Online Science Initiatives Are Changing Traditional Roles

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

South Central is a rural school district in South Dakota, and next year it will be offering science classes without science teachers (Josh Verges, “Four Rural S.D. Schools Let Students Run the Show,” Argus Leader 23 July 2011). “The teachers,” according to Verges, “are not expected to know the science curriculum; they just have to know students and how to connect them with resources and experts who can teach it.”

The emphasis will be on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), and the approach will be project-based: students work in small groups on a real world problem, and much of the learning is done online. The groups work independently, and teachers intervene only when needed.

The motivation for this change is economics – small, remote schools can’t afford to hire qualified science teachers. However, it puts a new twist into an old saw: Necessity is the mother of innovation. With this one decision, South Central steps out of the 19th century and into the 21st.

At the heart of this change is a radical reconception of roles: The teacher is no longer a subject-area expert but an expert learning guide, and the student is no longer a passive receiver of information but an active learner capable of planning and implementing his/her own learning. And needless to say, this change is made possible by the wealth of information and expertise on the web.

A related innovation is the online PlantingScience program. It’s free to all schools, but it requires an application process. This is how it works:

  • Classrooms around the country explore standards-aligned major themes in biology, using plants as strategic learning tools.
  • Students work in small cooperative groups to investigate a research question, with guidance from their teachers and scientist mentors.
  • Teams brainstorm together and make team decisions about their research question, experimental design, predictions, and interpretation.
  • Each team member keeps a research journal and records his/her own data.
  • Students upload their research journals and discuss their observations and evidence along with their data.
  • Students communicate with peer teams and scientist mentors about research ideas and progress.
  • Plant science mentors facilitate student thinking and provide insight to what scientists know and how they think.

In this model, too, the teacher is not expected to be a subject area (in this case, biology) expert. Her role is that of guide and facilitator. Students take on much of the leadership and responsibility for their own learning. For example, in spring 2011, a group of students from Honolulu’s Kamehameha Schools Kapalama Campus worked on a project to determine the effects of pH on the germination and growth of fine-curled cress. The PlantingScience coordinator was Dr. Catrina Adams, and the project scientist and mentor was Dr. Shelley James from the Bishop Museum, which is close to the campus. Click here to see the project report and some of the exchanges between the participants.

This marriage of school and community through the web is a vivid glimpse of how schools are being transformed by online technology. The implication for educators is that roles must change. From these examples, we can assume that subject-area expertise and learning facilitation may define exclusive or discrete roles and that training for each may need to be re-examined. Thus, in teacher-training institutions, we may see an emphasis on different curricula for each. Subject-area experts, for example, may be required to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree in their area before earning a credential in project-based mentoring; facilitators would earn a degree in education with a focus on guiding project-based learning.

The bottom line is that the new technology is providing exciting new windows of opportunity for learning and teaching, but the entire schooling enterprise, from classroom teachers and students to administrators and teacher trainers, must change, too.

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  1. […] Online Science Initiatives Are Changing Traditional Roles – […]

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