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How The Internet Has Shifted The Way Students Learn

Web-based homework is a big hit, but online classes and virtual labs are less widespread

by Celia Henry Arnaud
August 16, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 32

Graduation cap with a computer mouse as a tassel.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

Although the Internet has made possible some new teaching methods, it hasn’t been a total game changer for chemistry education—at least not yet. While chemistry educators test out strategies, such as recording online lectures or assigning Web-based homework, they continue to innovate and push for better tools.

Even before the birth of the modern Internet around 1990, chemistry educators were figuring out ways to use connections between computers. “In 1981, I received a grant from the National Science Foundation to disseminate software for teaching via something that was a precursor of America Online (AOL),” says John W. Moore, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

At the time, Internet access was rare, and people were satisfied receiving software on floppy disk. Thus, Moore’s idea did not come to fruition until he initiated JCE Software, part of the Journal of Chemical Education, in 1988. Also, in 2003, he launched the Chemical Education Digital Laboratory (ChemEd DL), which is operated by the American Chemical Society’s Division of Chemical Education. Since the early 2000s, these services have distributed a broad range of instructional materials designed to enhance chemistry education via the Internet.

Because the Internet enables the sharing of information by people all over the world, it makes it easier to take a patchwork approach to assembling teaching materials instead of relying on a particular textbook. “I regard pedagogical materials as something you assemble as needed,” says Christopher J. Cramer, a chemistry professor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and author of the textbook “Essentials of Computational Chemistry: Theories and Models.” “I wouldn’t say that textbooks are obsolete yet, but I’m not putting any effort into creating a third edition of mine.”

That said, the Internet has yet to displace textbooks. The students themselves are a real obstacle to online textbooks because they’re unwilling to give up the print version.

Chemistry education for the YouTube generation, by Neil Garg

Credit: Courtesy of Neil Garg
Credit: Courtesy of Neil Garg

Why does organic chemistry have such a bad reputation among students? Before being directly exposed to the subject, they’ve already heard about the notorious class that involves a painful amount of memorization and is used to weed out the weak from the strong. Accordingly, when students finally take organic chemistry, teachers face an uphill battle to overcome the fear the students have for the subject.

Credit: Courtesy of Neil Garg

Although I am an advocate of the traditional “chalk talk,” I have come to realize how the Internet can be used to a professor’s advantage to enhance the student experience and dispel negative perceptions about organic chemistry. One activity I started assigning to my students in 2010 is to make music videos about organic chemistry with lyrics that correspond to course material. Not only has it been an educational assignment for the students, but it has also allowed us to share the fun of organic chemistry worldwide with the YouTube generation.

Credit: Courtesy of Neil Garg

The Internet also provides a great opportunity for teaching students how organic chemistry affects their everyday lives. At the University of California, Los Angeles, we have developed a set of online tutorials called BACON (Biology & Chemistry: Online Notes), which show students connections among course content, medicine, the real world, and even pop culture. These tutorials will become broadly available in 2016.

Credit: Courtesy of Neil Garg

The Internet has no doubt enhanced the student experience. We should use it when it serves a strategic educational advantage. But let’s not forget there is still no substitute for the critical thinking skills our students develop when solving a so-called impossible problem on the good old chalkboard.

Credit: Courtesy of Neil Garg

Credit: Courtesy of Neil Garg

Neil Garg is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA.

For example, when Moore started using an online textbook in 2009, many of his students strongly objected. They insisted on printing out the pages. “The printed page seems to have some magic that a computer screen doesn’t,” he says.

Although online textbooks haven’t caught on yet, online homework definitely has. Part of the attraction for instructors is that the online homework software can determine whether or not a student has answered correctly, making grading easy. Moreover, the types of answers that can be graded have advanced beyond multiple choice and simple numerical answers to chemical formulas and chemical structures.

Additionally, it has advantages for student learning. “With Web-based homework, students get something wrong, and they instantly know they got it wrong” because the homework is designed to display the answers along with feedback about how to solve the problems, says William J. Vining, a chemistry professor at SUNY Oneonta. The program then gives the student another, different problem on the same concept.

By doing their homework online, students are also helping professors gather information to improve their teaching. “Because you ask students a lot more questions, have a complete record of answers from all of your students, and can relatively easily analyze the data you collect, you can find out a lot more about what is effective pedagogy and what is not,” Moore says.

Thanks to the Internet, students can also do work at home through “flipped” classrooms. In this scenario, they watch video lectures at home before physically going to class, where they have more time to work problems, often in groups, and to participate in other activities, with only minimal lecturing from the professor.

“When students come to class, I know they’ve had the introductory spiel,” Vining says. “I can spend time doing more meaty things with them.” He can focus more on the reasons behind chemical trends and can work more complex problems that put concepts into context.

Other classes have moved completely online. Oregon State University, an early adopter of online classes, started offering general chemistry online more than a decade ago, says Richard Nafshun, a chemistry professor there.

Nevertheless, online chemistry classes are far from the norm. Laboratories have been a stumbling block for widespread adoption of fully online courses. “We could put together an online general chemistry class right now,” Vining says. “But there’s no easy way to do the lab, so we’re not doing it.”

Companies such as and Late Nite Labs are trying to improve virtual labs. was started by Nafshun and others at Oregon State for use with that school’s online courses. With these programs, users run simulated versions of lab experiments, such as titrations or calorimetry, controlling reaction conditions and collecting and analyzing data at their laptops. These online experiments are geared more for students who aren’t planning to be chemistry majors.

Even so, there’s a widespread resistance to virtual labs. A sign of that resistance is the emphasis on hands-on lab experience in ACS’s guidelines for approval of bachelor’s degree programs. The guidelines state that “because chemistry is an experimental science, substantial laboratory work is integral” to a complete chemistry education and that “the certified graduate must have 400 hours of laboratory experience beyond the introductory chemistry laboratory.”

The newest version of online chemistry education is the massive open online course, or MOOC. These courses, offered by companies such as Coursera and nonprofits such as edX, are free to students and typically enroll thousands. Only a handful of MOOCs have focused on chemistry, however.

Cramer has taught three iterations of a thermodynamics MOOC. Few of the students were traditional undergraduates, he says. Instead, they tended to be professionals seeking continuing education or engineers curious about how chemists handle thermodynamics.

It’s hard to predict what else the Internet has in store for chemistry education. “It’s ridiculous to think that it’s going to be limited to more of the same,” Oregon State’s Nafshun says. “I’m looking forward to being surprised.”  


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