What challenges do online projects pose for teachers?
The most common problem is where do you fit in time for an online
project in an already bulging schedule? Is it worth eliminating or
down-sizing some content topic? Only the classroom teacher can judge
where or if online projects fit into his or her teaching. What to
cover in depth, and what to skim through superficially is always an
issue in teaching -- more so in biology than in any other discipline.
The National Science Standards urge us to address the nature of
science and the process of science in our teaching. Online projects
can be a means of putting students in the active role of researchers,
learning by doing, revealing the assumptions and tenets of the
scientific method in a concrete way as they go.
In our tightly organized course outlines, it often happens that we
are teaching about nematodes when an online project about plants or
environmental policy appears on the horizon. How important is it to
adhere to a logical sequence of topics set forth in September and how
important is it to seize the moment and join in a stimulating
collaboration with other student researchers? Only the classroom
teacher can weigh the many considerations that go into this decision
(constraints of district achievement tests on content, the interests
and personalities of students in the class, resources, etc.). Often,
this challenge is really an opportunity to point out the connection
between topics in biology. For example, nematodes are important pests
on crops. They occupy a major niche in ecosystems and are affected by
our policy decisions. Some cause illness in humans. You can connect
virtually any 2 topics in biology.
One might argue that being able to stop what you are doing,
observe, and hypothesize is a scientific virtue. What if Alexander
Fleming had thrown out those funky plates contaminated by blue mold
because they weren't on the lab agenda? Real science is not always
convenient. It takes time and persistence. Experiments usually don't
"work" the first time, but require repetition and refinement. Online
projects can provide this lesson also.
Online projects involve collaboration at the classroom level and
beyond. To make them work educationally, teachers need to incorporate
stragies of cooperative learning and individual accountability into
their lesson plans. We can discuss specific ways to do this below.