The actual educator time commitment when using iNat in a secondary classroom

I’m hoping teachers in secondary education find this forum post before they assign iNat for the first time…

For 20 years, I did educational programs outside the classroom. I used iNat with students in gr. 7-12 just once, but it was incredibly time consuming. Not only do you have to teach the students how to use iNat – and iNat represents a steep learning curve, one which does not flatten out for a long time – but you’re even going to have to teach some students really basic things like how to take a legible photograph. Then there’s all the time you need to put in to supervise their observations, help them understand taxonomy and data quality, have them work through field guides or dichotomous keys so they understand what features they need to photograph, etc., etc. I tried using iNat once, then switched back to pencil-and-paper field notebooks, which are much less time-consuming.

If you’re like me, you’ll read the Teacher’s Guide to iNat and it all sounds so doable. But – take my word for it, using iNat with your secondary students will add many many hours to your work load. Ask yourself if you really have the extra hours it will require to use iNat as outlined in the Teacher’s Guide (to learn iNat yourself, to supervise student use, to make sure your students are posting high quality data, etc.). And maybe learn from my experience – traditional pencil-and-paper field notebooks are in fact less time consuming, and the students probably learn just as much if not more.

(This came up because one of my iNat goals is to keep plant obs out of the “Unknown” category for my county and the adjacent county. In the past two weeks I’ve noticed more than 50 obs by new users, all marked “Unknown.” All are from the same location, a nearby high school. you can see that most of the students are really trying hard to use iNat correctly. I suspect that the teacher is doing their best to sort through the students’ iNat observations, but simply can’t keep up with the volume. Heck, I’m used to sorting through dozens of poor observations, and I was getting tired going through those student observations. I pity that poor teacher for all the work they’ve created for themselves.)

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I’ve used iNat for college ed as well, and I agree that it can be quite time-consuming for an educator. I’ve also run outreach programs for 6-12 (with teachers). I think it needs to be very structured, but can work. But yes, it is a big time commitment. I think having the teacher know how to use iNat is the biggest piece. If they are experienced, it is much better. Another key piece is just teaching students common pitfalls, but even with this and a good, invested group of students, it will still be a lot of time. I do think it can be worth it though! Some students continue using iNat, and, if classes in different years use it, it can create some interesting data.

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I started doing some serious Unknown IDing just a few months ago and I’ve had much the same experience. In the beginning, faced with runs of 50 or more observations, almost all of which for one reason or another were lacking the basic details needed for an even approximate ID, I tried to write some helpful (I hope) and encouraging remarks. But I admit, given the complete lack of any response from the observer, I soon gave up.
In theory, I agree that it could be a valuable learning experience for the students and might even produce some valuable data, but in practice, I often find myself wondering if Seek wouldn’t be a better tool for such projects, so reducing the workload of iNaturalist’s community of IDers and letting them concentrate on observations from, let’s say, more willing and committed users.
Or in some way to separate school projects out into an “iNat Educational” where they could be given the special treatment they would need to become a useful and positive learning experience.

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Yep, it’s that time of year, the time when semesters start up and teachers hustle their biology students outside before what passes for New England winter these days descends upon us.

Yes, teachers should understand iNat better before they use it in a class. Yes, they should teach it better. Yes, students should do a better job learning iNat. And yes, despite everyone’s best intentions, there will still be lots of Unknown observations. Let us all heave a big sigh of resignation together - and then try to move on to accept imperfection in other humans (but not ourselves, of course).

Or just ignore Unknowns (which are a tiny, tiny part of the Needs ID pile) and work on IDing Northern Red Oak instead (the species in New England with the largest number of Needs ID observations). Or clean up Sambucus with an ID partner (hi, Dan!). Or listen to a two-hour Zoom meeting while IDing mushrooms as Fungi in the pile of 22,000 August Unknowns from New England. Or embrace what knitters have known forever, which is that one stitch or ID, repeated for as long as you can, makes real progress when measured over weeks, months, years.

Or all of the above (except the Northern Red Oak part; I’m not that crazy), which is what I do. And prepare yourself for the 2024 City Nature Challenge (worldwide, there are more than 800,000 Needs ID observations left from the 2023 CNC) (ETA: but only about 51,000 of those are Unknowns).

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It’s true that guidance is important (both for students and instructors) and it does take time to do a class project well but that’s true for any project I think, whether it involves iNaturalist or not. What’s different about iNaturalist projects is that they are basically social media experiments that are publicly accessible and sometimes create backlash from other iNat users. As a teacher, that’s something to be aware of and be prepared for e.g. by recruiting additional identifiers if needed. Maybe it feels a bit too much like crowdsourcing education, I don’t know. It certainly helps if the teachers are active on iNaturalist themselves and not just using it as a classroom tool once a year or semester.

On the other hand, there is enough signal above the noise that I think it’s all worth the trouble of occasionally sorting through a bunch of low quality observations. I’ve seen it happen multiple times now that a student turned enthusiastic iNatter. The top observer on iNat for my county is a former highschool student (over 7,000 obs and nearly 65,000 IDs - wow!). I also recognize at least four of our college students among the top 10 observers and at least two (in addition to that former highschool student) among the top 10 identifiers for our county. I love seeing them engaged like this and it helps keep up my spirits every time another batch of “class observations” comes in.

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Moderation note: I’ve moved this from general to the educators category where I hope it will be more likely for educators to run across it.

Out of curiosity, did you start with having students explore existing iNat data? I’m interested to know if that’s a less time consuming way to incorporate iNat in the classroom.

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Great Southern Bioblitz says hi. Landing on 24 November!

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We did a class project that involved students adding annotations rather than observations. It could be done in the classroom or as an online teaching module and any time of year independent of weather conditions.

It took some time to develop this exercise, of course, but time investment in the classroom was 2-3 hours for introducing students to iNaturalist, adding annotations and generating graphs under instructor guidance. Students had a clear idea what to do for homework (do some research on the plant they chose and its phenology and pollination syndrome, write a paper and prepare a presentation). We spent another 3 hours total for student presentations in class (60+ students, working in groups), and of course there was time needed to grade their papers.

However, “cleaning up” after students on iNaturalist was not necessary since they did not actually add any observations or IDs for this. Annotating flowering, or e.g. sorting butterflies into life cycle stages is easy enough and doesn’t require any ID skills. One comment several students made was that they were excited to see the immediate effect of their efforts adding annotations in the form of improved phenology graphs after the exercise. That made it feel less like “busy work” and more like they were contributing meaningful data to iNaturalist. Overall, it seemed to work really well as a class project and would be an alternative to sending students out into the field to make observations.

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I think that’s absolutely a good point that some of the students will turn into enthusiastic iNatter. It might even influence their choice of a career!

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Yes, I’ve had students use iNat to just look at what is around in the general area and explore the maps/data. This is definitely an easy way to intro to iNat. I have done this before making any observations, because I think it also helps impress on students that the data does matter/is valuable (as @annkatrinrose mentioned). Students are more invested then and tend to make higher quality observations I think.

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If only there were more educators like you! What I like about both these approaches is the emphasis more on quality than quantity. It’s what I feel is so often missing in the school project observations I sometimes find myself wading through. I’d love to be able to distinguish the keen student to encourage and “tutor”, but the impression is so often that the educator has just dumped the class down in the middle of a field, or worse still, the school garden, with instructions to snap away regardless at whatever looks vaguely living.
But as Lynn says, at the end of the day, perhaps there’s not a great deal we can do but…

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Whoa, this topic has taken a really productive turn. Is there a place to collect these ideas for teachers to use iNaturalist to address questions without the pitfalls of adding observations? Nice ideas!

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there was a bit of discussion along these lines here: https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/rubrics-used-in-your-classroom/33933, and a little bit here, too: https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/creative-ways-to-use-inaturalist/37428. i bet there are other topics, too.

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