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Lab Journals – The Next (Digital) Frontier


The short version of the post ends with this: all of my students for the coming school year will use an online blog for their lab notebook postings.

What? Have I been been so blinded by the early adoption of technology to risk coaching my students in one of the core areas of science education? What about plagiarism? How will students enter their raw data and keep a true lab record? Isn’t there a risk that this will divide the students that have ready access to computers from those that do not? My quick answer to these questions is that I do, in fact, have concerns about these topics. It is a scary leap, in some ways, and I had to convince myself that the other side of the chasm holds value beyond these valid concerns.

To start: what is my intent in making this switch? One goal is to coach students to use a skill that has benefits beyond this classroom. C’mon – the reality is that most of my students won’t need the knowledge-specific information covered in the course. While it is important to understand the underlying principles of chemistry and physics, it is – perhaps – more important to be able to navigate the digital tools needed in college and beyond. Too often high school education is trapped in the models that worked for today’s current teachers when they were in high school. Teachers tend to teach the way that they were taught because it worked, right? But this rationale makes it seems as though the major reason to change is for the sake of change and that is definitely not a valid reason to do something so different.

The real leap, however, has to do more with the grading of lab work. How do I grade work completed outside of class time? How do I provide enough incentives for students to do their work authentically without overburdening them? Besides, what is the goal of lab work anyway? I have to say that this has been the hardest part of this experiment and a mere two weeks into this venture I am showing the strains of reverting to my previous model.

What I truly wish is for students to authentically record their information and then share and collaborate inside and outside of the classroom. What I really want is to enable the freedom for students to draw incorrect conclusions and then update and learn as they move along. What I really want is for them to care about being scientists, which is more of a process than an end point.

Here is my plan. First – students will be required to use a standard lab notebook (LNB) where all lab prep (and class prep if they wish) will be stored. They will not be graded on the formatting or the contents of the LNB although they will be coached on how to use this. In other words, I give up on grading their pre-labs and their data collection but I will still work with them on efficient ways to perform these tasks. I will even add incentives (extra credit?) for using them properly (to be developed).

Next, all lab results to be graded will be posted to an individual Tumblr blog. Students will be encouraged to have “fun” with their work and expand beyond the constraints of the normal LNB and lab reporting. Lab results will appear as a series of pre and post entries that can be amended and edited as they move along. Students will be encouraged to review others’ work and give credit when using ideas that are not their own. Tumblr makes this easy with “reblogging” and “liking” (a kind of blog version of Twitter). I will follow all of my students using my Tumblr account as well as an RSS feed reader. This makes it very easy to access their work.

What about graphing? What about formal lab reports? My plan is to use Google Docs to accomplish these although we haven’t yet reached that stage. Just today, after finishing a lab, the students were required to generate a graph of their data. For homework they are manually generating these and then uploading a picture to Tumblr. Subsequently, I will be able to take them to the world of using a spreadsheet to organize and display data. This will then be shared on their blogs.

I clearly have a great deal of coaching and work to do to iron out the details of this model. I have been using my old model for so long that I find myself resisting the urge to direct students to the old method. Some deep breathing will – hopefully – keep me on this new path. Who knows how well this will work but I am committed to working this model and modifying, as needed – this year. The school-implemented tablet program is moving up through the grade levels and I am moving these courses ahead to be ready to take full advantage of this program.


This entry was posted on 2011-09-09 by in Philosophy and tagged , .


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