Monday, August 18, 2014

The Power of Real World Scenarios in Online Education: Non-STEM Based Scenarios.

I want to share another student anecdote from a class I was teaching in 1985. It was a grade 8 class in language arts and the students had been given the task of thinking back to how their daily life had changed from a year ago, prepare a presentation and give the presentation in front of the class. I want to focus on one presentation by a student whose first name was Ali. He and his family had escaped from Lebanon the year before due to the continuing civil war in that country and came to live in Canada. This is a snapshot of what his daily routine was like while he lived in Lebanon.

"Our routine was pretty well the same every day. At dawn we would go down to a basement which was poorly lit because it was at that time that the shelling would begin. We would have breakfast which would consist of whatever my father could scrounge in the streets the night before, being careful to watch for snipers. After breakfast, our father would take me and my brothers to another room in the house where we would continue with our education. He would place an AK47 rifle in front of us and test us on its parts and their function. We would practice loading and unloading it until we didn't have to think twice about it. Then came the real test where he would blindfold us and ask us to take it apart piece by piece. He would time us on it reminding us that our very lives and that of our mother and sisters depended upon us getting this right and quickly. After we were finished, we could remove the blindfold to see how we had done. Then we were blindfolded again and had to reassemble it quickly. This took a long time to learn. After we had repeated practice in these lessons, our father said that it was now time to go out and seek targets that were Christians to shoot...."

Our whole class was silent after this. None of us knew what to say to Ali but many of us had questions. One student asked why they came to Canada. Ali said that the main reason was that their youngest brother had been shot and killed and that their mother was in such grief that she wanted our father to take us away from the bloodshed and killing. So, as a family they chose Canada because Ali's father had relatives in Canada that they could live with until Ali's dad got work.
One important question that another student asked was why the children were taught to kill others. He said that they had been taught as their father and his father before him had been taught that they must kill their enemies.

Credit: Ramzi Haidar(

However, Ali also said the following about his wishes for the future:
  • He wished that the cycle of violence and hate could end. He said that our future now is to be born to die in Lebanon.
  • He wished that somehow a sanctuary for the next generation could be found where the new generation both friend and enemy could meet and learn the truth about each other. That they could look to a future where they could as adults work together to bring peace to their homelands.
  • He wished that the place where they would receive education together would be an environment of peace and learning.
Ali's wishes may be naive and perhaps unobtainable but his dream should not be disregarded and notice that his hope lie in education.

So, what does this all have to do with real world scenarios and online education? Perhaps this is the very issue that a young generation should collaborate on in an online environment. Although it is not a STEM based project, it holds potential and involves cross disciplinary learning. The "Sanctuary" scenario is worthwhile to consider and develop because Ali's nightmare is being played out daily in many parts of the world. I don't know where Ali is today. I just know that he and his family, if they are still in Canada, are no longer ducking for cover when a loud noise occurs in their new land.

Next...some ideas on how the Sanctuary Scenario might be developed....

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Sorcerer's Apprentice in the Digital Age: Mentor Networks and Re-Thinking Learning Objectives

In the previous post I suggested to you that if we are to realize a new culture of innovation within our societies, how we educate young people will be key. I suggested to you that given the need to design e-learning courses in which the learner is an agent of change in the world that they live in, we need to develop cross disciplinary learning that will utilize professional mentor networks that students can connect with readily. The idea that the teacher is the fountain of knowledge that students can turn to in tackling real world issues and problems is over. Today's teacher can't possibly fulfill the role as defined by the past. If the teacher is to re-define his or her role as a change agent, he or she must become more than just a facilitator. He or she must become a mentor and activator who can help students learn how to connect with others who are needed in addressing the problems that they tackle. This points to the need of mentors who are on the leading edge of their fields. In this scenario the educator is like a conductor of an orchestra who directs and imagines how the parts of the education pieces fit together in a grand opus that not only benefits the students but ultimately benefits the societies that these students become citizens of.

Transformational teaching of this order also requires us to re-think how we arrive at learning objectives and how we assess the learning outcomes. If we accept the need to establish these mentor networks on a global scale then we must realize that these mentors will have a role in the design of learning outcomes because only they know what are worthwhile components of their discipline that play a vital role in the solution of the real world problems that students will face in the course they are taking. This means that the educator in collaboration with the mentor network would co-design the learning objectives. The educator would share his or her expertise dealing with how people learn (pedagogy) while the mentors whether they are game designers or Astronomers would give guidance so that their perspective is well represented by the problem and will be properly assessed when students responses are examined. The mentors become stakeholders in the education of a digital generation.

If the learning objectives are co-designed by educators and the particular mentor network in play, then it also stands to reason that these mentor networks would take part in the assessment of student solutions. I have already described how assessment might work in a previous post dealing with the Mt. Everest Scenario. These mentor networks can also do what has always been a struggle for educators. It is important to students that they receive feedback on what they have created from those who students would consider to be important people in the disciplines that were involved in what they were learning. Mentors could provide the opportunity to showcase student solutions in their professional journals and have feedback such as questions and suggestions directed back to the students first and then the educator who as an activator gives students direction.

What we are faced with is a great opportunity to engage and inspire. It starts with the idea that transformative teaching is more than just the pedagogy, it is also an art. Sir Kenneth Robinson has the final word here about the changing role of the educator in all of this:

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Sorcerer's Apprentice in the Digital Age: Creating Mentor Networks

In previous posts dealing with the development of real world scenarios as part of e-learning courses, you would have noticed that more than once I mentioned the use of professional mentors in the Sciences in particular that students needed to have access to in order to explore the type of cross disciplinary learning required by the scenarios. In this post I would like to describe to you how such a thing might be structured and set up.

Credit: phanlop88

The question is why should leading people in their particular discipline want to be part of a mentor network and be available to students who have an interest in their field? The best way to answer that question is to consider why apprenticeships existed at the time of the trade guilds in the 13th-14th centuries(Middle Ages). The reasons for taking on young apprentices were so that what was taught by the master could survive but also so that new ideas and refinements could be inspired. The world of the various disciplines is being impacted and changed by the exponential advance of technology and the Internet. The reasons of the original masters are still relevant today for those who are on the leading edge of their disciplines.

Another reason is to continue innovation and establish it as a cultural norm. Consider the students that I mentioned in the anecdotes. How far could they have gone in their pursuits if they had had access to a professional mentor network? How much could they have been inspired to be creators of new knowledge and skill sets which would benefit their respective cultures? One very apparent problem which would explain why such an idea might be rejected is the realization that some of the leading people in specific disciplines are the products of an industrial model of education which says that you can not contribute new knowledge  and skills until you have graduated from a university or college.

Credit: DigitalArt

I have a confession to make to you. The student who is labelled "Jack" is my story. I tell you this because I want you to try to understand the incredible feeling of excitement that you experience when you discover something new through your own efforts in which you add new ideas and skill sets to a discipline. This is what we want to nurture in the new digital apprentices but the caveat here is the importance of others valuing your contribution to knowledge and skill sets.

How do you set something like this up?

Just as Medieval masters and apprentices operated through guild associations, disciplines also operate through associations that speak for their members and convey their members wishes. For example the Royal Astronomical Society speaks for many in the scientific disciplines germane to Physics and Astronomy. Developing such networks begins with a willingness to share ideas and the ability to carefully assess the forces at work in the shaping of e-learning. Connecting with such associations will be a key.

Credit: Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee

Next---More on mentor networks and their impact on learning objectives and assessment

The Sorcerer's Apprentice in the Digital Age: The Need for Mentor Networks--Introduction

I have some stories that I wish to share with you. The purposes for these stories will become clear as we proceed through. I want to share with you some anecdotes about students that I have had the privilege of teaching. The names have been changed to protect their right to privacy:

Michelle: "Michelle was an all around good student. She was 13 yrs. old and had parents who not only supported her but also the teachers. She had discovered at an early age that she had an interest in Science, and in particular the Biology component of Science. During her time at school she took part in producing science projects, in science fairs and used the Internet extensively to pursue her interests. During the summer, she took advantage of summer offerings at the local university. Before Michelle graduated from high school, she had developed a new cost effective method for treating Malaria. She was able to do this despite the lack of encouragement from the public school system."

Dave & Rick: " Dave and Rick had been labelled as 'difficult students' by the system because they often challenged their teachers concerning how school computers were being used in their classes. Due to their extensive use of the Internet at home, they learned a great deal about computer networks and how they worked. Out of curiosity, they examined the school network and noticed that it was vulnerable to attacks from outside. They offered to re-write code to patch the weaknesses they found. The system told them to stay away from the network. Today, Dave & Rick are employed by corporations to troubleshoot their networks."

Ron: "Ron was a shy individual but a good student, especially in the areas dealing with spatial reasoning and logical reasoning. Ron discovered that he had an interest in the school robotics club and so he joined. He helped build a robot that operated through the use of specialized sensors that coordinated the robot's movements. The program that the robot used was the program supplied by the company that supplied the kits. Ron went with his team mates to a robotics competition. When the evaluators asked his team to run their robot through a maze, they discovered that for some reason the robot could not handle the maze. Ron looked at the program used to run the robot and re-wrote some of the code on the spot. Not only did the robot run through the maze in record time, the evaluators asked to see how he had re-written the program."

Jack: "Jack was an undergraduate student at a university at a time when the use of the Internet was reserved for select university researchers. Jack had been taking a couple of courses that struck him as being interesting. One was Abnormal Psychology and the other was Neurophysiology. In studying Abnormal Psychology, he became intrigued with the physiological readings displayed by patients diagnosed as psychopathic personalities. In his Neurophysiology course he had learned that the Hypothalamus in the brain was an area that had an effect on emotions and that certain neural hormones were involved in the physiological readings. As a result he spent hours in medical school library researching these hormones and their effect on emotion. He came up with a theory that psychopathy might be caused by an imbalance in the production of these hormones in the Hypothalamus. He wrote a paper on it for his Abnormal Psychology class which was marked by a graduate student. His theory was later confirmed not only with respect to Psychopathy but also in regards to Schizophrenia. Jack never received credit for the theory."

Credit: DigitalArt

The question is: "What is the common thread in each of these anecdotes? The answer is that all were unpublished, non-credentialed young people who contributed new knowledge or skill sets to established disciplines. All achieved what they did through the support of parents and teachers but no mentors and with the use of the Internet (except for Jack).

I am sure that you could also share similar anecdotes from your own experience in dealing with young people. At one time we would have labelled these students as simply exceptions to the norm but now what we are seeing is an evolving pattern of these types of young people appearing more and more on the scene. We have the reports of 14 yr. old students writing apps for mobile devices and we have some schools willing to teach computer coding to primary age students. With the advancement of technology and more access to the world wide web, we have opened a door that we can't close!

Next---- The need for professional mentor networks and how this will impact our learning objectives and methods of assessment...

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Power of Real World Scenarios: Loop-Back Scenario #2:" Super Bugs, Viruses and Global Pandemics"

In this scenario, Team Bravo will use what they have learned and the skill sets they have developed from the moon colony scenario to look at a challenging real world scenario that is current and is becoming a growing global concern among the nations. In this scenario the importance of collaborating with a number of mentors who are on the leading edge in their fields is highlighted. Again the cross disciplinary nature of the scenario focuses on a STEM combination of skill sets and knowledge.

Scenario #2: "The Super Bug Pandemic

Description for Students: " Medical authorities from the World Health Organization(W.H.O.) in coordination with the Center for Disease Control (C.D.C.) in Atlanta, Georgia (USA) are reporting that the increasing immunity of "super bugs" to known available vaccines is advancing faster than health organizations ability to develop more powerful vaccines to counter the threat. A new approach is needed that is different from the path that we have been following. What is needed is a plan that makes use of new technologies and we need it yesterday! Although "super bugs" are not viruses, we hope to establish protocols through first taking a look at a virus and ascertaining if what we learn can be used to treat "super bugs" as well.


As a team, it is your mission to use the knowledge and skill sets that you have acquired in your research on medical uses of an innovative technology called:"Nanotechnology" and working with a mentor group who were some of your contacts on the moon colony collaboration, to come up with a plan to combat this serious problem. For your test simulation and trials which you will perform as computer simulations, your focus will be on the Ebola virus outbreak in Sierra Leone, Gabon, and Guinea in West Africa. Recently 660 people have died from this type of hemorrhagic fever (EHF). Ebola is known to kill 70% of those infected. From your research on viruses, we hope to learn if this technology may also be used in treating bacterial "super bugs".

Credit: Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics(2011)
Although conventional attempts to stop or eradicate the virus have not produced viable results, it is hoped that with your collaborative skills and mentors from the following cross disciplines, you will be able to come up with at least a plan which you will need to describe and explain your reasoning for your decisions. The disciplines you will need mentoring from are:

  • Virology
  • Immunology
  • Human Physiology
  • Nanotechnology
  • Game designers ( to design the simulation you will run)
  • Quantum Mechanics
Your tasks are as follows:
  1. Investigate Nanotechnology with respect to medical applications. Start with plans to use Nanobots to target Cancer tumours.
  2. With the aid of a game and simulation designer,create a digital simulation that displays an Ebola virus strand in a simulated environment and a Nanobot. Using the help of the Nanotechnologist and the game designer, create an animated  Nanobot whose purpose is to seek out Ebola virus strands to destroy them.


Credit: Nanorobot

 Using the computer simulation, run trials on the use of the Nanobot in relation to the Ebola virus strand. Create a digital journal of your trials and their results. Collaborate with people on your team and your mentors to come up with a plan that you can defend from a science, technology, engineering and math perspective. Below are some useful facts that are germane to the field of Nanotechnology:

  • a nanometer is one billionth of a meter
  • a Hydrogen atom is approximately a tenth of a nanometer in diameter
  • a DNA molecule is 2-3 nanometers thick
  • Salmonella, the cause of Typhoid Fever is around 2500 nanometers in length and about 500 nanometers in width with a narrow tail-like flagellum also 500 nanometers long
  • Ebola is 970 nanometers long and has a diameter of about 80 nanometers
A Nanobot might look like the following but on a much smaller scale:

Finally, what would an attack on a virus look like. This is only an artist's conception:


Note: In a project like this, the tasks could be broken down over a long time period. Next post will deal with the learning objectives in these scenarios and the importance of developing mentor networks between students, their instructor and scientists willing to devote time for mentoring students in their specific fields. This scenario would be targeted for secondary students and above.