Shifting your biology class online? These resources can help  

online learning

Dear Office Hours,

I just learned from my university that I should adapt my biology course, including labs, to a distance learning format in response to the coronavirus SARS-CoV2 . Help! Where do I start?  

Peptalk: We are important points of contact for our students. As educators and scientists, we can dispel fear and can connect students to good sources of information. For teaching scientists, especially at commuter schools, we can recognize that our students are ambassadors for science knowledge in their communities. If you haven’t already, connect students with the social media feeds of their local department of health, the CDC, WHO, and with recognized experts in the field. Reach out to your students and let them know how the class will be changing, that it will be a learning curve, and that you are all in it together. Now, to get started building your class—find your institution’s resource on distance teaching—or try the excellent Stanford Teach Anywhere.

Optional: Distance learning compatible resources for incorporating virology into your lectures. If you can match your course learning objectives to current events, you might want to incorporate virus biology directly into upcoming coursework. HHMI Biointeractive has some excellent, thoughtful resources on this topic, including Virus Explorer complete with instructor resources and student worksheets that can be adapted for your own assessments. HHMI Biointeractive’s resources also include a number of activities and demos that are compatible with distance teaching.

Pick your format—screencast and/or conferencing. In the past, I have used screencasts to record lectures and put them online. Many apps are available for this, and some are likely incorporated into your institution’s LMS. Our college uses Canvas, with two apps embedded for lecture recording, and one for conferencing. Over the long term, most instructors will probably adopt screencasts for delivering lectures, especially instructors with multiple sections of the same course.  However, for the first day of distance learning, I wanted to connect with my students directly, reassure them that I was feeling fine, and that I wanted to continue to be there with them during the semester. For these reasons, I chose a webinar (conferencing) format. I was surprised by how many students told me that they preferred a webcam on, rather than off, and preferred the webinar to screencast. Despite the obvious caveat that this reflects polling of students who chose to participate in the webinar, this result suggests that many students do feel a connection with their professors and want to maintain it if classes can’t meet in person. The conferencing app I used accommodates up to 50 student participants. The app also supports polling during the lecture, which is good news for those who incorporate active learning into their classes. Overall, the webinar format is probably more suited for active student engagement. If you use a screencast format, you can follow up with a low-stakes online quiz. I will probably end up screencasting most lectures, but conferencing journal clubs and labs.  

Use open-source datasets to bring your labs online.  Why not introduce students to the many parts of science practice that are not carried out at a bench?  n the first distance activity for my molecular biology class, we discussed different diagnostics for viral infection, with a special focus on the testing methods for SARS-CoV2, using the CDC’s resource for laboratories. These students have already performed DNA extractions and set up PCR so it was an opportunity to recast these basic lab skills in a clinical light. I re-introduced reverse transcriptase, reviewed PCR, and then students 1) looked up the viral nucleotide sequence on NCBI; 2) examined structure/function relationships in terms of how different parts of the sequence encode different parts of the virus structure; 3) designed new diagnostic primers for particular sequences, by hand, then using Primer-BLAST; and 4) predicted if these would be specific enough to discern SARS-CoV2 from other coronaviruses. These are everyday workflows in many labs, and relevant to students’ research training. It is important that students feel supported while they are working through exercises, and that they have an opportunity to connect and collaborate with each other. In this regard, the conferencing app was really useful. I could assign a student to be a presenter and they could share their screen and walk through their process. I could stay online, and let students enter and leave the conference as they needed.

Going forward, I will use analysis of open-source datasets as the cornerstone of distance labs. There are many that can be adapted to lab investigations, notably the Allen Institute for Brain Science and  Allen Cell Explorer. Allen Institute’s Educational Resources include several research-based activities for students, along with many datasets and ideas to adapt to lab work. Carlos Goller further developed a project with the Cell Explorer into a step-by-step undergraduate lab, Exploring Patterns in Cell Shape and Structure, shared here in advance of publication. The lab is part of a larger effort, HITS, to train students in analysis of high throughput data.

Why not look beyond cell biology to generate assignments? NY Hanes includes a wealth of health-related data for New York City residents, including one study that examines the oral microbiome of smokers versus non smokers. Looking for gene expression datasets? NCBI’s Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO) can provide an opportunity for students to gain an insight into how such datasets are generated, and how to parse them. For more ideas regarding data analysis problems, AAAS Science in the Classroom features annotated papers ready to use with undergraduates, some with activities, and is both a source of data to analyze with students and inspiration for exam questions.

Good luck! Please leave any additional resources you found helpful in the ASCB Online Community Forum.

I would like to acknowledge Carlos Goller, Shannon Seidel, and Gloriana Trujillo for their generous feedback and encouragement to write this up.


About the Author:

Alison Dell is an associate professor of Biology at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY and member of ASCB’s Education Committee. Twitter @dell_alison