Dr John Harper

Dr John Harper is a senior lecturer in plant science. He has spent over 20 years researching the mysteries of cell division and developmental cell biology of plants. Dr Harper joined the staff of CSU in 2001 where he has been actively involved in teaching Botany, Microbiology and Biochemistry.

The study of plants has never had the same attraction for students as the study of animals. In our first-year botany classes, my colleagues (Geoffrey Burrows, Sergio Moroni, and our University of Sydney collaborator, Rosanne Quinnell) have been developing and incorporating learning activities to encourage interest in the study of plants. In fact, our laboratory exercises consist of hands-on microscopy involving plant dissection and analysis. We have been progressively developing these interactive learning experiences and they have received positive feedback from our students. A wonderful offshoot, happy accident that has come out of our efforts to increase student interest in studying plants is the student practice of capturing images of plant microscopic specimens on their mobile phones.

Mobile Botany Authors L-R: John Harper, Geoff Burrows, Sergio Moroni, Rosanne Quinnell

Why is this important?
Mobile technologies appear to be expanding the educational possibilities in the sciences by engaging students in documenting and sharing their scientific observations. In botany, mobile technologies are proving to enhance student engagement with the study of plant life. We noticed during laboratory class, students in our first-year botany classes were taking photographs of their specimens through the dissecting and compound microscopes using their mobile phones. What a eureka moment! Not only were our students more engaged with the subject matter, they were now producing their own “learning objects”.

What did it look like?
On-campus and online students are given opportunity to work on laboratory exercises. The online students did all the laboratory work at an intensive residential school, and they were encouraged to take images; these were shared with on-campus students, making them aware of the laboratory practical work they were yet to do. In other cases, images from students were incorporated into lectures and tutorials, preparing students for the lab exam.

You can read the full set up and process our students help establish to refine the mobile photography of plant specimens in this article (http://www.bioone.org.ezproxy.csu.edu.au/doi/full/10.1525/abt.2015.77.9.9 )

We are encouraged further by the students’ spontaneous use of mobile phones to archive and share teaching images. We have capitalised on this by using student images online to enhance learning, especially for online students.

Botany students have shared their photomicrographs with their friends and family via social media. We saw interesting examples of students excitedly describing their images to non-science friends, teaching them what they were learning! In the second year, students were also encouraged to use their phones to capture their own images of plant specimens to help them master identification of weed, crop and pasture species.

Although we do not have any quantitative evidence of these activities enhancing student learning, it was evident that those students who took and shared their own images were more engaged in the learning process.

With our students’ help, we are investigating the possibility of building a repository of high-quality, accessible botanical images to share with other students, and primary and high school teachers, directly and placing these on our school’s website as a freely available, student-generated resource. When students were asked how taking their own images helped them, they generally responded that it helped them make better connections with what they were learning.

Technologies can facilitate better learning experiences and combined with mobile devices and the internet, collaboration and co-creation for learning is made possible. Learn about Educational Technologies in the WIKI.