E-learning in high schools: the BLOSSOMS project

by Aurelie Thiele on October 12th, 2009

I attended the semi-plenary by MIT’s Richard Larson this (Sunday) afternoon, on an initiative, called BLOSSOMS, that he recently started with other educators using funding provided by the Hewlett-Packard Foundation and the Sloan Foundation. BLOSSOMS stands for Blended Learning Science or Math Studies and is spearheaded by MIT LINC (Learning International Networks Consortium).

The idea behind BLOSSOMS is to develop videos about science topics that high school teachers show in the classroom. A key aspect of the videos is that they are cut into well-defined parts (the screen fades to black between segments) to allow teachers to discuss the ideas presented in the footage with their students, before starting the video again. Larson explained that he (and the other people involved with the project) views the videos as “teaching duets” between the educator who is shown on the screen – professor or graduate student – and the teacher & his or her students in the classroom.

I particularly liked Larson’s point that some high school teachers dislike any environment that takes students out of the classroom and in front of a computer for one-on-one interactions. They do not want to be bypassed, for understandable reasons. So while BLOSSOMS’s videos can be downloaded from the Internet, they are also available on CD-ROMs and videotapes. The “teaching duets” are designed to create a high level of engagement in the classroom and keep the teacher in control.

Another interesting aspect of the project is that educators in partner countries – especially Jordan and Pakistan – have also contributed their share of videos. This is important because members of developing countries wanted to take an integral part in creating this online repository, and not just receive videos from the US telling them how to teach this or that subject, no matter how good the videos are. Jordan and Pakistan have some excellent professors too, who have thus been busy creating videos for high school audiences.

Larson treated us to a video showing his former graduate student, Karima Nigmatulina PhD’09, introducing graph theory to an intended high school audience through the famous problems of the seven bridges of K√∂nigsberg and the Chinese Postman Problem. It is important to note that the videos are not only aimed at schoolchildren in far-away countries, but also at high school students in the US. Because the Ministries of Education, both in Jordan and Pakistan, have been highly supportive of the project, it has been easier to spread the word about BLOSSOMS there than in the US, where education is not as centralized and curricula are determined at a state level. To quote this afternoon’s slides, the overarching goal is to “give every young person a quality education regardless of his or her place of birth.”

The videos also include teachers’ guides, which explain the activities recommended in the videos in more details; in addition, transcripts are available on the BLOSSOMS website. (I believe that some of the videos, possibly all, are also translated in Arabic.) As a next step, Larson plans to move the site to a Web 2.0 version where viewers would be able to comment on the videos and rate them, to better showcase the videos that are judged outstanding by users. But what he would particularly like is for other INFORMS members to create operations research modules for BLOSSOMS – operations research is a great way to get teenagers interested about math using practical problems. Of course, INFORMS members would not be left to their own devices. For more information in contributing a video, please click here and here.

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