One of the required classes in the science teacher education program focuses on using technology to enhance science instruction in middle and high schools. The science teacher education program emphasizes having K-12 students both learn scientific knowledge (e.g., facts, laws, theories, etc.) and scientific practices. Scientific practices are those things that scientists do, such as planning and carrying out investigation and analyzing data. Our current teacher candidates should have experience engaging in all eight practices. In this class, part of learning how to teach science involves Pasco’s Probeware, which are devices that collect and analyze data during scientific investigations.
During the fall 2018 semester, I taught this class, which included both students who attend class in person and students enrolled via the Gadsden distance campus. This presents a challenge — how do students learn how to use Probeware and participate in science practices during class when they live over two hours away?
To solve this problem, I used the Zoom videoconferencing platform provided by the University of Alabama System. While other “free” platforms exist, the University’s Zoom program is far easier use, has amazing options (e.g., saving sessions to UA+Box, FERPA compliant, etc.), and is much more dependable.
My distance students would Zoom into class each week. I scheduled recurring meetings on Zoom, so the students had the same link for every class during the semester! I emailed the link to everyone before class each week, just to be sure. I then split my students into groups of three to four — including the distance students. To include the distance students in a lab group, I used the breakout rooms feature. Each breakout room contained one distance student and one computer in class. We have access to a class set of small netbook computers that have webcameras, so I set up a netbook at each lab group that included a distance student who joined the Zoom meeting from class.
In their groups, students planned and carried out a number of investigations during the semesters, such as investigating electromagnets and blood types. Each of these investigations relied on different Probeware and engaged students in all eight practices. Among the practices, distance students participated in designing the procedure for the investigation; determining how best to analyze data and support claims with evidence; to construct explanations for observed phenomena; and, use mathematics and computational thinking. The only thing the distance students were not able to do was physically manipulate the equipment. But, through the video conferencing portion, they were able to see how their group members were using the equipment and provide their ideas on what to do.
Thinking about how to engage our distance students in authentic disciplinary practices (be it in science, history, business, psychology, or any other discipline where faculty teach and research) and to benefit from the intellectual and social engagement with their peers will only increase in importance as more distance students become part of the Alabama student body. I think that my use of the Zoom platform is one way to help students establish and access learning communities.