Will the MOOCpocalypse kill graduate science programs?

There is intense debate about what MOOCs will do to or for higher education. Recent articles by Jonathan Rees on Slate (The MOOC racket) and responses by Tim Worstall on Forbes (What MOOCS will really kill is the research university), by Jonathan Chait (College Professors are about to get really mad at President Obama) and Historiann (Historiann stumbles out of the wilderness to find the Lords of MOOC creation have successfully placed an advertorial in the Washington Post) are recent thoughts I’ve read on the topic. Jonathan Rees is one of the loudest critics of MOOCs on the grounds that they are bad for students and bad for college faculty. The fear is that, if colleges and universities award credit for MOOCs, and if large numbers of students use MOOCs instead of traditional classes to complete college degrees, the teaching faculty ranks will be drastically culled.

Tim Worstall has little sympathy for the plight of college faculty, but he points out that MOOCs could adversely affect research universities as declining tuition dollars would no longer be sufficient to subsidize faculty research. I’m not sure that he’s right about tuition subsidizing research at large research universities that receive large amounts of research grant dollars and indirect cost reimbursements. But I do agree that MOOCs may kill the research university, for an entirely different reason.

If MOOCs cause faculty numbers to diminish, I foresee massive disruption of graduate programs and the academic research enterprise, especially in the sciences. In the natural sciences, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows perform most of the research in academic labs. They constitute a highly educated, highly skilled, but low-paid labor force that makes academic research a great bargain for the nation’s research portfolio. A large fraction of science PhDs eventually become teaching faculty at one of the thousands of undergraduate colleges. Permanent positions for PhD scientists at research universities, government labs, research institutes, or industry are too few to accommodate more than a small fraction of the output of research university graduate programs. If college teaching jobs disappear, what will happen to these graduate students and postdocs?

I very much doubt that federal and industrial support for research will increase substantially. Many science PhDs already struggle to make a living as contingent faculty, or go from one temporary postdoctoral appointment to another (see this article in The Atlantic magazine about worsening career prospects for new PhDs). With no college-level teaching jobs, unemployment and underemployment for PhD-level scientists will rise to intolerable levels. How many students would then choose to undergo the rigors and privations of graduate school to earn a PhD?

If faculty ranks are the first casualty of a MOOCpocalypse, graduate programs will be inevitable follow-on casualties. A decline in our graduate programs will starve academic research labs and imperil the future of science in this country.

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Process of science & the scientific method

We begin our first semester introductory biology course (Biology 1510 Introduction to Biological Principles) by having students read Platt’s 1964 article on Strong Inference. Mark Hay likes T. C. Chamberlin’s paper on the Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses even better. These two essays get at the essence of good science: coming up with multiple alternative hypotheses and devising ways to test them all, as efficiently and rigorously as possible. But they are somewhat dry reading, and I’m not sure how much students actually learn from them.
I think I found an article that vividly illustrates these principles for our students. Gary Taube’s article for The Crux, a Discover magazine blog, shreds the recent, highly publicized reports about the dangers of read meat consumption and the benefits of eating chocolate. He systematically shows how these observational studies do not qualify as sound science because they do not propose and test alternative hypotheses.





Pan A, PhD, Sun Q, MD, ScD, Bernstein AM, MD, ScD, et al. Red Meat Consumption and Mortality: Results From 2 Prospective Cohort Studies. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(7):555-563. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287.

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Assessing the flipped classroom

At Pearson’s 10th Biology Leadership Conference, I’ve been amazed and impressed by how many instructors have either flipped their intro biology class, or are seriously contemplating it. There was so much interest that over 30 instructors voluntarily gave up one hour of the two measly hours of free time for an impromptu discussion of the flipped classroom.

One recurring question is how effective is the flipped classroom? Is it better than the active learning strategies that most here at the BLC already employ? Who benefits? Does one assess student learning in a flipped class the same way as in a traditional mostly-lecture class?

I’ve been very interested in assessment of my flipped class. Given high levels of student resistance and decline in my teaching evaluations by the students, the temptation is to give up and revert to my previous active learning strategies, if I find no evidence for student learning gains. For comparison with previous years, I had to stick with multiple-choice exam questions to measure student learning.

First, I gleaned isomorphic questions from the Module 3 midterm from Fall 2009 and Fall 2011 (the first semester I taught this module with the flipped model). With only 7 such questions, I found no significant differences in a T-test (mean F09 = 73.3; mean F11 = 74.7; p = 0.55). Not encouraging. But I noticed that these were mostly lower-level questions testing recall of basic concepts. The reason I flipped the class was that students were not performing as well as I like at higher Bloom’s taxonomy level questions – the application and analysis.

I then compared the Fall 2010 and Fall 2012 Midterm 3 exams. I chose the Fall 2010 exam because it had a similar proportion (about 2/3) of application/analysis questions as the Fall 2012 exam. Moreover, the Fall 2012 exam was crafted around several scenarios, with groups of questions around a single topic. The Fall 2010 exam also had clusters of questions, although not to the same extent as the Fall 2012 exam. In the interest of sharing and open education, the two midterm exams are attached to this post as pdf files.

I classified each question on the two exams as to whether they tested primarily recall (Bloom’s levels 1/2) or application/analysis (Bloom’s levels 3/4). Then I analyzed student performance on these exam questions and charted the mean performance for each type of question.


This figure shows that in the two midterms, students had much greater difficulty with the application/analysis questions than on the recall questions, regardless of year. On recall questions, student score averages in Fall 2010 and Fall 2012 were nearly identical. But students who experienced the flipped classroom in 2012 performed significantly better on application/analysis questions than students in Fall 2010 (p < 0.05, one-tailed T-test).

This evidence, limited as it is, will help me make a case to my future students for the flipped model. Moreover, I’m still in the early stages of figuring out the flipped model. I’m getting some good ideas to refine lecture videos (although I’m not convinced that lecture videos are that important), and have some ideas to improve what we do in class, with better learning activities and classroom response systems like Learning Catalytics. And I’m more excited than ever about the untextbook idea to encourage students to personalize and own their own electronic class notes.

Earlier posts about my flipped intro bio class




Midterm 3 exams: click links below to download pdfs



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Veronica Yan: More on Learning and Desirable Difficulties

Veronica Yan, a PhD student in the Bjork cognitive psychology lab at UCLA, gave a talk tonight at Pearson’s Mastering Leadership Conference about different study practices and student learning. I heard Robert Bjork talk about “desirable difficulties” a couple of years ago at Pearson’s Biology Leadership Conference, and it transformed the way I teach and how I advise students to improve their study practices. The research findings, that spaced study is superior to massed study, that testing (retrieval practice) is superior to repeated study, and that interleaved study is superior to blocked study, are all counter-intuitive, but robust and reproducible in multiple contexts. Robin Heyden summarized Robert Bjork’s talk very nicely in her blog post  so I won’t repeat those points here. In any case, the NY Times also ran a story in 2010.  Veronica Yan summarized some of the same work, and expanded into new but related territory.

Multiple Choice Questions

After relating the results that showed the remarkable effects of retrieval practice (repeated testing) on long-term memory, Veronica discussed multiple choice tests, a “necessary evil” for those of us who teach large classes. Poorly designed multiple choice questions, with non-competitive distractors (answers that are clearly wrong), encourage students to answer via pattern-recognition, and do not elicit the cognitive benefits of retrieval practice. However, multiple-choice questions with competitive distractors force students to engage in ways that benefit recall of related information. Students given multiple choice questions with competitive lures performed better on a subsequent cued recall test of related information, than students given questions with non-competitive lures. This improved recall of related information occurred even if the students answered the original multiple choice questions incorrectly.

Errorless Learning

This brings up the fascinating idea that making mistakes can enhance learning, as long as the mistakes are corrected. Veronica Yan described an experiment where some subjects are given 13 seconds to study a word association, such as whale: mammals. Another group of subjects are given 8 seconds to guess at the association of whale: ___?, then shown whale: mammals for 5 seconds. In later tests, the group that initially guessed at alternative associations (such as whale:dolphin) did better at remembering the correct associations that those who had studied just the correct associations.

Productive failure

She then discussed research by Kapur and Bielaczyc (2012) on “productive failure.” Groups of students in 3 Singapore schools worked on complex problems. The “productive failure” groups worked for 6 periods with no instruction or assistance from their teacher, and then received 1 period of instruction. These students got 0%, 7%, and 16% correct solutions to their complex problems. The “traditional instruction” group received 7 periods of directed instruction from their teacher, and achieved 91%, 93%, and 92% correct solutions. But on a post-test, where students were given 3 new well-structured problems, 1 complex problem, and 1 graphic representation problem, the “productive failure” group performed much better!

Veronica Yan compared this to the common Japanese teaching practice, where students work on complex problems and write out their incorrect solutions for all to see, and receive diagnostic correction. Exploring mistakes and receiving corrective feedback appears to be a powerful way of learning.

Attitudes and assumptions that impede learning

Veronica Yan concluded by suggesting that students and teachers need to change attitudes toward mistakes and learning. Massed and blocked study feels more effective, and yields better short-term results. More effective study that is spaced and interleaved feels more difficult, and takes more effort, but yields better long-term results. Indeed, if learning feels easy, then you may not really be learning.

I thought about my own students’ mixed reactions to my efforts to institute “desirable difficulties” in my classes. Some get angry that I’m not teaching, and say so in their course evaluations. Others get discouraged when they feel confused, and give up. I fear that in making mistakes, they say to themselves, “I’m just bad at this” or “this must not be the right subject for me”. I fear even more that making mistakes may reinforce any stereotype threat. I raised these concerns with Veronica after her talk, and she suggested that we need to find ways to help students change their attitudes and be better informed about how they learn best.

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Flipping a large Intro Bio class – round 2

After reviewing results and student responses to my first iteration of flipping my large Intro Biological Principles class last fall, I made a few revisions for this go-round.

The #1 student complaint from last fall was that watching the 30+ minutes long lecture videos before class took additional time. My own observations were that too many students came to class unprepared, and that watching the videos on-line could not be any more engaging than listening to a live lecture. On the other hand, other students really liked the flexibility of the lecture videos.

I also think I made a strategic mistake in making too much of a big deal out of flipping the class, as a wholly new experiment, and that I would not lecture. It added to a sense of melodrama and fueled complaints from some students that I was depriving them of live lectures.

So I made a few changes.

1. Scaffolding with an un-textbook: I would provide students with the essential concepts distilled to a web page, with links to additional material. I hope that students will see this as a service, and that if they can largely substitute the web page for the textbook reading, they will feel like this new format saves them some time.

2. No more 30+ minutes long lecture videos. Some concepts outlined on the un-textbook web page have embedded lecture videos, split into 5-6 min segments explaining just that one key concept. The maximum length of the videos is about 11 minutes, but most range 5-6 minutes.

3. Flipping with stealth: I am not making any announcement about flipping the class. Instead, I am taking the approach that this is a normal, standard way to teach. Perhaps some students won’t even notice that I’m not lecturing.

4. Explaining the intent of each part of the class. I begin with clicker questions largely based on the assigned reading (web page), calling it “retrieval practice,” explaining that studies have shown that the very attempt to remember something helps learning. I tell them that I examined their performance on the on-line homework (Mastering Biology), and that the day’s in-class activities will help them with the concepts that they found most challenging. I also show them where they could have found the information to answer the most difficult homework questions.

5. Adjusting some in-class activities to better suit students. Again, based on student reaction and performance from the first time, I revised some of the activities to better suit the time available and the level of student understanding.

That’s my 5-point plan.

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What might geology be telling us about the fossil record?

One of the themes of our evolution module is that the geosphere and biosphere co-evolved throughout Earth history. Evolution of life profoundly affected the geochemistry of the planet, and changing geological conditions in turn repeatedly stirred the pot of evolution. Ars Technica has a couple of nice stories on the gaps in the geological and fossil records.

The first deals with the question of how faithfully the fossil record tells the history of life. Evolutionary biologists from Darwin onwards have fretted about gaps in the fossil record, and creationists have seized on these gaps to state that lack of transitional forms falsifies evolutionary theory. Clearly, the fossil record depends on the deposition of sedimentary rocks and how well different types of organisms, particularly those with only soft body parts, become fossilized.

Scott Johnson’s article “The rock record got a bad rap. Fossil diversity accurately reflects history” discusses a Science paper by Hannisdal and Peters (2011), showing that both the rate of sedimentary rock formation and fossil diversity depend on environmental changes. The same factors such as sea level changes affect both global sedimentation rates and biological diversity. Therefore, the fossil record may be a more accurate indicator than previously thought of the history of life’s diversity.

An example of common-cause relationships among an environmental parameter (sea level), the rock and fossil records, and biodiversity. Arrows denote the direction of causality; “+” and “−” signs indicate measured or inferred positive and negative relationships. From J Crampton 2011 Science 334:1073-1074

The second article by Scott Johnson, “Missing rocks may explain why life started playing shell games” addresses the Cambrian explosion and the paucity of the fossil record preceding this period of great diversification of animal life. The geological record has a globally widespread gap, called the “Great Unconformity.”

Stratigraphy of the Grand Canyon, Wikimedia Commons, as shown in Scott Johnson’s article, “Missing rocks may explain why life started playing shell games.”

Johnson discusses a paper in Nature by Peters and Gaines (2012), that both the Great Unconformity and the Cambrian explosion could be explained by sea level rise.

Fig. 4 from Peters & Gaines 2012 The shift from widespread continental denudation to widespread sedimentation on the continents defines the Great Unconformity.

The sea level rise and increased weathering led to a buildup of ions and salts in the ocean, including calcium, that led to the formation of shells. Such hard protective coatings could then have driven an evolutionary arms race and rapid increases in body size, that are preserved in the fossil record as the Cambrian Explosion.

These two papers, both with Shanan Peters at the U. of Wisconsin, and well-explained by Scott Johnson, suggest that the fossil record and the geological record both record changes in global environment that shaped the evolutionary history of life. By reading the two together, we can have greater confidence that we’re not missing large chunks of this historical record.



Crampton, J. 2011 What drives biodiversity changes? Science 334:1073-1074 DOI: 10.1126/science.1214829

Hannisdal, B and SE Peters 2011 Phanerozoic Earth system evolution and marine biodiversity Science 334: 1121-1124 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210695

Peters SE and RR Gaines 2012 Formation of the “Great Unconformity” as a trigger for the Cambrian explosion Nature 484: 363–366 doi:10.1038/nature10969

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An idea for an untextbook for intro biology

Having reviewed significant parts of both standard textbooks and the recent on-line texts by Nature and OpenStax, I’m convinced that we need a radical departure. I call it the “untextbook”. I even have a title: An Evolutionary Framework for Biology.

This title contains double meanings. It’s “evolutionary” because the sequence of topics would start with evolution and discuss all subsequent topics from an evolutionary perspective:

1) historical development of scientific inquiry

2) definition and origin of life

3) earth history and evolutionary processes

4) molecules and membranes

5) cells and energy – from prokaryotes to eukaryotes

6) cellular reproduction, genetics and gene expression

7) evolution & diversification of major groups of organisms

8) interaction of cells & organisms with their environment

9) ecosystems, biomes, global change

It’s also “evolutionary” in the sense that, as a truly open source material, it will continually evolve through contributions from both instructors and students, and many forked versions will be modified and adapted to serve local needs.

It will be a “framework”, first in the sense that all intro textbooks are a framework that broadly surveys the various subdisciplines in the field. It’s also a “framework” in that the actual text will be skeletal; much of the content will consist of links to videos, animations, interactives, news articles, and blogs, with a sparse narrative to weave and introduce the topics. If someone has written and made public an explanation of a topic that is better than anything I could write, why not have students read that? I envision a collection of suggested links contributed by instructors and students, with curation, ideally by peer rating and comments.

And here’s the thing: it’s an untextbook because it will not be worth printing. Much or most of the value will be in the linked sources. It will best be viewed on a computer or tablet with an internet connection. It will be user-editable so the user can annotate his or her own notes, questions and comments (no more highlighting!).

I’d love to know what you all (instructors and students) think of this idea. I’m somewhat frustrated that these “new” biology texts from Nature and OpenStax stick to the paradigm laid out by Campbell & Reece. Campbell & Reece (& now others) is an excellent text for majors, as are Freeman et al. and Sadava et al. It’s just that the differences among them are splitting pedagogical hairs, and I’m getting impatient with the whole concept of a traditional textbook for teaching and learning. I see so much great material for students published on the web every year, why not take advantage?


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