Field Botany (BIOL 425) is a hybrid course designed for upper level undergraduate biology majors at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Virginia. It is a synthesis course that aims to connect prior knowledge of plant physiology and anatomy, ecology, and evolution with identification of plants in the field. The course is taught by Dr. Dianne Jennings and Ms. Jill Reid, Assistant Professors of Biology in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.
(The basic, essential, or enduring part)
Creating a durable, meaningful product drives learning. Jennings and Reid have witnessed how engaged students are when their learning results in the creation of something useful. Students have always enjoyed making field journals to share with friends and family, but when the assignment became a collaborative effort to make an online public resource, it elevated student engagement to a different level. “They get really excited when they are told that their field guide pages could be used by the public,” explains Dr. Jennings. A challenging project with a clear purpose and a real audience is a compelling reason for students to learn.
Digital course platforms have unique qualities and impact courses significantly. The digital technologies that instructors use impact how students engage with the course content, assignments, and learning community. An open WordPress platform, for example, allows for networking beyond the classroom, while a learning management system insulates students and their work from the public. Digital platforms also vary in their capacity for uploading images, embedding video, and encouraging peer-to-peer interaction. Several technologies can be used simultaneously for different aspects of the same course, but Jennings advises against incorporating too many new tools at once: “It’s difficult to assess multiple tools at the same time.”
(How digital technology optimized course impact)
Field Botany (BIOL 425) is a summer hybrid course that has been offered to upper level undergraduates since 2011. Students engage with online course materials through asynchronous class discussions hosted on a closed, VCU Blackboard site. They also participate in team-based instructor-led fieldwork, photographing, and filming specimens before uploading and organizing their work on an open WordPress site. Students are graded on their website contributions, an individual video project, and participation during online discussions and fieldwork.
Although the development of a field journal has always been the centerpiece of the course, the assignment’s format has changed dramatically over time. Individual, paper, text-based journals gave way to a collaborative, online, multi-media public resource. The change was inspired in part by students who instinctively included photos and pressed leaves into their journals even when it was not required. Wanting to encourage this practice, Jennings and Reid began to search for online platforms that might support large quantities of student-generated text, images, and video. They started with Google Sites but abandoned it after a semester because it lacked appropriate storage space and aesthetic appeal. Next they tried Blackboard Journal but found it cumbersome for uploading images. Moreover students lost access to their work after the semester ended, reducing the meaningfulness of the project.
But as Jennings now advises other faculty, “If at first you don’t succeed, try a different tool.” The Design Challenges Group at the VCU ALT Lab (then VCU Center for Teaching Excellence) introduced her to WordPress as a potential solution. “Here was a platform which allowed for easy uploading of images and video, and the product would be available forever for the students as well as the general public.” Reid adds that WordPress is also fairly easy to use: “For something like this to work, students have to be able to handle it. It must be intuitive.”
Both students and instructors have handled WordPress well, with students frequently taking pictures with their mobile phones and then uploading to the website directly from the field with ease. This not only makes it more likely that students will upload all their pictures, but also seals the mental connection between the real world and the class assignments.
Making the Connection
(How Field Botany embodies connected learning)
Field Botany (BIOL 425) learning is:
Participating in a peer-supported community. Connected learning environments are collaborative, fueled by peer feedback and assessment. Each week, Field Botany students engage in online discussions around a content-related prompt. Discussion forums are not only opportunities to engage with content but also to practice online professional discourse. Students are provided with explicit “Rules of Etiquette” and, with those in place, Jennings and Reid find that even young undergraduates are capable to governing their own discussion spaces. “We model what we want from students, but we find that peers can have a unique impact. Usually the strongest students post comments for discussion early and really raise the bar for the others. It’s amazing.”
Although they read the discussion threads, Jennings and Reid rarely, if ever, interrupt the flow of student interaction with corrective input. “Given the opportunity, students almost always correct each other,” says Jennings and Reid. Even when students make mistakes, the instructors are able to maintain their approach in part because they treat discussion forums as formative exercises: “Oftentimes we look at the quality of the argument rather than the correctness of the assertions. The correctness comes later.” In this case, the processes of thinking critically, communicating logically, and providing appropriate feedback are valued above technical accuracy.
Doing with purpose. Says Reid, “The students think Field Botany is great, because they have done important work that is going to last. They take ownership and pride in their work because what they have done is basically a publication. They have created something worthy.” Connected learning environments construct knowledge around a shared topic of interest. In this case, the students and instructors are united in a desire to create an accessible, accurate online resource that is available to anyone interested in the James River ecosystem. Field Botany, however, involves other assignments beyond creating the online resource. Jennings and Reid want every Field Botany assignment to be relevant, interesting, and meaningful for their diverse cohort of students. They create assignments that allow students to explore personal interests, but in ways that funnel energy towards academic achievement, civic engagement, and/or professional development.
For example, students must make five-minute videos for class but are free to focus on any aspect of field botany related to the James River Park System in their videos. Generally students choose to make videos related to their future career goals, but sometimes their choices reflect very creative thought processes. One student, for example, chose to represent the smells and textures of the plants through video. According to Reid and Jennings, “Those aspects of plants are very important to field botany, but we [as instructors] had never considered presenting them in a video.” When assignments are framed openly, students have the opportunity to contribute fresh or interesting perspectives, positively impacting everyone in the learning community.
Openly networked for greater impact. Openly networked refers to the opportunity for students to connect classroom learning with other aspects of living, working, or “doing” across space, time, and other spheres of influence or community. Field Botany is openly networked in three ways that would not be feasible non-digital learning environments. Students can access course materials regardless of their physical location. This accessibility encourages more time-on-task and enables frequent interaction with course content. Second, learning has the potential to go beyond the semester, since students can refer or add to the online guide after the semester is over. Finally, by producing an online botany resource, students are combining their studies with their participation in a larger community of practice – in this case, a community of James River Park System enthusiasts.