The Online Embryology Lab: Evolving Toward the Future With Online Videos – Part I

An online lab in embryology in CSUN’s Biology department is quietly pushing the university into the future of teaching by creating online video lectures.

Its creators include:

• A legendary, presidential award winning biology professor who still uses a typewriter to peck out 500 recommendation letters a year

• A demure, bespectacled Associate Chair who masterminded the project and orchestrates behind the scenes

• An innovative student from the Cinema and Television Arts (CTVA) department who discovered he had a knack for improving science videos despite no knowledge in biology.

The redesigned class is the lab portion of Biology 441, an upper-division course in Embryology that requires six hours of lab for each two hours of lecture. Before the redesign, up to six part-time faculty members taught labs with 20 students each, separate from the lecture portion. Students studied embryonic forms by hunching over microscopes, peering at prepared slides. Reports of eyestrain and backache were not uncommon.

Now one full-time instructor, Steven Oppenheimer — who has taught at CSUN for 40 years — teaches 100-plus students at a time. Instead of using microscopes, students scrutinize images with an online atlas that contains more than 130 pages of pictures and diagrams. The atlas was co-authored by Oppenheimer and today is available through Moodle for students to access and download for free.

“They can study the same beautifully labeled photos at home, or anywhere they want – and they can relax while doing it,” Oppenheimer said.

Having a single instructor teach the lab also helps standardize on quality. While one instructor teaching both lecture and lab makes it possible to marry theory with application in exam questions, deepening student understanding.

“With six different sections, everything was different. One faculty would use living embryos, another would not. Some were good teachers, some were not. So there was tremendous variability,” Oppenheimer said. The most radical component of the redesign was the creation of eight online video lectures that cover the basics of embryonic development. These are not dry, staid lectures; rather students watch Oppenheimer as he brims with enthusiasm, tell jokes, and infects the average person with wonder about how the first cells of life twist, turn and somersault into the frogs, chicks and rodents we recognize today.

The push for the videos came from Paul Wilson, who turned to CSUN’s CTVA for help. Wilson e-mailed Mary Schaffer, the Option Head for Multimedia Production, who put out a call to the appropriate instructors. This unearthed Bryan Smith, a CTVA student in his senior year. Oppenheimer, Wilson and Smith soon went to work creating the first “home-grown” videos the Biology department had ever seen. Oppenheimer, who trained at Johns Hopkins and received a 2009 Presidential Award from the White House and National Science Foundation for his teaching, was the talent. Wilson was the producer, and Smith the videographer in charge of filming and editing.

The team is hesitant, almost chagrined, to admit that the project was initially driven by finances.

“We had budget cuts – and we had to do something. This was a change that we felt would do the least harm,” said Wilson. Necessity is often the mother of invention, eventually birthing a product far better than its predecessor.

Next in the Series: Part II – How They Did It

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