Innovator of the Week: Lorena Barba
Those two words sum up Lorena Barba’s approach to teaching. I don’t say that to make her sound reckless or flippant. Far from it. Like any good computational fluid dynamicist, she makes her decisions based on as much data as she can bring to bear. But at every step, when she’s come upon a challenge or thought about incorporating a new technology or pedagogical approach, she’s asked herself that question. And more often than not, things that looked initially like roadblocks simply weren’t.
Lorena, who teaches at Boston University but arrived there via the University of Bristol in the UK, CalTech where she got her PhD, and Valparaiso, Chile where she was born, has undertaken a pedagogical journey that started with an electronic whiteboard and now has her teaching to people on five continents while presiding over speed dating in Boston.
She began recording her lectures in 2007 for the benefit of the students in her classes. She started by using a device for capturing the content on a whiteboard, then distributing the lectures via her university’s Blackboard server. But she found both of these technologies clunky. She moved to a graphical tablet for recording whiteboard style interactions, which enabled her to write on and annotate slides. It felt more natural, and she could do it entirely on her own with no production assistance from the university.
But a bigger change happened when she came to the United States and began distributing her lectures via iTunes University. Since almost the day she got to BU, her classes have been the most downloaded at BU, and she’s just passed 10,000 views on YouTube. Computational fluid dynamics is not what you’d call a dilettante’s course. Lorena was reaching smart people who weren’t getting this content anywhere else, and they expressed their gratitude practically every day.
Having her lectures recorded gave Lorena another idea: why not have students watch the lectures before the class meets? We’ve talked about the “flipped classroom” before on our blog. Srinivasan Keshav does something similar at the University of Waterloo. Once you get into Lorena’s classroom, there’s a lot of experimentation.
Here’s one example: Navier-Stokes Speed Dating. No doubt readers of this blog will be familiar with the Navier-Stokes equations, which describe the motion of fluid substances. OK, perhaps you’re not familiar with those equations, but maybe you’re familiar with speed dating. Imagine you could spend five minutes with each of your fellow students as they describe their solutions to Navier-Stokes problems, then you could choose the best solution for a “second date.” If nothing else, that sounds much more interesting and engaging than listening to a lecture.
(I should add, by the way, that Lorena’s lectures are probably pretty good. When she’s not doing fluid mechanics, she sings jazz. Isaac Newton by way of Ella Fitzgerald would have to be pretty interesting.)
She does other experiments, too – like pair programming labs and problem-solving games. There is a good deal more “oohing” and “aahing” than one normally experiences in upper division or graduate courses, and a lot more interaction with the professor, too.
Lorena’s classroom sounds like just the kind of dynamic, stimulating, intellectually rigorous experience that you’d want to have as a student. If I were at BU (and could still do math), I would love to be in her class. But what about those people following the lectures at home, on iTunes U or YouTube?
That’s where Lorena’s next innovation comes in: an open classroom on Piazza. This was another one of those “why not?” moments. Once she’d decided to distribute the lectures via YouTube and iTunes, and once she’d decided to take full advantage of face-to-face interactions by flipping her class, why not invite people from the outside to participate via Piazza?
Why not, indeed.
So Lorena went to the Computational Fluid Dynamics interest group on LinkedIn – which, believe it or not, has over 11,000 members – and invited people into her Piazza. The results are enough to renew your faith in our collective intellectual curiosity even after years of “America’s Top Model.” Hundreds of people from all over the world replied to the post, and over 150 ultimately joined the class. Lorena’s distance students come from all over the world including Germany, China, Arkansas, the Netherlands, Brazil, Ukraine, and Libya. Libya! The whole country is exploding in revolution, and this person is studying Computational Fluid Dynamics out of BU! If that doesn’t get you excited about the future of education, you are cynical beyond hope.
So what do these students do when they’re in Lorena’s Piazza? They tend to be pretty quiet. They don’t ask a lot of questions. But many of them are extremely diligent. One of the most consistent readers is a student from the French overseas department of Réunion, which is conveniently located in the southern Indian Ocean, 120 miles from the nearest landmass. It is unlikely that this student can get this level of fluid dynamics instruction where he is, and he’s getting it absolutely free from Lorena, Piazza, BU, and the Internet.
Not to get too portentous for the blog, but what does that mean for education? The content is free. The collaboration is free. It’s open to anyone Lorena lets in. Does this interfere with anyone’s business model? Say, BU’s?
Lorena is characteristically blunt on this point. “If a professor can be replaced by videos, he probably should be,” she remarked astringently. Content is only one small part of what universities should furnish. Real face-to-face interaction with the professor and other talented students is a huge part of the value equation, and it’s also the most expensive thing to provide. If a university can provide the other things — content, online interaction, even assessment, to a broader population — isn’t this a tremendous service to the public and the world? And (to lurch gauchely from altruism to pragmatism) isn’t this a tremendous marketing opportunity for BU? In a free and open marketplace, BU should get a lot of people coming to campus who want to study computational fluid dynamics, because they’ve got a great person teaching it there. Replicate that a few dozen times and you’re a juggernaut!
And, I might add, that having more students in the Piazza should also improve the experience of the students in the physical classroom, if the distance students are asking good questions and providing interesting answers. I think Lorena is inventing not just a better way to teach her classes, but a way forward for universities vexed by an eroding economic rationale.
As Lorena might say, “why not?”