Robert Lue is faculty director and principal investigator of LabXchange. At Harvard University, Rob is a professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology who is known for his work fostering innovative teaching and learning. He was founding faculty director of HarvardX, and currently serves as Richard L. Menschel Faculty Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning and faculty director of the Harvard Ed Portal.
Since 1998, Rob has also taught undergraduate courses acclaimed for their interdisciplinary approach. One of his courses, MCB 64: Cell Biology in the World, teaches fundamental concepts in cell biology in the context of individual life histories drawn from different parts of the world. Cases presented within the course delve into major biological events across the life history of a human being, weaving key concepts in cell biology with their societal implications. Shortly after Harvard announced that classes would move online for the spring 2020 semester in response to the COVID19 pandemic, Rob shared his experience recreating his course in an online setting.
Part 1: The Pivot to Online
Even if you’re very accustomed to doing things online, the process of taking a course that you have always taught entirely in person, and then transferring it to an online setting, is a significant pivot. My course, MCB 64, has been running for a number of years, and that foundation of experiences has been enormously helpful for tackling the challenge. The entire class as well as every class session is defined by a set of learning objectives, which is now a best practice in course design. These objectives lay out for your students what they are expected to do after a particular class meeting, assignment or activity. And it provides the instructor with a steady North Star for the course and all of its components.
In MCB 64, each of the objectives is connected with a specific assignment, lecture, and/or in-class activity. This has allowed me to look at each learning objective and think about how to meet it when we’re no longer face to face. For example, if the objective relates to being able to interpret data, and in class we would have a discussion that includes examining the data and critiquing the approach, we can more easily think about how to recreate that experience in a digital format. We also have to try to recreate that sense of serendipity, where students don’t know exactly what’s coming, and have to think in the moment, which is a very important aspect of teaching.
So much of how we teach is based on telling a story that connects facts and ideas with opportunities for our students to apply and/or critique them in a variety of ways. The storytelling arc or “golden thread” in a single class session or across the entire course provides our students with context and a scaffold to hang their developing ideas on. This is not well supported by the classic scenario with digital assets where you send your students to find a scattering of discrete things. You share a bunch of links on your course website or in your learning managing system. You send them to a video here, a PDF there. And then your students need to somehow synthesize all of those things. Your voice and your provocations are also often not there to provide that element of surprise and serendipity that so many of us try to create in the classroom.
LabXchange was built to allow educators to pull varied types of media together and sequence them into a learning pathway, with your own interstitial material that tells a story while allowing you to still provoke. This is the “golden thread” that we all use to connect our materials together into a coherent narrative for our students. In MCB 64, we already had our teaching fellows using LabXchange, in the context of section, as a digital platform for them to share section readings woven with additional materials reflective of student interests, their own work, a sense of who they are as scientists.
Originally, we hadn’t planned on scaling that up to the entire class — but now we can certainly do that. LabXchange gives you the flexibility you need to retell a story online, thereby personalizing the content to your course objectives and in better alignment with your student’s needs and interests. As educators, we are all storytellers. Before LabXchange, there really wasn’t an easy way to tell personalized stories to support learning in a digital environment.
I am thrilled to have the opportunity to use LabXchange for my full course. I was planning on doing it eventually, but now I can fully use it in the context of moving my brick-and-mortar course online.