Feature Friday: Technology for Deep Learning

Posted on: September 23, 2022

When Chiara Elmi came to JMU as a tenure-track Assistant Professor, she didn’t have a lot of teaching experience. “Before I moved to JMU in 2018, I was a researcher. At JMU, I am teaching and researching. In the past four years, I really grew up as a teacher.”

Working with instructional designers in JMU Libraries was one of the ways Dr. Elmi developed her skills and enthusiasm for online teaching. In this Feature Friday Q&A, Dr. Elmi shares about her experience and some of the tools and strategies that she picked up when classes moved online early in the COVID-19 pandemic that she is still using today. 

Q&A with Chiara Elmi

So, what are you teaching now?

I am teaching in the Geology and Environmental Science department–Physical Geology lab (GEOL 110L), Physical Chemistry and The Human Experience (ISCI 101), Mineralogy (GEOL 280), and last year I created a new course for Geology–Mineral Resources and the Environment (GEOL 311E).

Did you have experience teaching online before you worked with our instructional designers?

Very little experience. I tried some activities for middle schoolers when I was still in Italy, but I really didn’t apply these kinds of instruction in online settings until the pandemic.

Are you still teaching online?

I’m teaching two classes online. The other two are in person, but I integrate some online activities in these classes as well.

How does instructional design affect your teaching?

It improves my teaching a lot! I learned how to divide up topics in modules so it was more organized and clear for students. When I started to use these instructional design principles, my classes really improved. Even the course evaluations were moving in the right direction, so it really helped me a lot.

Is there anything from what you learned about online teaching that you’ve brought back to your in-person classes?

There are so many things. When I taught Mineralogy online in Fall 2020, I used 3D models or 3D scans of minerals. Now I’m using hand specimens, but I’m still using a poster activity where students present to their classmates. It helps them to summarize this huge amount of information on minerals classification and mineral properties and their uses. Students prepare their poster using Canva or PowerPoint and then they present their poster to that class. It helps them also to master their communication skills, which are so important in any career. They are responding pretty well and they like these activities. 

And in 2020 I invited two researchers into the class using Zoom. It’s relevant for students to understand that Mineralogy has a professional outcome. Last semester it was a hybrid situation, with the students in class and the researchers presenting on Zoom. They were researchers from the east coast, but they were not able to come in person and so it was convenient for them to present online through Zoom. 

How has the Libraries’ teaching and learning support transformed your teaching?

I’m still teaching two classes online, so it wasn’t just a temporary pandemic situation. I think that online teaching, if it is well designed, is really helpful, even for those that are working students, so they have more time for their family or complete their class assignments at their convenience according to their work-life schedule. And the online institute really helped me to understand the dynamics of online teaching and how to teach in a structured and organized way. They really opened a new world on my end.

How does using technology in your teaching connect to the research aspect of your role as a STEM faculty member?

Doing research in teaching was really a new trend for me, but I think educational technology, in particular if it is open access so you don’t have to pay a fee, is the best opportunity for students to interact with each other in online settings that sometimes can be isolating. Students might feel like, “I’m in my room and there’s nobody around me,” but social annotation tools can create an engaging collaborative environment. I use tools like Hypothesis, an online social annotation software. Students have a text to read, and they have to highlight sentences that catch their attention in the text. Through social annotations in the reading, they can explain and connect this information with the lecture material. And they can even reply to other students’ comments in the reading. Using social annotations, students benefit from reading the multiple viewpoints of their classmates and generating a digital collaborative conversation. 

I would love to hear about any other software or tips that you picked up.

I use another open access tool–a discussion tool called Kialo. Kialo allows the development of a discussion around a thesis, which is supported or challenged using pros and cons claims. It’s mostly an application of the scientific method for students on a specific topic, like, “Can a meteor impact our everyday life?” Based on the articles and newspapers or scientific papers that I provide them, they can do pros and cons of a hypothesis. Students tell me that they love this kind of discussion, and it’s all online. As with Hypothesis, students can respond to the comments of others and create engaging collaborative conversations.

I will get back to tools and tips, but first…can a meteor impact your everyday life?

No, I don’t think so. (Dr. Elmi laughs.) It’s a question to generate discussion. Even in the literature, there are some arguments that there are bacteria that can stick into these craters, but it’s research in progress. It’s really rare that a big asteroid hits the Earth. The last one that made a big impact was the dinosaur extinction, so…well, we are in a pandemic, so I’m not gonna say it can’t happen.

So what other tips or software did you encounter that you might share with other faculty?

In the lab, I’m using 3D scans of rocks and minerals. It’s like traveling around the world, because there are scanned collections of minerals from museums in Australia, in Romania, or in Europe in general, so it’s the best opportunity to see specimens that are not easy to access otherwise. I also use concept maps.

What kind of maps did you say?

A concept map – a visual representation to organize information around a topic. It results in a diagram with a central topic and hierarchical structure with key concepts and keywords that relates with the central topic. The relationship with the key concepts are branching off from the central topic and even from other key concepts within the map. The advantage of making a concept map is first, there’s no right or wrong way to make it and second, it is a visual way to organize and represent knowledge. I’m using C-MAP in Mineralogy. With C-MAP, you can create a map that is even bigger than a letter-size notebook page. In the Physical Geology lab, I use Coggle.it, and it is graphically more appealing than C-MAP. The downside is that if you want to put images in your Coggle map, you have to pay a fee. C-MAP is a little bit tricky to use, but you can add whatever you want, even pictures or videos, as it is an open access tool. The students in Mineralogy like this software because of the unlimited space. I use this tool in Mineralogy also for review purposes, so they can create a map before the exam.

Can you tell me more about Hypothesis? Did you say it allows you to highlight text?

Yes. So, the way it works is that you have an extension in Chrome. Let’s say I’m learning about asbestos and my instructor gave me this web page with information about the dangers of asbestos for humans. My instructor gave me the task of using Hypothesis to highlight some sentences that really catch my attention, and I have to make some statement in the comments about why that sentence caught my attention and link back to what we learned in class. So I have the opportunity to highlight the sentence, annotate (make a comment on why I selected that sentence), and answer other annotations. When I click “Annotate”, I can log in to a private group using a provided link and make my comments that everybody in that private group can see.

For example, I can write my statement that asbestos creates a danger to humans and should be banned. Then it becomes a discussion because as soon as students have these annotation threads, the other classmates can reply and say “I agree with you, I found this very interesting because…” and they are invited and encouraged to say why they agree. Reading a text is becoming more engaging because they have to find what is really important there for them.

Are there any other things that you got from your experience with the Libraries that might be useful to share?

Working with Christie Liu, Jessica Lantz, and the other librarians and instructional designers is awesome because there are always new skills that I learn from them. Sometimes I have an idea and they tell me if it is feasible or they try to find a solution to help me work out the idea. Last spring, I did a class on using H5P with JMU Libraries. That was an awesome experience, and I’m implementing these activities in the Physical Geology lab. I developed some graphical activities with pictures of minerals and rocks. I’m even using them this semester because students really love them. It’s like a game.

So, is H5P a software that lets you make interactive activities?

Yes. In the activity that I designed there were images of rocks and minerals to match. There’s a very limited text to these activities – more visual. For students, that is an advantage. It is time consuming in the design because I needed to find the pictures, but in the end it is very rewarding for everybody. If it improves inclusion of those that require a little bit more help, that’s even better, so I can spend that extra time for them.

Do you feel like having access to some of these tools changes the way that you think about teaching?

Yes. Having these tools really improves the teaching and learning experience. I have a comparison of when I taught in Italy and we didn’t have the opportunity to access many educational technologies. It really helps to be engaged in learning more about these technologies. 

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