In their own element

New online chemistry course offers students greater flexibility

By Rick Moore

For months last year, U chemistry instructor Michelle Driessen dreaded the lectures for her fall 2009 class, Introductory Chemistry. It’s not that she doesn’t love to teach. It’s just that she knew she’d be teaching in a room with no students.

Such is life when you’re taping lessons for a new online course.

Driessen forged ahead last summer, taping her lectures in bite-sized topics and discovering a trick to engage her future audience: “I picked out a box on the wall in the back of the room and became friends with it,” she jokes.

The result of her labor—and the University’s eternal quest for the best teaching formats—is a new online course serving about 1,200 students. (Previously, Introductory Chemistry—a “bridge” course between high school chemistry and General Chemistry 1—was taught via four sections of 300 students.)

Students view lectures on their own time, complete weekly assignments, and take five exams in person. They can also sign up for optional in-person discussion sessions and chat with their instructor in person or by e-mail.

According to Driessen, the first semester of online chemistry at the U went well, and most students enjoyed the flexibility inherent in online learning.

“Not all the students like the format,” Driessen notes, but in general, the enthusiasm level was quite high. “There’s a group of students who like the flexibility and they like not having to come to lecture every day. A couple of them told me, ‘I watched the lectures on the bus on the commute in using my iPod.’”

“It’s not perfect for everyone,” says Bill Tolman, chemistry department chair. “Going online for every class is not a good idea because some students don’t learn well that way, and I think some students prefer face time in the classroom. It’s going to be best applicable for lower-division classes with multiple sections, where you only take a part of the course and do it this way.”

Play. Pause. Replay.

Student reaction to the course was generally favorable.

“It was nice that you could do it on your own time, and I liked that her lecture videos were short clips [according to topic],” says Hannah Dyrud, a first-year pre-nursing student. “I think it worked well online, although I enjoy chemistry and I guess you could say it comes easy for me. I don’t know how easy [the format] would be for someone who would struggle with chemistry.”

Indeed, that sentiment was borne out in some student evaluations. “I never want to take an online course again, especially not chemistry,” said one. “It is difficult to understand complex equations when you cannot directly ask your teacher questions while you are learning the subject matter, and when you are not actually in the classroom.”

On the other hand, some students cherished the break from the classroom.

“Chem 1015 gave me the flexibility to view and even review the lectures on my own without the hassle and time required for me to commute to and from class,” says Kim Pham, a second-degree student who previously majored in sociology and English literature. “And I found that the weekly homework quizzes kept me on pace without monopolizing when and how I study.

“If I had questions, I'd ask the professor or classmates in the discussion forum. The professor would respond within a day or two and any student could respond to me and often did. Without the online format, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have access to everyone in such a way.”

Faculty lines

Driessen and Tolman stress that the instructor’s time investment in an online course can be just as much—if not more—than in a traditional class, once you factor in the time spent answering student questions. Driessen estimates she spent eight hours a day answering e-mails during the first two weeks of the semester.

“It’s just a different way of spending your time,” Tolman says. “Instead of doing lecture prep and then standing up and lecturing, you’re doing more informal, interactive work with students.”

And the students, in turn, are doing much of their learning in as informal a manner as they choose.

Says Driessen: “A couple of them took me to the gym with them and said, ‘I run on the treadmill while I watch my video.’”

Burning calories while learning how to balance chemical equations? That has to be worth some extra credit.