Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.

This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!

Monday, 22 July 2013

IUPS 2013: Is online learning the future?

A slight departure from the general programme: a discussion on the effectiveness of online learning resources and how they can be developed most effectively. Although I was only able to attend part of this session, many pertinent points were raised. Online learning platforms can offer great flexibility, allowing students to pick and choose modules tailored to their requirements, and can reduce travel costs. Achini Vidanapathirana gave her own experiences of online learning, including the APS course on writing abstracts. She was able to benefit from the input of experts located in completely different sectors of the globe and emphasised how being able to take the modules at her own pace was an enormous benefit due to English being her second language. Nevertheless, she made the point that knowledge retention was heavily influenced on how important students viewed the course to be for their development. This is particularly relevant as most online learning resources are heavily based on 'low retention' methods of learning, such as recorded lectures and Audi-visual aids, rather than 'high retention' activities, e.g. Demonstrations, hands-on practical activities and discussions. Furthermore, there is limited face-to-face interaction, which reduces students' motivation to contribute to any discussion formats and the opportunity for peer learning. Networking is an increasingly vital skill for the aspiring researcher and online courses rob students of the chance to develop this at an early stage of their career.
David Dewhurst, of the University of Edinburgh gave an evaulation of online medical programmes offered by his institute. He described how online scenarios could allow students to conduct 'experiments' that they couldn't otherwise do, working on tailored 'virtual patients'. This certainly has the advantage of avoiding costly and time consuming ethics procedures. Not ALL practical skills can be learnt online though - a fish dissection I did in my second year springs to mind. But online resources can certainly be useful in supporting limited wet lab sessions. In this case, watching a video uploaded onto the University online network was invaluable - when practicals are typically hectic, cramped, rushed affairs with the demonstrators struggling to turn everybody out after three hours, any advance preparation helps the experiment to go more smoothly, allowing students to learn more from the experience. perhaps a good example of online/ practical complementation is the 'Hazard Perception' element of the driving test. Exposing learner drivers to these situations ie real world would be frankly dangerous, yet it cannot replace the practical 'hours behind the wheel' ( more like days in my case) needed to master the skill. 

Dewhurst cited studies which found that online lectures or practical simulations were at least as good as (if not better) in terms of data interpretation, communication and knowledge acquisition. Nevertheless, most students preferred the actual lectures (to get hints of what may come up in the end of year exam, perhaps?). Students also seemed to access online resources at different times of e day/night, supporting the view that greater flexibility complements student lifestyles. On the other hand, the success of online platforms very much depends on the dedication and expertise of the institution. In some cases, whole modules can be put together out of lectures or resources cannibalised from other courses. Hence, the student pays for a course that lacks coherence and is not tailored to their aims. It takes time to master the skills required to develop online resources, placing researchers and teachers under additional pressure - it is much easier to put together a series of lecture slides. The more creative the course developer, the more interactive the module will be, containing more quizzes and self-assessment tests to aid knowledge retention. Dewhurst made the interesting point that, despite these time constraints, teachers/researchers often reject imposed third party designs, seeing them as unfit for their needs. Success is also dependent on the student's ability to manage their own learning progression - making the transition between spoon- fed GCSEs and independent study at University even more important. Should Sixth Form schools thus be introducing more independent and online elements in A Level provision? Most of the students subscribing to the Online modules offered by e University of Edinburgh are apparently professionals in full time work, roughly 30 years of age, that pay their own fees, with an approximate 50:50 male/female ratio. Many are internationals, who benefit by not having to travel or obtain a visa. It seems that a desire to remain in full time work is a key attractant of online courses, especially for those just advancing their careers. 
For myself, I believe that online resources can be very beneficial in supporting practical lessons, especially where time and cost can be factors that limit the learning experience. But they can NEVER  replace actually DOING the skill. I learnt a fair bit about hygiene and bacteria when I took an online course in food preparation so that I could volunteer with a student cookery group. But I only gained confidence in the kitchen by cracking eggs, making a mess, burning myself and getting over my fear of turning the oven on. What do you think? Comments below please!

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