Teaching STEM with technology and collaborative work

Voice Analyzer with Gas and Mirrors, Natural Sciences and Technology Museum, National & Kapodistrian University, Athens

Out-of-the-box approaches and practices for thinking critically  

authored by Marianna Vivitsou

Thinking STEM in education

The theme of STEM education is intertwining with many of the basic areas of interest in OLIVE and relates to different outputs and project activities.  

These include, among others, the need to establish virtual peer mentoring teams to strengthen exchange of ideas and learning from one another, to define new practicum strategies and set a framework for shared teaching in the OLIVE partner universities. Undoubtedly, this is a complex situation. Yet, this is not the only kind of complexity that approaching STEM education presents.  

As it spans across major fields of science, research and teaching, considerations arise concerning the epistemologies and the pedagogies that should underlie the effort to introduce a working model of STEM (i.e., an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in education. In addition to that, although science, technology, engineering and mathematics related occupations are expected to experience rapid growth in the years to come, STEM does not seem to be for all.  

Recent studies show that gender gaps and other divides and inequalities in the professional domain are rooted within expectations, stereotypes and structures established and observed early in the education continuum. In alignment with these, an introduction to a collection of articles with a focus on participation barriers, Nature Research and Scientific American point out that many groups are underrepresented in research including women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and socially disadvantaged populations. Far more action, therefore, needs to be taken in institutions and scientific communities. 

Taking these insights into consideration, in the pedagogical team of OLIVE we departed to set some commonly agreed principles aiming to frame the basis of joint work. At the same time, we recognized the need to think and act differently and in ways that would align with outofthebox approaches and practices. «Out of the box» is a metaphor that signifies new, creative ways that are go beyond established (here, teaching) practices and look into the multiple dimensions of phenomena with a critical eye.  

On this ground, we agreed to bring multiple perspectives into our conceptualization of STEM and, in this way, aim for increased student engagement and initiative-taking for problem solving. Given that OLIVE itself is a collaboration-based project, the activities of the pedagogical team cannot but be consistent with the principle of working together. Therefore, in order to allow for student agency to emerge by calibrating upon a critical lens, our plan for Stem education relies on teamwork and combines individual with work in groups.  

As technology-enhanced Stem education goes along with similar principles, we set out to think together in our regular pedagogical informal discussions.  

Teaching STEM with technology

Technology-enhanced STEM education is a major goal in OLIVE and includes the use of real time and asynchronous (I.e., on demand) technologies for teaching. With this in mind, the focus of the discussion was on possible ways to integrate Moodle and Zoom in the teaching of a STEM-related phenomenon.  

Moodle and zoom are two of the most popular platforms of our era. Their popularity, however, resides in quite distinct reasons that reflect wider societal phenomena. Moodle, for instance, offers a safe space for teachers to set up virtual classrooms, share materials and invite students to participate in discussions, upload their assignments, offer their feedback. It is open coded software and institutionally bound. While the use of Moodle serves on-demand pedagogical needs, Zoom is a real-time web-conferencing platform. While Moodle has been around for more than a decade, the popularity of Zoom spiked to serve the needs for remote teaching that the Covid-19 circumstances and restrictions generated.  

So, we used a real-life pedagogical scenario to discuss practices on these two teaching environments. 

You are planning to teach a Stem-related phenomenon to a class of year 3 students. As you will be using both Moodle and Zoom for virtual teaching and real-time sessions, think along these lines of a real-life pedagogical scenario:  What practices and activities would encourage students to apply critical thinking on the phenomenon that will be taught? What should the students be able to do, as critical thinkers? What practices and activities would be a better fit for group work on Moodle? What practices and activities would be a better fit for breakout rooms? 

A real-life pedagogical scenario 

Supporting collaborative work for thinking critically 

The most popular themes among the discussants were connected with environmental/climate change issues, such as volcanoes and how, for instance, extractivism impacts their action or in-action; plastics and recycling; and the COVID-19 phenomenon.  

As practice has shown, there can be links between these two different types of online environments, as both can support critical thinking and collaborative work. However, this happens in different ways. For example, Moodle, with its on-demand built, can support the process of reflecting upon learning. By sharing textual, multimodal, audio-visual materials (e.g., articles etc.), the students have the opportunity to read and think deeper, then develop their ideas on a topic in written form, e.g., in learning diaries.  When students read one another’s work, a space opens up for offering comments and suggestions for improvement. Peer assessment and peer learning becomes, in this way, possible.  

On the other hand, real-time web-conferencing platforms (e.g., Zoom) encourage collaboration in live mode. Everyone can present there, in real-time. Having chosen an object (I.e., a topic, theme, phenomenon etc.) to examine, by analysing its different dimensions and trying to figure out possible answers to why and how questions. Live classes, therefore, can be opportunities for discussions through a critical lens and open up the space for students, not just read and listen, but offer opinions and contribute to the collective wisdom of the class with logical and clear argumentation.   

Teaching Stem out-of-the-box means…  

Critical thinkers will be able to:  

  • Take a stance toward different claims  
  • Read critically (e.g., articles)  
  • They can get there:  
  1. By asking questions  e.g., Covid-19 and its impact on health, economy etc.  
  2. By recognizing naïve conceptions, truth, lies – e.g., what is true/not true about Covid-19 and vaccination  

Teaching, assessment of learning, technology and other entanglements

Favorite street on a cloudy day by anim@vit

Co-authored by Marianna Vivitsou & Hanna Posti-Ahokas

How does digital learning challenge our thinking around assessment? 

Assessment is a multi-dimensional and highly debated topic in higher education research and practice. The Olive team gathered in its first pedagogical café to discuss assessment with the aim to think how the digitalization of learning challenges practice. The new ways of teaching and learning require new ways of assessment. How to respond to the change in a way that makes assessment work towards it intended purpose of supporting learning?  

Assessment in focus 

Assessment is multi-dimensional and highly debated. For a start, it draws parallels with research, as when we set off to construct an assessment tool, we should take care that we assess what needs to be assessed. Validity, therefore, is one significant criterion of the assessment process. Second, assessment seems to be often confused with evaluation. While evaluation is product-oriented, assessment is process-oriented. In education, evaluation concerns the outcomes of a course, a lesson or a project, where learning has taken place. Contrary to this, assessment concerns the process that leads to learning outcomes. The fact that what constitutes a learning outcome (or not) is itself a highly debated area makes even more pressing the need to revisit assessment and evaluation as intertwining and overlapping concepts.  

In this complexity, it could be helpful to think of what the focus of our assessment is and what the purposes of assessment are 

In the small group discussion during the pedagogical café, one recurrent theme was how the use of technology in teaching and learning relates with assessment. While it was agreed that the new ways of teaching require new ways of assessment, the path towards renewed assessment practice is not a clear cut one. The functionality of technology and fairness of online assessment have already manifested as obstacles after moving teaching and learning onto digital and technology-supported environments. These may be considered as implications of more fundamental issues around assessment.  

Assessment should be connected to the learning objectives and expected outcomes. However, learning is not always measurable. The instrumentalist, exam-focused culture of assessment does not necessarily capture/support deep understanding. Large student groups may also have influenced the use of instrumentalist approaches. However, as Gandini & Horák (2020), among others, point out, it is essential to seek ways to integrate into technology-supported assessment personalised feedback for students. In this way, we will be able to highlight areas they need to work on and give suggestions, and, thus, guide them through their future learning. In addition, personalised feedback opens up the whole process of assessment and allows the students to get deeper into its logic. Based on this understanding, students can be better equipped to modify their own approaches and practices in the learning process.  

The way forward? 

How could the assessment methods evolve? Self- and peer-assessment was mentioned as a potential area of development. Also, a more profound, complex understanding of learning could result in development of more meaningful assessment practices. As Woodhouse & Wood (2020) argue in their paper on developing doctoral students’ critical writing skills, peer assessment opened up a dialogic space for sustained engagement and learning. The students were involved in peer assessment and review activities or writing, editing and publishing a student-led journal over a sustained period. During that time, their ability to write critically developed, while the sense of feeling ‘at home ‘with academia was enhanced.

We, therefore, take such insights from the literature and our own experiences as a challenge for the OLIVE community and continue the pedagogical conversations that complement our understanding and help to generate change in our institutions.  

Food for thought:  

The following are terms from the literature on assessment. How are these different types of assessment and their effects visible in your current practice? What new would you like to bring in?  

Assessment types  

Diagnostic: when planning a course and we need to get a clearer picture of the students’ previous knowledge of the topics/phenomena etc. taught during the course 

Formative: takes place throughout the teaching of a course, the implementation of a project etc.  

Summative: takes place at the end of a course 

Objective: usually closed item, in the form of multiple-choice questions etc.  

Authentic: uses methods and techniques that are close to real-life situations, e.g., a debate, a group discussion, an experiment etc. 

Norm-referenced: how the performance of an individual compares to performance of a group of peers (e.g., a class of students within a school, across a nation etc.)  

Criterion-referenced: compares a person’s knowledge or skills against a predetermined standard, learning goal, performance level, or other criterion. With criterion-referenced tests, each person’s performance is compared directly to the standard, without considering how other students perform on the test. 

Performance-based: Students can create, perform, and/or provide a critical response. Examples include dance, recital, dramatic enactment. There may be prose or poetry interpretation. 

Backwash effect: Backwash effect is usually defined as the impact of assessment on learning and teaching. Backwash effect is positive if the assessment results in favourable changes in learning and teaching strategies; and it is negative if the changes are undesired and discourage students from adopting a deep approach to learning. Harmful backwash takes place when the contents and format of the test are not congruent to the objectives of the course or when certain skills are tested with, for example, a multiple-choice item format that results in the idea of giving a lot of practice in this type of test instead of practicing the skill itself. 

Wash-forward effect: how assessment influences the students’ future learning. F. ex., providing students with personalised feedback, directly linked to their performance, has positive washforward, because it means we can guide their future learning, highlighting the areas they need to work on to improve their language skills and giving them suggestions on how to succeed in academia.