Vol. 15 : No. 7
Why Add an On-line Course to the Curriculum?
First it is necessary to agree on a definition for "on-line course". In practice, this definition varies tremendously. Some on-line classes are "on-line" only because the syllabus and the assignments are posted on a server. In others, real-time instruction takes place in a virtual classroom much as it does in an on-campus classroom. Between these extremes, the majority of "on-line courses" usually lie closer to the former than to the latter.
My own On-line 101, Introductory Chemistry, at Bellevue Community College is closer to the latter. This is the "on-line course" whose benefits I discuss in this paper. Lectures, homework assignments, and quizzes are presented on the web site. I have developed a series of lab experiments that can be done at home using readily available consumer products; detailed descriptions and instructions for these are on the site as well. The students choose when to access lectures and when to send questions to me by email. They are assigned to small groups and are expected to interact with other group members either by exchange of emails or by group chat sessions. There are also scheduled chat times (optional) when students and I can interact in a chat room. There are weekly deadlines for sending in completed assignments, lab reports and quizzes because my course is restricted to a quarterly format by the college. Please feel free to visit my "classroom" to observe the class. http://www.scidiv.bcc.ctc.edu/wv/101-online.html
There are a number of reasons to consider adding an on-line class to the curriculum. Here is a summary of some reasons that I know. Some offer more benefits to students; others primarily benefit the department.
Students are more active participants in the on-line class. Students cannot assume the passive role of simply attending lectures to acquire information. They cannot pretend that the burden of learning is on the "teaching" of the faculty member. Students are put in a position of being responsible for their learning. They must assume an active role in the learning process to succeed in an on-line class. Many students are surprised to find that learning is a complicated, on-going activity that requires input of their time outside of class!
An on-line class has the potential for improving communication among students and between students and faculty. Students have more opportunities to ask one-to-one questions through email and chat sessions. Students are less inhibited by the keyboard and monitor than they are by a room full of other students. There is a friendly anonymity around a student who is working at a CPU.
In an on-line class, students should be presented with well-edited course materials. If the course lectures are on-line, students will have error-free lecture notes because they do not have to play stenographer and can download printed copies instead. Here is an example of a lecture on Arrhenius acids. A "blended" class (a hybrid of a face-to-face and an on-line class) can also provide this benefit. Since the course may be visible to the world through the Internet, this public aspect of a class may provide motivation for higher quality lectures and course materials than what might be prepared for the isolated closed classroom.
An on-line class is a good way to demonstrate departmental interest/concern for nontraditional students. The student population is extremely diverse, and there are many students who cannot afford to give up their jobs to attend a traditionally scheduled class. These students are often extremely capable, and can flourish if given the opportunity to participate in an on-line class. The students get a message that the department cares about them. They see that the department is forward thinking and willing to attempt new ways to facilitate learning. The department shows that it is willing to adopt new technology in an effort to provide a modern education.
Courses can be operated on a continuous enrollment basis. This allows students to start a class when they are ready and prepared and minimizes the impact of changes in majors or unforeseen emergencies. A student with a medical or other emergency can drop a class and register again with less time lost, or can delay completion of the material without being constrained by the ending of a semester or quarter. Students can complete their degree in a shorter time if there is increased flexibility. The time between the start of college and graduation has continuously stretched out during recent years. A more timely graduation saves everyone money; students can begin their careers sooner and contribute to the tax base sooner.
An on-line course can raise the awareness of chemistry students to the wide range of science resources on the Internet. The web can be used to access sites ranging from the United States Geological Survey with basic water pollution data to National Institute of Standards and Technology with quantum mechanical data. In the on-line class, the information available can be integrated into the content, be used as real life examples or used for simple course enrichment. A simple example is an on-line assignment dealing with the history and reactions in aluminum refining.
One major benefit for both students and departments is that on-line courses can be "shared" among colleges. This creates the possibility of offering a class when low enrollment at each college would make it economically impossible. The on-line class can be offered jointly, giving an enrollment that makes the class financially viable. An asynchronous on-line class shared between departments or colleges offers scheduling flexibility. This again benefits both departments and students. Class hour conflicts are eliminated. This addresses a serious problem in small institutions where there may be only one section of a required class offered in math, biology, physics or chemistry in a year.
Departments can recruit faculty who are strongly interested in the course they are asked to teach, and who are well aware of the problems students face with the content. Someone can fill a "niche" and teach a specialty class for a department even if the "native" population would not be large enough to make such a class economically viable.
When different instructors teach a class, the on-line class can improve the consistency of course content from instructor to instructor and from one term to another provided they use the same course web site. Deciding to put a class on-line also forces someone in the department to review the content and purpose of the course. This in-depth review is just good practice but sometimes slips through the cracks.
There is one final benefit to an on-line class. It can drag a department kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The on-line class offers an additional, proven course format. It is an alternative to the standard lecture; it is not a replacement. The standard lecture mode of teaching has a role, but it is not the only way to provide an education for the present generation of students.
About the Author:
Dr. Walt Volland is a professor of Chemistry at Bellevue Community College, Bellevue, Washington. He is well-known for his innovative approaches in science teaching. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org, phone: 425-747-4455.