Implementing Full Access Videos to Engage All Students in a Large General Education Biology Course

Award Winner: 
2015 Sloan-C Effective Practice Award
Student-Generated Content
Author Information
Sandra Connelly
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Rochester Institute of Technology
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

The students at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) today are not the same students that RIT attracted 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Let alone technological advances, significant changes in the classroom population have arisen, including increased numbers of academically supported students, students who identify as having severe academic challenges, and students who simply lack direction. There is a need to increase the accessibility of science (STEM) materials in the general education classroom. The underlying causes of the difficulties that students face in a science class are often multifaceted and all must be approached as individual. However, a significant realm of teaching tools exist to help decrease the individual nature of some of the difficulties and cast a wider net of inclusion of all students in the learning process in these classes.

The implementation of the “flipped classroom style”, and subsequently the online course development, of a non-majors General Biology course was undertaken in the Spring 20135 semester at Rochester Institute of Technology (January - May 2014). Both course delivery styles utilized video lecture materials prepared at RIT by Dr. Sandi Connelly (course instructor) and Mrs. Christine Spencer (ASL interpreter) and active learning components designed by Connelly that were implemented in the classroom. Formative and summative assessments were conducted in both the new flipped classroom, the online course, and the control, the traditional lecture section, of the same aforementioned course. As Dr. Connelly was the instructor for all course types, the assessments were consistent between the courses and can be compared quantitatively and qualitatively. To date, the analyses are just beginning, however, it has been seen that while there are no quantitative statistical differences between the sections of the course, there is a decrease in the standard errors of the assessment points, and it is believed that the most interesting data will be in the qualitative analysis. Further, the Online Course Evaluations are being qualitatively assessed to determine any correlations between the general attitudes of the students in the two sections at the completion of the course. The project continues today with the integration of metacognitive practices.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

Short answer: I have designed and produced 400 videos that incorporate all aspects of a general biology course for non-majors and have made them fully American's with Disabilities Act Compliant through the use of American Sign Language, Closed Captioning, annotated slides, and voice-over lecturing - the first of their kind made publicly available on YouTube (channel: RITgenbio).

Thoughtful answer: There is a need to increase the accessibility of science (STEM) materials in the general education classroom. The underlying causes of the difficulties that students face in a science class are often multifaceted and all must be approached as individual. However, a significant realm of teaching tools exist to help decrease the individual nature of some of the difficulties and cast a wider net of inclusion of all students in the learning process in these classes. Some of these tools would be thought of as foundational in some curricula, such as active learning in the classroom, but have lagged in the STEM disciplines. Engaged faculty who have implemented active learning / critical thinking strategies in the classroom often are encouraged by the results, and continue to do likewise. However, there are some tools, such as video production, online tutorials, etc., that often accompany the active learning components that may not be appealing to students (or the faculty) for a multitude of reasons.

There have been many reports of “shunning” of alternative learning strategies, such as blended learning / flipped classroom models and online learning due to the reporting that faculty feel more like "entertainment" than "educators". However, I have seen that these alternative models can be one of the most successful pedagogically if implemented in a way that is beneficial to the learning process. The overarching learning process must be taken into consideration before any course delivery changes are proposed. After teaching this course eleven times in the traditional lecture style at RIT, I had a very good understanding of the pit falls of the students in the classroom, and implemented these techniques in ways that would provide the most benefit to the students – in all majors – in the course.

General education classes in the sciences are inherently a “mixed bag” of students. For instance, in my General Biology course, in any given semester, there are over 350 students enrolled from 60+ majors across the University. By this, conveying complex scientific information in a clear, yet approachable, way can be cumbersome for the instructor, and can be completely overwhelming for the students. Further, the General Biology class attracts high numbers of students who require some level of academic support (e.g. in a section of the class with 100 students in Fall 2014, there are 35 deaf and hard-of-hearing students, 18 Academic Support Office registered students, and over 30 students who have anonymously self-identified as having conceptual learning difficulties – leaving 17 students who would classify themselves as “normal learners”).

This project created video and critical thinking content that is being used today in a flipped classroom, a hybrid-flipped classroom, and a fully online class. It has allowed us to integrate well-known aspects of videos and active learning (critical thinking) but also introduced conceptual sign language interpretation to RIT biology significantly for the first time. The merging of instructional practices (online and flipped classroom models with enhanced videos and critical thinking activities for non-majors) is currently being assessed. It is believed that the advanced pedagogical methods often reserved for upper-level undergraduate and graduate students will garner significant improvements to the content delivery in general educations science courses, providing better access to the materials for all students (increased learning and retention), and providing a more nurturing environment in which to explore science rather than memorize science.

My General Biology class has been in the amazing “hands” of science American Sign Language interpreter Mrs. Christine Spencer for many years. By this, Chris and I have terrific communication regarding the materials and have strategized regarding the best conceptual way to present the materials. There are signs in American Sign Language that simply do not convey the true meaning of the word in a biological context (English definition is not translated well in to a biological context). By this, we have developed “discipline specific” signs that would benefit all students. It is often thought that the interpreters are in the classroom only to translate for the deaf and hard-of-hearing students. This is far from the limits of what a skilled interpreter can provide! In the case of my working relationship with Chris, the development of signs that are conceptual, and not just a translation, has been an asset to all students in the class. How could this be? Visual learning students, and those for whom English is a second language, could benefit greatly from signs that just make sense. Signs that not only provide a term but also a meaning are invaluable in a class for non-majors, such as biology.

For example, in my class we discuss enzymes and how they work in biological systems. An enzyme as a literal translation is “a chemical substance in animals and plants that helps to cause natural processes” ( When I read the definition to my class and asked for the term, I received a host of answers, none of which included the actual term “enzyme”. The ASL sign for enzyme resembles the sign for “make” (a circular, grinding type motion) with both hands in the shapes of the letter “e”. While this is somewhat applicable, in biology, enzymes most often attach to a molecule and help to break it down. We have started using a sign for enzyme that involves holding the dominant hand in the shape of the letter “e” and then “chomping” – like PacMan(TM). This reminds the students that the enzyme is searching for something to attach to and breakdown. I knew that it was a conceptual sign when the hearing students started using it when talking to one another! This is just one example of making the sign work for the students in an applicative manner, not just a literal translation that does not help them learn the concept. Without the incorporation of this planning and pedagogy into this video production project, we would not see the success that we have over the past year!

We have now created and produced 400 videos that are freely available on YouTube (channel: RITgenbio). The videos are multi-framed, including a presentation slide, an insert of questions to guide the students learning, an insert of an interpreter (e.g. Mrs. Christine Spencer) delivering conceptual signs for the materials, and a closed captioning section at the bottom of the screen. While this may sound like a very tedious / busy environment in which to learn, the students will self-select the delivery of the material in the way that makes the most sense to them. We have hypothesized that the students will find themselves selecting more than one approach to the content delivery (e.g. while the slides provide the basic concepts, the students may also find the conceptual signs appealing as a way to envision the biological process in a relative 3D space). We are now testing this hypothesis using eye-tracking tools and evaluations by the learners. These videos are in high demand not only by my students, but around the world! I have received emails of "Thanks!" from deaf learners around the world who struggle to find accurate science interpreting and captioning of video resources.

In a general education science class, I am not striving to make scientists out of the students, but I am striving to make informed citizens out of each and every one of them. This can only be achieved if the material is comfortable for them. In my course we never “dumb down” the materials – instead we work to make the concepts something everyone can work with, in and out of the classroom. It starts with foundational communication, by whatever means necessary. It would be my long-term goal to make conceptual signs designed and tested in my course accessible to all science interpreters who are looking for a new way to help the students understand concepts, particularly in general education courses.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

Does the delivery of lecture content in a video style increase the retention and application of information on assessments, compared to the traditional lecture setting?

Results to date:

Spring 2013-2014 General Biology II Lecture: grade comparison of a traditional lecture course vs. a flipped course design taught by the same instructor with similar assessments. The fully online course grades are still being analyzed due to challenges with exam proctoring and assessment. See supplement for data scores.

The absence of significant differences in the quantitative assessments of the online and flipped classroom design as compared to the traditional classroom design was initially disheartening. My reaction was that I had spent a lot of time and effort on something that made no difference in the outcomes of the course. However, upon further reflection, I have recognized that the gem is most likely at the heart of the data – the written reflections of the students, not the objective answers – and that the absence of a quantitative difference is most likely not providing the final answer in this case.

The reason behind my delivering the content in an alternate style was to engage the students and to potentially improve their higher order thinking and application of materials to a problem. These data are not yet analyzed, as the qualitative data requires much more processing an interpretation than the quantitative. By this, I am reserving my conclusions on the effectiveness of my course conversion under the analyses are complete. I have high hopes that there are interesting results within the data set somewhere!

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

General Education Assessment is at the core of higher education, and is of particular concern in the STEM disciplines. This project focuses on the "seed of the core" -- finding the best ways to deliver materials in a fully inclusive setting, that will lead to higher retention and application (critical thinking). I am working with second-year biology instructors on a pre-, post- test that will allow us to adequately assess the retention of materials from my first year course to their second year courses. This is data that are just being collected as the project has now finished its first year, and we had to wait for the students to finish their second year course!

I have been the "seed" in the Life Sciences department to focus on assessment tools and strategies and am now working with other faculty to broaden the scope of assessment and truly focus on "what should a biology student look like, think like, and work like when they graduate". This is a direct branch of my work with the development of accessible tools in a general education class to make the materials more approachable and more applicable. Without our assessment tools, it is most difficult to find our next path of pedagogy practice.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

Camtasia Video production software (or similar)
High resolution web-camera
High quality microphone
Tablet or writing pad for annotation on slides

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

We completed this project (not including my time) for less than $4,000. Please note, this was almost entirely the cost of the interpreter. The equipment can be purchased for less than $500.

References, supporting documents: 

YouTube videos are open access (channel: RITgenbio)

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Sandi Connelly
Email this contact: