patterns of cell division and gene expression, as well as recreate classic experiments in developmental biology.  “Bob was amazing to work with,” Keen said, “he actually reads the papers and really comes to understand what’s happening with the cells in order to animate it.”

Interactive features, such as the Test Yourself quiz in the below screen shot, are also prominent in the modules.

Additionally, there are audio files throughout the modules. In some cases, Keen’s voice describes and explains the animations; in others, she synthesizes information and articulates important concepts. I was impressed by the fact that these audio recordings are not scripted, which creates the conversational tone one might expect from a face-to-face lecture.

In addition to demonstrating the modules, Keen gave a fascinating talk about the philosophy that has guided their development.

“In the past,” Keen said, “I might have said a good teacher makes the connections between ideas transparent; now I think a new method of teaching is withholding that logic and guiding the students to make those connections on their own.”

Keen explained this by talking about “ideas whose time had come,” describing a situation where pieces of information became available in the world, and multiple people were able to independently synthesize that information and articulate a new concept. Keen argued that if we trace the steps of the people who originally made discoveries and present the same pieces of information to our students, then we can lead them to discover the concepts on their own.

In addition to the self-guided modules, which exemplify this philosophy, Keen has restructured her lectures so that she spends less time laying out the logical connections between ideas, and more time encouraging her students to articulate those connections. She also implemented Question Cards in her labs; students work in pairs and attempt to answer the question at a given station, and then check if they are right by reading the answer enclosed inside the card. “I was worried that the students would just look at the answers first, but that didn’t happen. Instead, students said they felt like their brain was being reformatted through the process. And that’s the whole goal! To teach them to approach the problem in a way an experienced learner would.”

Keen’s approach is a great example of learner-centered teaching: instead of being a keeper-of-knowledge who dumps information into her students’ heads, Keen leads her students to “ah-ha moments.”

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