Vol. 15 : No. 7
Editor's Note: An increasing number of professors and classroom teachers are developing online courses. These include online segments for a course taught on campus, or a course designed for distance learning. Dr. Barbara McGoldrick documents her transition during five semesters to new technologies and changing student needs. USDLA is grateful for permission from Dr. McGoldrick and from Brian Pankuch, Editor of the CCE newsletter: http://www.eclipse.net/~pankuch/Newsletter/Pages_News/NewsletterCCE.html
The Genesis of an Online Chemistry Course
The development of an online chemistry course for non-science majors is traced over the course of four teaching semesters. The evolution of the following course components is described: methods of communication, lecture content, laboratory content, and course management.
The non-science major's chemistry course at Union County College is a one-semester course that I had taught on campus for the past twenty or more years. The course fulfills a lab science requirement for students in the business, fire science, education and liberal studies programs. Students register for lecture and lab separately. Registration can currently be accomplished online. The on campus lecture is 150 mins/week and the lab meets for 3 hours weekly. The course, Chem 106 - Consumer and Environmental Chemistry, has no math or chemistry prerequisites. It had usually run during the spring term with one section of about 12 - 18 students.
In 1997, the college undertook a significant distance education initiative. Incentives and release time were provided for faculty to develop and teach distance education courses. The delivery modes that faculty prepared to use were instructional television (ITV), videotape (telecourses) and web based. I was among the cadre of faculty with a keen interest in developing these new courses in order to improve service to a student population that was increasingly older, working, and going to school part time.
My initial efforts were to develop a distance education lecture course that was founded on "The World of Chemistry" videotapes that are produced by the University of Maryland at College Park and the Educational Film Center and are provided by PBS Adult Learning Services. These include 26 thirty-minute television programs with a textbook, study guide, lab manual and faculty manual. This delivery option seemed most viable at the time because it required students to have no more than a VCR to take the course. In addition, this text provided a course that duplicated the content of the on campus course.
My philosophy in teaching chemistry "at a distance" was no different than in teaching on campus. My goal was to maximize student contact and encourage students to work at a consistent pace throughout the course. Since learning chemistry is a progressive process, these two elements are essential to student success. Without seeing students regularly, frequent grading was the best way to ensure students were working at a steady pace and for me to quickly intervene to assist students who were having difficulty.
In the fall of 1998, I offered the lecture only as a telecourse using "The World of Chemistry" materials with the exception of the lab manual. The laboratory was unchanged. Students attended on campus labs running the course of 13 weekly meetings. The first meeting included equipment check-in and safety orientation and the 13th week was reserved for a comprehensive written lab final exam. During the intervening 11 weeks, students spent 3 hours per week completing lab experiments that were based on handouts either another department member or I had previously developed.
With only 5 registered students, the class was permitted to run with the hope that the investment would bring in more students in future semesters. As soon as these students enrolled, I had mailed them a welcome letter and a survey to determine the most convenient time for the class to meet. Students attended an evening orientation session during the first week of the semester. At this session, they received a complete syllabus, which correlated the textual readings, complementary videos, graded assignments, announced on campus tests, and due dates for the entire term. Graded assignments included chapter homework and a series of four short papers, each of which reviewed a chemistry, related journal article they chose to read. On campus written tests covered 3 - 4 chapters at a time (please see the sample assignment sheet).
In this initial offering of the course, there was no requirement that students have their own computers or Internet access. Students were given a variety of options to submit work: by US mail, fax, in person to a chemistry staff member, or by email. Regardless of the option chosen, submissions had the same weekly deadline. Point penalties were charged for lateness.
I designed the course such that its structure would force students to work consistently and maintain contact with me. This was done two ways:
Three students used email regularly to communicate and to submit homework. This encouraged me to further develop my web site to include information for this chemistry course. The course policies and grading, full syllabus, chapter tips, and on campus meeting dates were posted.
During the semester, I began work on redesigning the existing lab experiments such that most could be done at home. Each experiment included an introduction with background information, a procedure section and report sheets. Two experiments were taken from the study guide; one was the traditional cabbage indicator acid/base lab and the other, a study of heat effects and gas production in the reaction of vinegar and baking soda. By the start of the spring term, I was ready to offer the Chem 106 telecourse with @home labs (please see the current lab assignment sampler).
During the spring 1999 semester the lecture telecourse portion of Chem 106 did not undergo significant change. Class size increased only by two. Three students had email and only one used it consistently to communicate and submit assignments.
The lab, however, was another story. At the orientation, students received a laundry basket or lab "kit" containing all the materials they would need for the first half of the lab course as well as a binder with safety guidelines, a schedule, and copies of the experiments. Students viewed a chemistry department lab safety video that I had created years earlier from a grant using the assistance of our own media center. After students viewed this video, I made editorial comments to adapt the safety considerations appropriate for @home experiments.
Two major on campus lab tests replaced weekly on campus lab quizzes. The first was given at midterm. Students took this test, exchanged their kits for a new one for the 2nd half of the course and completed an on campus experiment all in one evening. It was a long evening. At the end of the term students took a comprehensive on campus lab final exam. The lab schedule was added to my web site.
By fall 1999 word had spread and the investment was starting to pay off. Class size doubled to 14. Every student had access to a computer. Everyone emailed written assignments as MS Word attachments and referred to the course information posted on the web site. Some students scanned their lab reports and emailed them as well.
The lab materials were improved and modified. The scale that had been included was simply a food scale with 5-gram precision. This proved to be inadequate. An Ohaus top loading single pan balance with 0.1-gram precision replaced the food scale.
The survey, kit list and @home lab safety guidelines were added to the web site. Chapter testing, grading and concept phone questions remained the same.
In spring 2000 the class was still in double digits and everyone had computer access. The inadequacy of class discussions was addressed during this term. By the middle of the term, the telephone concept questions were replaced by threaded weekly discussions using O'Reilly WebBoard (a trial board is available at: http://forums.oreilly.com/~wb4trial - A user can create a new account or enter as a guest to see how the board works ). Questions were posed every Monday by 9 AM. Students were directed to respond to the question and to at least one other student in the class by no later than Wednesday at 9 AM. Participation still counted as 10% of the lecture grade. The management of the student lab experience did not fundamentally change with the exception of deletion and subsequent addition of one experiment.
Student evaluations had been collected every time the course was offered. These had consistently been critical of the videos that accompanied the textbook chapters. I thought that the videos were dated, and questioned their usefulness to students. By this time, most assignments, discussions and test questions were based on readings from the text or completed lab experiments.
By the end of the semester, I had gained administrative approval to drop the videotapes and offer the course completely online with @home labs for the fall 2000 term (please see the sampler).
WebBoard was so successful that it led me to spend the summer examining features of WebCT to add to the course (to view a demo WebCT course from a publisher see: http://bfwpub.webct.com/public/CHEMDEM3/index.html To request for a trial course go to: http://v3trials.webct.com/freetrial/). I decided to keep the O'Reilly WebBoard and add online testing to the course. I had concerns about security once I had decided to adopt online testing. Thus, before the term started I placed individual password protection on the conference and testing portions of my site and class password protection on other informational parts of the site.
I thought three interfaces were plenty for students and me to handle (my site, WebBoard and WebCT). Therefore, I limited the use of WebCT features to a total of 5 online lab quizzes, leaving the lecture tests unchanged with 3 on campus tests. I could have transported the entire course into WebCT but wanted to make changes gradually. I knew WebBoard worked well. My approach was to use the best of what I had found and had plenty of experience with.
By the start of the fall 2000 term, the enrollment was a steady 13 and all students were required to meet minimum technology requirements. This allowed for a significant change in administering the lab. A lab manual was not provided at orientation. Instead, downloadable lab reports were posted on WebBoard each week along with weekly discussion questions. The lab kit materials were modified. First, only one kit was issued at orientation to provide materials for the entire semester. The lab schedule was revised slightly; one on campus lab was replaced with another @home lab.
The new kit excluded those materials easily found at home or in the supermarket. Students were expected to review the materials list for each lab, compare it to the posted list and provide the missing items themselves. The posted "kit list" was revised. A comprehensive list of @home lab materials was posted on the web site with those items students needed to provide distinguished from those provided by the department.
Safety issues were addressed anew for the current term. Formerly, my telecourse students had viewed the same safety video, read the same safety regulations and signed the same release form that was traditionally used by on campus students. My printed and posted page of @home guidelines along with verbal comments amended this information. This was not enough. At the college attorney's behest, I rewrote the two pages of safety regulations specifically for @home labs and reworded the release form that all students sign. In addition, I used our ITV studio to prepare a 20 minute orientation, which was pasted in front of the departmental safety video. The ITV room has a computer with Internet access connected to the projection and video recording systems. These 20 minutes specifically spoke to the @home lab students. It included a demo and identification of kit items, a review of @home safety regulations, and a demo of website navigation including WebBoard and WebCT. A copy of this tape was made for each student and distributed along with the lab kits at orientation.
The 1st week of the term was used to test all systems. Students went to take a "navigation practice test" on WebCT, introduce themselves on WebBoard and email me an MS word attachment. This semester is a 5th trial but is still very much an experiment for my students and me.
I am anxious to evaluate the online testing experience. I have very purposefully limited this trial to 5 short (15 min) online lab quizzes. All these quizzes are timed but available during an announced 24-hour period. Nothing prevents students from copy/pasting into a test. However, with only a 15-minute test window, taking the time to do this seriously detracts from the test time. This would not be the case for longer tests. In addition, 5 quizzes online save students the two on campus trips telecourse students were making. This new process adds convenience but does not risk course integrity because the quizzes do not reflect a major portion of the students' grades.
Right now, it is too early to evaluate online testing. WebBoard, however, I can wholeheartedly endorse based on my experience using it this calendar year. Lately, either my questions are getting more provocative or the students are getting less inhibited but 13 students are currently posting 33 messages weekly! - And they are talking chemistry. My greatest challenge is to NOT get involved in discussions until the week is over. During the week, I sit on my hands, and watch as one student challenges or corrects another. By the end of the week, I provide a wrap up to pull in the stray thinkers that have not been corralled by their peers.
At this point in the semester, I am anticipating more improvements for spring 2001 and beyond. I am considering using the WebCT assignment drop box in order to avoid the management and storage of volumes of emailed homework on my hard drive. In addition, I'd like to test the use of net tutor for live chats. During the summer of 2001, it will be time to change texts and make the requisite revisions to my site, to keep the course fresh. Streaming video would be another useful feature to add to replace portions of the safety/orientation videotape. After that… I might rest when I reach the 7th trial.
About the Author:
Dr. Barbara McGoldrick has been teaching Chemistry for more than 25 years. She is Senior Professor of Chemistry at Union County College, Cranford, NJ 07016. She teaches science majors, nurses and liberal arts majors. She is professionally active in encouraging the growth of distance education by training faculty to use instructional television, creating websites, developing chemistry telecourses and online courses for non-science majors, designing @home laboratory experiments for liberal-arts chemistry students, and offering the first Union County College online course for general chemistry.