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cows and physics and urban myths Alison Campbell Dec 15

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In which we encounter – cow-tipping!

This is apparently the focus of both myth & mirth in the US: the idea that cows, asleep on their feet, are regularly tipped over by tipsy youths. Now, apart from the inconvenient little fact that cows tend to sleep lying down & thus are supremely untippable at that point in their daily rhythm, our bovine friends are large and solid and (with a leg at each corner) well-balanced. Nor do I imagine that Daisy would take kindly to a shoulder charge from an inebriated young man.

And indeed, at ModernFarmer, Jake Swearingen dissects this myth & imparts a little physics with along with the humour & the facts. It turns out that back in 2005 a couple of researchers ran the numbers & decided it would be impossible for a single person to overturn poor Daisy, but that two or more tippers could – theoretically – knock her off her feet. Provided that she did not see them coming, or negate their efforts by shifting her weight, that is.

And I loved one of the comments on the Atlantic's coverage of this story:

Lillie and Boechler are clearly unfamiliar with the conventions of this sort of work. As every mathematician or physicist ought to know, thought-experiment cows are universally spherical. And spherical cows are easily tipped, it's just that nobody can tell the difference. Now, if you've got enough drunken frat boys for a full-on game of Sleeping Cow Billiards…

Spoilsports may object that real cows aren't spherical. Neither are they rigid bodies, as is implicitly required by the Lillie-Boechler analysis. Each leg is hinged in two places, and depending on the resistance and range of motion of the joints, cow tipping could on purely physical grounds range from trivially easy to nigh impossible. If someone wants to instrument a live, sleeping cow and measure the muscular response to lateral disturbances, I'll wait. Someplace far away.

I'm sure you could factor this into a physics class somewhere, Marcus!

a surprising misconception Alison Campbell Nov 10

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I spent much of the weekend marking first-year biology exam papers. It was a lovely weekend & I really didn’t want to miss all the nice weather, so I ended up finishing the task well after midnight last night. And in the process I identified evidence of what is, on the surface, a really puzzling misconception, one that relates to the effects of X-chromosome inactivation.

Now, we’d spent quite a while in class discussing X-chromosome inactivation in female mammals: why it happens, how it happens, & its phenotypic effects (anhydrotic ectodermal dysplasia, anyone?). One of the images I used in this discussion was of Venus, a tortoiseshell cat with an extremely unusual colour pattern:

This image comes from the NBC News site, but Venus is a very famous purrball who even has her own Facebook page, and I’ve blogged about her previously. She’s either a chimera, or we’re seeing a most unusual (but not unique) example of the typical X-inactivation tortoiseshell coat pattern. Anyway, I used a similar image of Venus and asked

What is the most likely explanation for the colour pattern shown in the coat of this female cat?

And about 90% of the class answered, “co-dominance”. Which really made me stop & think.

Why? Because it suggests that, while I’m sure they could quote me chapter and verse regarding a definition of co-dominance, they haven’t really thought any further about what that means in phenotypic terms. For if codominance were in play here, with both alleles for coat colour being expressed in each cell where the gene’s active, then we shouldn’t see that clear definition of the two halves of the cat’s face. Instead, both should be a fleckled mix (is ‘fleckled’ a word? Yes, it is; Shakespeare for the win once more) of black & golden hairs (rather like roan coats in cattle & horses).

And this gives me pause – & cause – for thought, because this isn’t a mix-up that I’d have even considered before. Is ‘codominance’ their shorthand for one gene, or the other, being expressed (due to X-inactivation)? Or do they really think that’s how codominance works? If so, it does suggest that a) I didn’t really explain codominance (or X-inactivation) all that well this year, & b) I need to review what I do before teaching that particular session again.

reflections on using AdobeConnect in a tutorial Alison Campbell Nov 05

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This is a post originally written for my ‘other’ blog at Talking Teaching.

Recently I went to a couple of seminars/tutorials on using AdobeConnect in teaching & learning. As I vaguely remember saying somewhere else, this bit of software looked a bit like panopto might, if it were on steroids, & I could see how it could be a very useful tool for use in my classes. Not least because (as you’ll have gathered from my last post), there’s some concern around student engagement, particularly among those who don’t actually come to lectures, & AdobeConnect seemed to offer a means of enhancing engagement even if students aren’t physically present.

I decided that I’d like to trial it in the two pre-exam tutorials I’m running this week (my class has its Bio exam on Friday – the last day of the exam period. No prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing for most of the upcoming weekend :( ) I would really, really like to use it during lectures, so that students not physically on campus can still join in, but, small steps…

So, first I set up my ‘meeting’. Work has made this easy by adding an AdobeConnect widget to the ‘activity’ options in Moodle, so that was pretty straightforward; I just needed to make the session ‘private’ so that students signed in using their moodle identity. The harder part of the exercise lay in deciding what to actually do when in the meeting room. In the end I set it up with a welcome from me, a ‘chat’ area, so students could ‘talk’ with each other & ask questions, and a ‘whiteboard’ so that I could draw (& type) in response to those questions. And, when the class actually started, I spent a few minutes showing everyone there (the 20 or so who were there in the flesh, & the 8 present via the net) what each of those ‘pods’ was for & how to use them.

You certainly have to keep on your toes when interacting with a mix of actual & virtual class members! My thoughts & observations, in no particular order:

  • remember to press ‘record’ right at the start, if you’re intending to record a session!
  • next time (ie tomorrow) I’ll remind those physically present that they can log into the meeting room too – this could, I suppose, be distracting, but it also means that they would be able to participate in polls, for example. I did it myself, at the launch of our ‘connect week’, just to see what everything looked like from the on-line perspective.
  • it was really, really good to see the ‘virtual’ students not only commenting & asking questions, but also answering each other’s questions. I hadn’t expected that and it was a very positive experience.
  • but do make sure that you encourage this cohort to take part; they need to know that you welcome their participation.
  • the rest of the class seemed to quite enjoy having others interacting from a distance.
  • next time, I’ll bring & wire in my tablet, & use that rather than the room computer. This is because I do a lot of drawings when I’m running a tut, and while you can draw on the AC whiteboards, using a mouse to do this is not conducive to nice smooth lines & clear, precise writing. I <3 touchscreens!
  • it’s very important to remember to repeat questions asked by those in the room: the microphone’s not likely to pick their voices up, & if you don’t repeat the question then the poor virtual attendees won’t have a clue as to what you’re talking about.
  • with a pre-exam tut it’s hard to predict what resources might be used, in terms of powerpoints, web links & so on. For a lecture I’d be uploading the relevant files right at the start (ppts, video links & so on), but today I was pretty much doing things on the fly. However, I’m running another tut tomorrow & have put links to a couple of likely youtube videos into the meeting page already.
  • Internet Explorer seems to ‘like’ some AC actions more than Chrome; the latter wasn’t all that cooperative about ‘sharing my screen’, which seemed to me to be a better option than uploading at one point in proceedings.
  • as a colleague said, doing it this way meant that overall I had more people in class than would have been the case if I’d only run it kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) – what’s not to like?
  • for me, the whole session was quite invigorating, & I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of learning to use a new piece of software to improve the classroom experience.

Mind you, on that last – it was my impression that the classroom experience was improved. And you’ll have gathered that I truly did have fun. But I’m not a learner in the way that my students are. So I asked them for feedback (interestingly, so far I’ve had only one comment + my response on Moodle, but as you’ll see we’ve had a reasonable dialogue on Facebook) – and here’s what they said:

BIOL101 Adobe Connect tutorial

So next year I will definitely be using this during lectures, and to interact with my Schol Bio group & their teachers – and I think we’ll definitely have one tut a week (out of the total of 6 that we offer) that’s via AC, so that students that can’t come onto campus can still  get the benefits of that sort of learning environment.

pechaflickr, connected courses – education in the future? Alison Campbell Oct 28

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Recently I had a blast, attending an inspirational workshop by Alan Levine (I grab professional development opportunities like these with both hands!). The workshop gave me some ideas for new things to try with my students next year, and I thought I would share the notes I made at the time (with commentary) in case there might be useful things there for others.

Alan kicked off by asking us if we knew when the internet was created (heaps of history here), by whom (I’ve never really understood why so many people think it was Al Gore), & for what. It was originally intended to allow scientists to better communicate with each other – but sometimes it feels as if the science is being swamped & lost in amongst everything else that’s posted on the web. (A friend once said to me that one day the internet could collapse under the weight of funny cat pictures. She could be right.)

The web certainly allows openness, reduces insularity, and engenders connectedness. Well, in an ideal world it does, and many parts of the internet do function in that way (eg the sub-reddit on science), but at the same time the web has also seen the development of various silos where dissent isn’t tolerated and the ban-hammer is wielded on a regular basis.

But in education openness is to be valued, because we can all – teachers & learners alike – learn from each other. Alan introduced us to one of his projects, which involves videoing teachers as they talk about what goes on in their classrooms. You’ll find these stories at True Stories of Open Sharing, and he sees them as a form of ‘paying it forward’. At this point one of the others at the session volunteered a story about how she’s using twitter to support student learning. I still haven’t got into tweeting & I found the whole thing quite fascinating- it seems an even more direct connection than Facebook.

Alan noted that people see many barriers (perceived and real) to doing this sort of sharing around teaching:

  • lack of confidence
  • not comfortable with spontaneous story-telling (and yet narratives are such a great way to engage others - the link is about working with children, but everyone loves a good story!)
  • don’t have original ideas
  • fear of being seen as mediocre, or not good enough – worried about what others think
  • the worry that it may affect how peers or employers perceive you
  • the lack of face-to-face contact, so you can’t judge your audience (& for many of us that is very important; I can’t get quite the same buzz going when I do a panopto recording in my office, for example, although that could be lack of practice, perhaps?)
  • don’t want to be seen as commonplace, repetitive, or wrong.

Which I guess may be why many of my colleagues don’t actually share a lot about what goes on in their classrooms – too many perceived barriers.

Yet that sharing & feeling of the personal are important, because education is becoming less about ‘product’ and more about relationships, connections, and engagement. With information so readily available on-line at the click of a mouse (think MOOCs, for example), universities do need to re-examine, & perhaps re-invent, the way they do business. What is the ‘added value’ that we provide, that makes students want to continue to come to a bricks-&-mortar institution? And how do we make on-line learning a valuable and engaging alternative, for those who choose it?

Because the knowledge is already out there. We need to move from seeing ourselves as deliverers of content, to delivering a learning experience. And that really does require some fairly significant changes; we’re not really talking business-as-usual. (One of those changes will probably be the development of a code of ethics around how we share materials, ideas, and content with each other & between institutions.)

After this we moved on to the idea of improv(ing) ourselves – as in, improvisation: being natural, rather than forced. After all, the ability to improvise is a valuable skill as classes don’t always go as expected. Alan asked who knew about pecha kucha (usually, speaking to no more than 20 slides for no more than 20 seconds per slide – it really forces you to focus on your message!). I’ve used this presentation style several times now, & in fact had something of a baptism of fire for my first one: got roped in to do one at my first Academy symposium – except that I didn’t know the subject until just before speaking, & someone else chose the slides :)

Anyway, quite a few of us knew of pecha kucha – but what, he said about pecha flickr? He set one up for us, with each person taking a slide in turn. It was hysterically funny and we could straightaway see that Alan was right: this sort of improv changed the energy levels in the room, raised enjoyment (as if we weren’t already having fun!) and engagement, and got everyone participating. I could see how good it would be as an icebreaker at a (smallish) conference, but I also started wondering how we could use it in first-year bio classes. Maybe in tuts, as a revision tool? The students would have to be comfortable about it, but the technique would have a lot of potential for diagnosing gaps in knowledge and also for giving practice in verbal communication.

And we finished off with the idea of ‘connected courses’. (This was very brief as we’d spent so much time having fun.) There’s a need to find ways of making on-line spaces personal, welcoming, & engaging - connected. For example, MOOCs tend to have a high attrition rate, & it’s possible that’s because they’re a bit like motel rooms (Alan’s metaphor): impersonal, & with no real sense of ownership. In contrast, many blogs are the equivalent of a personal bedroom, with comfort, boundaries, & security. How can on-line courses generate that sense of connectedness? One way to find out is to experience it – at Connected Courses: an open course in how to run an open course :) I’m really hoping that next year I’ll find myself with the ‘free’ time to invest in investigating this one further!

quirky science demonstrations Alison Campbell Oct 20

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A very brief post before I dive back into marking!

My friend Cathy pointed me at this short, fascinating video that shows some quirky chemistry & physics demonstrations (afficionados of Facebook will find it here). I had a couple of ‘wow!’ moments while watching it; science teachers will probably get the same response when sharing it with their classes.

Thanks, cathy :)

6-second science Alison Campbell Jun 23

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This video is a compilation of the best clips from the ‘Six-second science fair’ run by GE recently. (Apparently it attracted more than 600 entries!)

Could be really interesting to set something like this as a classroom project – rapidly changing technology (including the apps) has really opened up the options :)

pharaoh’s serpent Alison Campbell Jun 09

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Definitely don’t try this one at home! The changes shown in the linked video are an example of intumescence, where a substance swells when it’s heated. Fascinating to watch, but since we’re talking mercury fumes it’s definitely not one for the classroom.

carl wieman on active learning Alison Campbell Jun 08

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Recently I wrote about a paper by Freeman et al: a meta-analysis looking at the impact of active learning on student success in maths, engineering, & the sciences (the ‘STEM’ subjects). In the same volume of PNAS is an accompanying commentary by Carl Wieman. Wieman is a physics Nobel Laureate who also leads a research group working on improving teaching & learning in maths, engineering, & the sciences (which has resulted in some interesting initiatives at other institutions). Commenting on Freeman’s results, he notes that

Freeman et al. argue that it is no longer appropriate to use lecture teaching as the comparison standard, and instead, research should compare different active learning methods, because there is such overwhelming evidence that the lecture is substantially less effective. This makes both ethical and scientific sense.
Wieman goes on to say
However, in undergraduate STEM education, we have the curious situation that, although more effective teaching methods have been overwhelmingly demonstrated, most STEM courses are still taught by lectures – the pedagogical equivalent of bloodletting. Should the goals of STEM education research be to find more effective ways for students to learn or to provide additional evidence to convince faculty and institutions to change how they are teaching?
Personally I’d go for the former; there’s a wealth of information out there now. What’s needed now is to somehow get more university STEM educators to engage with the scholarship of teaching & learning in their various disciplines. Now there’s a challenge!
C.E.Wieman (2014) Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. PNAS published ahead of print, May 22 2014. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1407304111

"If you’re going to get lectured at, you might as well be at home in bunny slippers" Alison Campbell Jun 01

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There’s an increasing body of literature demonstrating the benefits of active learning for tertiary students taking science subjects. This is a topic I’ve written about before, but I’m always interested in reading more on the subject. And let’s face it, the more evidence the better, when you’re wanting to get lecturers in the sciences engaged in discussion around different ways of teaching. As you’ll have gathered, I find a lot of new science & education material via alerts on Facebook, as well as through the more conventional journal feeds & email alerts, and so it was with this recent paper by Scott Freeman & colleagues, which looks at the effect of active learning on student performance in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) classes: I saw it first described in this post1 (whence also comes the quote I’ve used as my title).

The paper by Freeman et al (2014) is a meta-analysis of more than 200 studies of teaching methods used in STEM classes, which included “occasional group problem-solving, worksheets or tutorials completed during class, use of personal response systems with or without peer instruction, and studio or workshop course designs” (ibid.). The impact of the various methods on student learning was measured in two ways: by comparing scores on the same or similar examinations or concept inventories; and by looking at the percentage of students who failed a course.

What did their results show? FIrstly, that students’ mean scores in exams assessing work covered in active learning classes improved by around 6% over more traditional teaching-&-learning formats (& finding that matches those of earlier studies); and secondly, that students in those traditional classes “were 1.5 times more likely to fail”, compared to students given in-class opportunities for active learning (with a ‘raw failure’ rate averaging 33.8% in traditional lecturing classes and 21.8% in more active classes). These results held across all STEM subjects. The researchers also found that active-learning techniques had a stronger effect on concept inventories compared to formal exams (& here I’m wondering if that doesn’t reflect – at least in part – the nature of the exams themselves eg did they give opportunities to demonstrate deep learning?) Interestingly, while the positive impact of active learning was seen across all class sizes, it was more pronounced in classes of less than 50 students.

On the class size thing, I’m wondering if that might be because it’s easier to get everyone actively involved, in a smaller class? For example, I’ve got a colleague at another institution who runs a lot of his classes as ‘flipped’ sessions, and ensures that all students get the opportunity to present to the rest of the group – this is far easier to set up in a class of 50 than in a group with 200+ students in it. (I know! When I run ‘design-a-plant/animal’ sessions, there’s time for only a sub-set of student ‘teams’ to present their creatures to the rest of the class. Plus you really have to work at making sure you get around all teams to talk with them, answer questions, & so on, and so it’s perhaps more likely that someone can remain uninvolved.)

The research team concluded:

Finally, the data suggest that STEM instructors may begin to question the continued use of traditional lecturing in everyday practice, especially in light of recent work indicating that active learning confers disproportionate benefits for STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for female students in male-dominated fields. Although traditional lecturing has dominated undergraduate instruction for most of a millenium and continues to have strong advocates, current evidence suggests that a constructivist “ask, don’t tell” approach may lead to strong increases in student performance, amplifying recent calls from policy-makers and researchers to support faculty who are transforming their STEM courses.

The ‘bunny slippers’ quote from the lead author comes from the post that originally caught my eye. And I suspect there may well be bunny slippers (or the equivalent) in evidence when my own students watch lecture recordings at home :) But this does raise a question around massive open on-line courses (MOOCs), which tend to have a very high ‘fail’ rate – how much of this might be attributed to the difficulty in ensuring opportunities for active learning in these ‘distance’ classes?

And of course, we aren’t really talking a simple dichotomy between ‘traditional’ lecture classes and classes with a very high component of active-learning opportunities – something the research team also note: some of the ‘non-traditional’ methods they surveyed had only a 10-15% ‘active’ component. This is something discussed at more length by Alex Smith in a post entitled “In Defence of the Lecture”. I have to say that his approach sounds very similar to mine, with its mix of socratic questioning, pop quizzes, group discussions, and – yes – sections of ‘lecture’. As Small says:

Not every lecture is a person spending an hour talking nonstop to deliver facts. A good lecture is engaging, it naturally invites discussion and dialogue, it operates at a level much higher than raw information delivery, it is a natural setting for the expert to act as a role model, and it can be integrated with more formal activities (e.g., clicker questions, small-group discussions, etc.).

Lecture should not be the sole means of instruction, and bad lectures are a plague demanding eradication, but we err when we too strenuously inveigh against the lecture.

I couldn’t agree more. And maybe that’s a message that’s being lost in the louder discussion around active learning, and which needs to be heard more widely.

1 The comments thread for this story is also worth reading.

S.Freeman, S.L.Eddy, M.McDonough, M.K.Smith,N.Okorofor, H.Jordt & M.P.Wenderoth  (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/05/08/1319030111

facebook – more than just social networking Alison Campbell May 12

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This is something originally written for the Talking Teaching blog, following a discussion (on FB – where else?) about social media & student learning.

Some of my readers here and on Sciblogs will probably have realised that I quite like Facebook – not least because it's a good source of gorgeous images and quirky facts that can start me thinking about a new science blog post. Also, it's fun keeping in contact with friends & participating in various discussion groups.

One of those groups was set up by the biological sciences students at my institution, and it's used mainly for sharing biology articles and images, the occasional in-joke :) , and alerting other students to upcoming events that their committee has organised. This particular page sees a bit more student activity than some of our paper-specific moodle pages, so for a while now I've wondered about the potential of a good Facebook page to be more than 'just' a place to hang out and share pictures & stories.

Anyway, recently I had a conversation (on FB, lol) with my friend Kelly Pender and another Academy colleague about this potential. It turns out that they both use FB quite extensively in their teaching lives and gave me a lot of helpful hints – along with a very recent paper on this very subject (Dougherty & Andercheck, 2014).

Kevin Dougherty and Brita Andercheck teach a large (around 200 students) introductory sociology class at Baylor University in the US. Like all those with classes of this size (or larger), they recognised that one of the major issues they face is

the tendency for students to feel like anonymous spectators rather than active, collaborative participants

- that is, there's a real risk that many students will not properly engage with classroom activities, & that their learning will suffer as a result. I've written previously about flipped teaching as an example of a technique to increase student engagement (& performance), but with a range of different learning styles among class members, what works for one student won't necessarily work for another.

So, how do Dougherty & Andercheck use social media to enhance their students' engagement with the subject, and their achievement (as measured against the learning objectives for the paper)?

The larger a class gets, the harder it can be – even with the best will in the world – get everyone actively involved in discussions, debates and group work during class time. Teachers might try & manage this using a Student Learning Management System (SLMS) like Moodle but again, many students don't really engage here either. (Certainly that's been my own experience.)

The authors wondered, what about Facebook? After all,

[s]ocial media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are part of life for the generation of students now filling college classes

and it's easy to load material and set up discussion threads. (Even a relatively technological illiterate like me can do it!) Why not use it as a more engaging SLMS, one that's more likely to get buy-in from students because it's already familiar to them?

I can just hear the cries of horror that might greet such a proposition. Don't students already spend far too much time on FB and other networking sites? It would just be a distraction. These are valid objections. But with evidence in favour from a developing body of research into such uses of social media, Dougherty & Andercheck set up a study of the impact of a group FB page on students' engagement & performance in their own class.

For anyone interested in doing likewise, their paper in Teaching Sociology has a very useful description of how the class page is set up & administered. (One of my Academy colleagues has similar pages for MOOCs that he is involved in; due to their size, he has some students help with the admin.) It was run in parallel with their 'normal' SLMS, Blackboard, and the latter was where students obtained class handouts & readings. FB was for sharing & discussion; for videos, news stories, & photos; for the 'Question of the Day'.

For students unable to participate or uncomfortable participating in the classroom discussion, we invited them to add their thoughts and reflections to the conversation on Facebook. We used poll-style questions on the Facebook Group as another means to engage students.

Students readily got involved, 'liking' posts, joining discussions, and posting material. Two weeks into the semester, more than half the class had joined the page, and 2/3 were part of it by the end of the paper. To see how all this activity affected learning outcomes, the researchers carried out content analysis of student postings & matched this to performance, and also asked students for feedback via the usual paper appraisals.

The appraisal data showed that half the class visited the FB page on at least a weekly basis, and that the majority were positive about its effect on their experience in the class. While  24% disagreed (ranging from slight to strong disagreement) that it enhanced their experience, Dougherty & Andercheck noted wryly that "it was students who never or rarely used the Facebook Group who disagreed". Students also felt that the page gave them a stronger sense of belonging in the course, and also that it positively influenced their achievement of the learning objectives.

Of course, the final proof of the pudding is in the eating (sorry, channeling cooking blog here!): was this reflected in actual performance? The researchers found that FB group membership showed a positive correlation to total quiz points and total points. It also had "a marginally significant, positive relationship" with both a student's total score for the paper and their score in the final exam, and the number of posts someone made was linked to their quiz score.

What's more, their analysis of the page's content and their students' use of the page clearly shows how involved many class members became in discussion. This is a big point for me: I use Moodle in my own class & it's sometimes a bit sad to see how little real conversation there is about a topic. We might see a question posted, followed by a couple of answers, & then it all dies down again. Would discussions become deeper & more complex in a different, more familiar (&, let's face it, less clunky) medium? I guess there really is only one way to find out. (And I'll be making good use of the very helpful hints provided at the end of this thoughtful, and thought-inspiring, paper!)
 

K.D.Dougherty & B.Andercheck (2014) Using Facebook to Engage Learners in a Large Introductory Course. Teaching Sociology 42(2): 95-104 DOI: 10.1177/0092055X14521022

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