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Engaging online students by activating ecological knowledge

Citation

Sparks, Eric et al. (2021), Engaging online students by activating ecological knowledge, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.b8gtht79q

Abstract

The current COVID-19 pandemic has forced the global higher education community to rapidly adapt to partially- or fully-online course offerings. For field- or lab-based courses in ecological curricula, this presents unique challenges. Fortunately, a diverse set of active learning techniques exist, and these techniques translate well to online settings. However, limited guidance and resources exist for developing, implementing, and evaluating active learning assignments that fulfil specific objectives of ecology-focused courses. To address these informational gaps, we (1) identify broad learning objectives across a variety of ecology-focused courses, (2) provide examples, based on our collective online teaching experience, of active learning activities that are relevant to the identified ecological learning objectives, and (3) provide guidelines for successful implementation of active learning assignments in online courses. Using The Wildlife Society’s list of online higher education ecology-focused courses as a guide, we obtained syllabi from 45 ecology-focused courses, comprising a total of 321 course-specific learning objectives. We classified all course-specific learning objectives into at least one of five categories: (1) Identification, (2) Application of Concepts/Hypotheses/Theories, (3) Management of Natural Resources, (4) Development of Professional Skills, or (5) Evaluation of Concepts/Practices. We then provided two examples of active learning activities for each of the five categories, along with guidance on their implementation in online settings. We suggest that, when based on sound pedagogy, active learning techniques can enhance the online student’s experience by activating ecological knowledge.

Methods

We used The Wildlife Society’s (TWS) list of online higher education ecology-focused courses as a guide for identifying and classifying our initial categories of learning objectives (The Wildlife Society, 2020). First, we reviewed the fields of study (e.g., categories of ecology-focused courses) for courses offered online that were listed on the TWS website. Specific fields of study listed included: Biology; Botany; Communications; Ecology; Humanities; Physical Sciences; Policy, Administration, and Law; Quantitative Sciences; Statistics; Sustainability; Wildlife and Natural Resource Management; Wildlife Biology; and Zoology. Collectively, we have taught courses in most of these fields of study; we only lack higher education instructional experience in courses dedicated to the Humanities field of study. After reviewing the fields of study, we used our collective experience to develop a preliminary list of five learning objective categories that we postulated were broad enough to encompass all of the course-specific learning objectives for the ecology-focused fields of study.

Next, we gathered information directly through institutional websites and Google searches to verify our initial categorization of course-specific learning objectives for online courses that aligned with the list on the TWS website. We browsed course catalogs and departmental pages to locate syllabi for courses considered to align with fields similar to those listed on the TWS website. In cases where syllabi were not linked on institutional pages, we used key term Google searches to find available syllabi for courses. Key terms included the name of the institution paired with a field of study and the words “syllabus” and “online.” We only obtained syllabi for courses currently offered at an institute; however, course syllabi were not restricted to the current academic year. Dates listed on procured syllabi ranged from 1999-2020. Additionally, some syllabi that we obtained were listed as “example syllabi,” meaning they were from a previous year of the course, but the date was removed. We were not able to obtain syllabi from every institution listed on the TWS website due to limited accessibility. However, we did obtain syllabi from every field of study listed on TWS webpage.

Then, we compared the course-specific learning objectives to the initial framework for our five learning objective categories. We made slight modifications to two of our preliminary categories to better align them with consistent themes across the procured course-specific learning objectives. Our final five categories of learning objectives were (1) Identification, (2) Application of Concepts/Hypotheses/Theories, (3) Management of Natural Resources, (4) Development of Professional Skills, and (5) Evaluation of Concepts/Practices.

Finally, we categorized every course-specific learning objective listed on each syllabus into one of our five learning objective categories. Specifically, one person categorized all of the course-specific learning objectives based on keyword terms and synonyms of keyword terms we developed for each of our learning objective categories. For example, keyword terms for our Identification learning objective category included (1) define, (2) describe, (3) identify, (4) learn, and (5) understand. Many course-specific learning objectives were broad and encompassed several keywords, thereby matching more than one of our categories. For example, where identification of a term was a learning outcome, the course-specific learning objective also often included the application of the term; therefore, this particular learning objective would align with our Identification category and our Application of Concepts/Hypotheses/Theories category. In cases like this one, the broadly-written course-specific learning objective was given credit for multiple categories. It should be noted that the intent of this categorization scheme is not to rank the quality of courses or make an assertion that a course is lacking in certain aspects. The sole purpose of the exercise was to determine if our five learning objective categories indeed explained most course-specific learning objectives that were listed on syllabi across many ecology-focused courses.

Funding

National Academies of Sciences Gulf Research Program, Award: 2000009810

Environmental Protection Agency, Award: Gulf of Mexico Program 00D85919

Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, Mississippi State University

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Award: NA16NOS4200088

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Award: 8200025414

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Award: Office of Sea Grant NA10OAR4170078

National Academies of Sciences Gulf Research Program, Award: 2000009810