Solving the Technological Learning Gap

Professor Melody NeumannIf you’ve ever seen a mock-up drawing of what people in the past thought the future would look like—robot maids are usually involved—you know that technological advancement is hard to fully grasp.

Sometimes, the best that real-world technology can offer is a bland placeholder (looking at you, vacuum cleaners) until further and more widespread innovation comes along. If this is true for household cleaning, it is also true for teaching biology.

Ten years ago, U of T professor Melody Neumann wanted to teach her second-year biology students about the complexities behind cell mechanisms. As it turns out, these nuances are really hard to grasp. There are a multitude of processes happening simultaneously, Neumann says, and it’s nearly impossible to fully understand when you can’t actually see it happening. Unfortunately, there was no readily available way for Neumann’s students to do that.

“There was a real dearth of cartoon animations,” Neumann says. “I would trawl the Internet for good ones, but there was nothing satisfactory out there. The ones I found were full of errors.”

So Neumann got an ITIF grant, and hired a developer to make the half-dozen or so animations she thought her students needed. She was able to match the way the animations were labeled to the textbook she was using, to make the transition seamless.
“Now it looks hokey,” Neumann says, “but it was cutting edge then.”

Some of the animations were even interactive via an online link, after they were shown in class. And hokey or not, they did exactly what they were supposed to do.

“The students found it really useful,” Neumann says. “Students and instructors loved them. It’s so much easier teaching certain processes with them.”

Neumann compiled student data after polling students for their reactions, and got an overwhelming response that it was important for their learning. In fact, they requested more of them. The textbook company was even close to buying the animations at one point, before that fell through. Beyond their interest, though, Neumann realized an even greater hidden benefit from her animations: she was learning a few things, too. Namely, that there were things she didn’t know.

“When you have three static images in a row, you brain fills in the movement,” Neumann explains, referring to the preferred method before her animations. “But in animating, you have to learn how exactly the movement in the cell happens. And it’s unexpected to find out how much we don’t know. We just made our best guess. It’s a good teaching point.”

Now, Neumann says that a coming change in textbooks will signal the end of the line for her animations. In 2014, there are a number of good animations being developed, and they come integrated with the newer and more up-to-date textbooks. It only took about a decade for the industry to catch up to Neumann.

‘I think [10 years] is a pretty long time. I think it filled a really important gap at that time, even though things have caught up now,” Neumann says fondly.

“I’m pleased they had that longevity.”