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Learning Chemistry Online

Despite a slow start, distance learning is gaining ground in chemistry education

by Linda Wang
September 7, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 36

Credit: Oregon State U
Credit: Oregon State U

Advances in technology and a desire for greater access to and flexibility in education are driving growth in distance learning programs.

According to a 2008 report by the Sloan Consortium, which follows trends in online education in the U.S., nearly 4 million college students took at least one online course in fall 2007, up almost 13% from fall 2006.

President Barack Obama recently proposed a $12 billion stimulus package to aid community colleges that includes $500 million to develop free online courses for community college students.

The investment, if it comes to pass, may be well worth it. A recent review of past studies of online learning, conducted by the research institute SRI International for the Department of Education, suggests that students in an online learning environment perform better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.

Despite the growing evidence in favor of online education, the chemistry community has been relatively slow to adopt this form of learning. One of the main reasons people cite is that chemistry is inherently a hands-on experience. “The hallmark of a science course is to go into a laboratory and experience experimental conditions and be able to make decisions and use the instruments,” says Thomas J. Greenbowe, a chemistry professor at Iowa State University who has experimented with online education. “Unless a distance education course in science can mimic that, it can only go so far.”

The American Chemical Society has also weighed in on this issue. The society’s position on virtual labs is that they are a useful supplement to but not a substitute for hands-on laboratory experience and that academic transcripts should disclose whether a laboratory course taken by a student was hands-on or computer-simulated.

The lack of a hands-on lab component may be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome, but that doesn’t mean chemistry shouldn’t try to catch up in the online world. “There are lots of people who could benefit from learning chemistry who for one reason or another aren’t able to participate in a traditional course,” says John W. Moore, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “You would like to extend the benefits of chemistry to those people as well.”

Credit: Shannyn Stuart
Janowicz hopes to engage the next generation of distance learners.
Credit: Shannyn Stuart
Janowicz hopes to engage the next generation of distance learners.

He adds that “there are many traditional chemistry courses that do not have a laboratory component and are therefore also suitable for distance learning.”

Just how widely online courses are being used in chemistry education is difficult to quantify. What’s clear is that when it comes to online instruction, there’s no one way to go about it.

Reva A. Savkar, a chemistry professor at Northern Virginia Community College who teaches two online courses for science and engineering majors, uses a hybrid model that combines online instruction with limited campus visits for hands-on lab work. Students watch her lectures via streaming video and do all of their homework assignments and quizzes online. Although some of the labs can be done online with simulation software, students still need to come to campus three times per semester to complete the wet labs. Savkar says she offers those on Saturdays to make it more convenient for students who have full-time jobs or who live far away.

Some online chemistry courses don’t require any on-campus visits at all. Distance learners enrolled in the nonmajors online general chemistry course at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, complete their lectures and homework assignments online and do the lab experiments at home. UNC Wilmington chemistry professor James H. Reeves and his colleague Doris R. Kimbrough of the University of Colorado, Denver, have produced a series of experiments that can be done with common household items such as baking soda and vinegar. Reeves points out that students who did the at-home chemistry labs performed just as well on exams as those who did traditional labs on campus (J. Chem. Educ. 2006, 83, 501).

Oregon State University appears to have one of the more extensive offerings of online chemistry courses. Not only does it offer general and organic chemistry online, it also offers inorganic chemistry and biochemistry. The general chemistry course includes a lab, which is performed through the Web-based simulation Late Nite Labs.

Chemistry professor Richard L. Nafshun, who teaches online chemistry courses at Oregon State, says enrollment in the courses has “gone up and up and up” since the university began offering the online option about seven years ago. Students from as far away as Iraq and Afghanistan—many of them in the military—have taken the courses, he says.

For some students, distance learning is their only option. New York City-based intellectual property lawyer David Postolski needed to obtain 30 credits of science in order to take the patent bar exam to become a patent attorney. “Because of the economy, I had to keep working,” he says. “I had a mortgage to pay. There was no way I could go back to college full time.” He’s currently finishing his second semester of an online biochemistry course through Oregon State and hopes to complete 30 credits in chemistry by the end of this year.

The younger generation of tech-savvy chemists is driving some of the newer efforts to develop online chemistry courses.

At the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, graduate student Phil Jano­wicz has developed a second-semester organic chemistry course that takes the traditional 50-minute online lecture and divides it into five six-minute webcasts. “That’s the average amount of time between commercial breaks on network television,” he says. “And that’s about the average attention span for a human being.” In addition to the webcasts, students can engage in interactive discussion sessions online.

Janowicz was inspired to develop the course from his own experience as an undergraduate student. “I really hated going to lecture,” he says. “Regardless of how good the lecturer was, I found myself staring at the ceiling and counting ceiling tiles.”

He tested the popularity of the webcast format this past spring by offering students who were taking second-semester organic chemistry a choice of the traditional online lecture or the webcasts. Of the 360 students who enrolled, 262 chose to watch the short webcasts, and 98 chose the 50-minute online lectures. Throughout the course, students had the option of switching formats; by the end of the semester, 320 students were watching the webcasts compared with 40 who were watching the online lectures. Exam scores were higher among the group that watched the webcasts.

Janowicz presented these findings at the ACS national meeting in Washington, D.C., last month. He says that the University of Illinois is considering a proposal to no longer offer organic chemistry courses to undergraduates in a classroom setting. The courses would be available online only.

Undergraduates aren’t the only ones who can benefit from online chemistry courses. UNC Wilmington offers an online master’s degree in chemistry. Students complete all of their course work on the Internet while working full time for a chemical company. The program graduated its first distance-learning master’s student last year, Reeves says.

Teachers will find opportunities in online courses as well. For example, Janice Hall Tomasik, an assistant professor of chemistry at Central Michigan University, has created an eight-week online course that helps high school and middle school teachers incorporate nanoscience into their curricula.

Chemistry instructors are optimistic that interest in online learning in chemistry will continue to grow. “Distance education slowed down a bit simply because our enthusiasm for it was way ahead of the technology,” says Byron E. Howell, a chemistry professor at Tyler Junior College who taught online general chemistry from 2000 to 2006. “But I think we’re turning the corner. With the new technology that’s out there now, I think there’s a renewed interest in it.


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