24/7 learning, not 24/7 teaching: A guest blog by Professor Dudley Shallcross

Prof. Dudley Shallcross
November 8, 2021

Professor Dudley Shallcross is President of the Education Division of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Chief Executive of the Primary Science Teaching Trust and Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at the University of Bristol.

Having won several national and international awards for his research in atmospheric chemistry and contributions to science education and science engagement, we greatly value Dudley’s counsel. He has worked extensively on enabling effective transition from secondary to tertiary education in science, a life step we aim to support. We asked about his mission to facilitate lifelong learning.

PLEASE NOTE: The opinions in this blog are entirely Dudley’s own and he does not speak on behalf of any organisation he works for or represents.

Lifelong learning with LearnSci

It’s important that we remember the reasons we became scientists, and share that inspiration across society and with scientists in all phases of their careers.

In my role at the Primary Science Teaching Trust I am involved with the education of very young scientists. Inspiring the first spark of wonder in our youngest learners and supporting their transitions through primary, secondary and tertiary levels by supporting our amazing teachers is an incredible privilege.  

Considering the theme of lifelong learning, I’d like to use this blog to explore how LearnSci supports scientists in three specific areas: tertiary education, post graduate employability and as alumni.

24/7 learning, not 24/7 teaching

At university we have to empower students to learn proactively. Those who show greatest engagement inevitably yield the strongest results, not simply in terms of academic attainment, but also in the broader sense of understanding our shared mission, and feeling confident to play their part in delivering the opportunities their work can unlock.

Especially in this time of distance learning, students are not confined to lab opening hours. They need support whatever time and day they choose to engage. Unless as academics we want to work the night shift, we need to facilitate learning opportunities at all hours and this is possible through the LearnSci toolkit. Students can seek knowledge at any time and access feedback without immediate direct staff involvement.  However, the design of the feedback is such that the student can imagine the staff member answering their questions as if they were there. This allows academics to focus our energy on driving our programmes, developing insightful content to deliver online or in-person and allows students to engage in their own deep level learning.

There are finite human and space resources to support learning in the traditional manner, but through platforms such as the ones being developed by LearnSci, students can engage and interact at any time, literally 24/7 if they want to.  If students are able to have in-person labs at the moment, they begin each lab practical with the head start that the LearnSci pre-lab resources provide, meaning that students arrive briefed and ready to explore the concepts, not bewildered and in need of spoon feeding core principles and essential safety information. More importantly, if students have engaged with pre-lab material they will know what they don’t know and be able to ask good questions at the start, rather than try and progress only to find out sometime later that they were following an unprofitable path of investigation.  LearnSci enables students to rehearse in their own time before they arrive at the lab for a practical.

Whilst there is no replacement for in-person labs, a combination of LearnSci pre and post-lab activities can act as a virtual lab practical if in-person labs are not an option at your institute at the time. Students can continue to develop their practical skills through the pre-lab activities and then, just like a traditional lab report, they carry out data analysis with post-lab activities, all online and highly interactive, giving the students individualised immediate feedback.

Students can identify which rung of the ladder they are on and progress from there. Rather than the all too familiar shrugging of shoulders and saying they don’t know where to start, the pre-lab tools let them find their level. This is invaluable where you have a cohort with mixed educational backgrounds, some of whom will be completely fresh to a particular concept, while others might have detailed knowledge from their prior studies. This reduces anxiety and is in effect personalised learning, ensuring confidence is built through interactivity. If they get stuck, they get help, and if that doesn’t resolve it, pressing solve might well do so.

Preparing students for the real world

Postgraduate employability is a hugely important measure of our success as academics, and rightly so. We have to be sure we are preparing our students for the real world. This means instilling the vocational and academic skills which employers demand.

Students need to show evidence that they are ready to deliver in post. I champion the concept of the dynamic skills portfolio, and I believe LearnSci can be part of the evidence base showing students have the skills they need to deliver for employers.

In career alumni support

We aim to facilitate lifelong learning by supporting alumni to continue to be inquisitive throughout their career and to contribute to our shared mission as scientists of driving progress.

Recently, we’ve again heard calls for ethical restraint and the suggestion of a form of hippocratic oath across the sciences. Whilst this blog isn’t a discussion directly of that ethical quandary, it is important to consider the comforting effect of scientists being seen to work collaboratively as a community, both for progress delivered, and for public perception of our work.

Our success in supporting lifelong learning opportunities for alumni depends on delivering ways for them to continue to engage with their university long after they graduate. Too often this relies on social rather than academic interaction, and fosters a perception that we are more interested in their chequebook than their career.

One reason alumni might return to us as their centre of excellence could be to offer the LearnSci resources to them online. This would give them interactive support when they need it as a refresher of a concept previously explored. Perhaps more powerfully, it can act as an explainer where the science has moved on since their time with us.

Giving alumni real value like this could keep them engaged and would surely make them more likely to recommend us to young people considering where to study science. Equally, the opportunity for private sector collaboration and support grows where people continue to think positively about us long after graduation. This also presents an opportunity for LearnSci to place resources with commercial enterprises, something I know they already do, supporting vocational education within science led businesses.

Hopefully you’ve seen this blog isn’t just a straightforward testimonial for LearnSci.

I believe the messages we’ve discussed in brief to be important for tertiary level educators, and I welcome your thoughts on the themes we’ve explored. That said, it’s important to conclude with a little detail of my involvement with LearnSci, and the reasons I believe their resources should be an integral part of the way we teach.

I get on extremely well with the team at LearnSci. As a group of developers and scientists, I believe they are uniquely positioned to help solve many of our biggest pedagogical challenges.

I first found LearnSci when I was part of a team developing the Dynamic Lab Manual at Bristol in 2007, and quickly saw the value they could bring. In 2018 I helped trial Smart Worksheets with my students and am now rolling the resources out more widely. LearnSci is so effectively embedded in the way we teach, it is difficult to imagine working any other way.

When people ask me about LearnSci, I often come back to three major themes.

It’s not too late, you can still add LearnSci

People sometimes think they’ve missed the boat and that their teaching process isn’t adaptable to the resources. In fact the reverse is true. The resources are adaptable to your process, you needn’t change what you do in the lab, the LearnSci toolkit adapts to suit you not vice versa.

You can contribute and guide the innovation process

LearnSci has always worked with me in a collaborative way, and I know from speaking to others that it is their standard practice. This means you can contribute and guide the innovation process, and where you see a new challenge emerge they will work with you to support your students.

You can still be unique, and use your own stuff

Another common fear, whilst rarely phrased this way, essentially alludes to ‘not invented here syndrome’. Naturally, as scientists who have invested colossal amounts of time and energy in developing our academic programmes, we can feel some unease at the prospect of external support. Knowing that the team at LearnSci are themselves scientists and developers usually allays this concern.

You can still be unique. LearnSci has designed their materials to augment what you already do. If you have specific tools already in place which you particularly value you can embed LearnSci alongside.

Furthermore, reversing the concept of not invented here syndrome, would it not be better to ask, are we as academics the best people to create interactive resources for our students, or should we seek best practice from a team who deliver these things for many of the world’s best universities?

Being part of a vibrant community of practice where we can share great ideas is to my mind the best way forward. LearnSci is a most excellent component of any community of practice that is serious about effective teaching and learning.

If you would like further information of how LearnSci can support your teaching and learning, please contact us.

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