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Multimodal Learning

Teaching Science Online

Teaching Science Online: Practical Guidance for Effective Instruction and Lab Work, edited by Dietmar K. Kennepohl, Stylus Publishing, LLC., 2016

Reviewed by Bruce Palmquist, Physics and Science Education

Brief Book Summary
This compilation of articles, compiled and edited by Dietmar Kennepohl, Professor of Chemistry and Associate Vice President Academic at Athabasca University, provides research-supported and classroom-tested techniques to help students learn science in online courses. There are articles covering coursework in the four main areas of natural science (biology, chemistry, geology, and physics) as well as articles about specific methods of teaching science practices online including simulations, directed fieldwork, at-home lab kits, and remote access science laboratory equipment. The main conclusion of the book is that there is no one size fits all for instruction and lab work online. Instead, every author emphasizes reviewing the outcomes for your course and selecting from a variety of methods to address those goals. In addition, nearly every article stresses that all outcomes, even those that are laboratory-based, can be effectively addressed in an online course.

Introduction to Teaching Science Online
The first question most science faculty members have when asked to teach their courses online is about how to effectively address the lab components. There are numerous tools available for lecture capture (e.g., Panopto), streaming media (e.g., MediaAmp), facilitating online discussions, web conferencing (e.g., Blackboard Collaborate), and even secure online testing (e.g., Respondus). But there is no single tool or “killer app” to allow for easy lab instruction in an online course. That shouldn’t be surprising. There is no “killer app” for excellent teaching, in general. The tools mentioned above can all be used as part of an effectively taught online science course.

There are three main issues with teaching lab science courses online: keeping students engaged, assessing what each student has learned, and developing authentic lab activities. Hopefully, you realize that the first sentence in this paragraph would have been just as valid with the word “online” removed. These are the same issues we deal with in every science course, online or not. Engaging students requires multiple methods of instruction: short recorded lectures that build concepts in a variety of ways, ample opportunities for fast and helpful feedback, faculty-student interactions, and student-student interactions. All instructors should come up with a variety of ways to assess their students, have multiple checkpoints, and give assessments/assignments that encourage self motivation. The main assessment worry of instructors new to online instruction is “How do I know that my student is the one actually doing the work?”. If they are honest with themselves, they would say they don’t know if every one of their students in face-to-face classes are doing their own work now. Finally, lab instruction depends on addressing a comprehensive set of inquiry outcomes in a variety of authentic ways.

Laboratories in Online Courses
While the specific lab outcomes differ from discipline to discipline, every article that focused on a specific discipline stressed the importance of the social aspect of science. According to “Teaching Undergraduate Chemistry by Distance and Online,” developing a community of chemistry learners requires cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence. The article “Science Online: Bringing the Laboratory Home” said there are three domains of knowledge that should be covered in labs: cognitive, psychomotor, and affective. The main goals of introductory physics labs, according to “Physics Teaching in Distance Education,” are experimental skills, cognitive learning, and developing collaboration skills. Finally, the article “Developing Online Earth Science Courses” stresses the importance of student-student and student-faculty interaction. Thus, one of the main messages of the book is that instructors should spend time promoting interpersonal interactions along with developing opportunities for learning the content and skills.

There are four main ways to deliver laboratory instruction at a distance: lab kits, “field-based” investigations, computer simulations, and remote instrumentation. These are described most succinctly in the article “Science Online: Bringing the Laboratory Home,” but they are elaborated on in all of the other chapters. Here is a brief summary of each.

1. Lab kits are containers of equipment and an accompanying curriculum. These can provide specific and directed activities. However, they can be costly to the student and have limited supplies, so students can’t repeat an activity.
2. Field-based investigations use the student’s local environment as the laboratory. Depending on the course, the local environment might include the park for biology, the river bank for geology, the kitchen for chemistry, or the toy chest for physics. These require instructors to write very specific guidelines since the local environment will vary from student to student.
3. Computer simulations range in cost from freely available and multi-platform to costly and proprietary. Simulations can address the cognitive aspects of the lab, but opportunities for design and technical skill instruction is limited.
4. Remote instrumentation give students the opportunity to control scientific apparatuses in campus and industrial labs. These experiences can be highly authentic since many professional scientists access equipment for their own research remotely. However, most of the equipment is only appropriate for upper-division courses.

I have created a simple table rating how well each one has the potential to address the three domains of knowledge (cognitive, psychomotor, and affective), the cost, the amount of
preparation required of the instructor, and the applicability for a typical general education science course.

 CognitivePsychomotorAffectiveCostInstructor PrepApplicability
Lab kitsHighMediumMediumHighLowMedium
Field-based investigationsHighHighMediumLow to mediumHighMedium
Computer simulationsHighLowMediumLow to highMediumHigh 
Remote instrumentationHighMediumHighLow to highMediumLow


Brief Chapter Overviews
• If you only read one article in the book, make it “Science Online: Bringing the Laboratory Home.” Along with detailing the different methods of delivering lab content to online students, the article contains many tips for designing labs in an online or face-to-face setting. Other than “Science Online,” there are seven articles in the book about online science courses in specific disciplines, four about specific tool types for facilitating online lab activities, two about professional development programs, plus two appendixes filled with resources. Each article provides research-based support for the methods they describe.
• “The Basics of Getting Biology Courses Online and Practical Biology at a Distance” describes the advantages and disadvantages of specific simulations, lab kits, and virtual labs. They also describe possible assessments, such as lab reports and online discussions.
• “Teaching Undergraduate Chemistry by Distance and Online” provides a comprehensive how-to for planning and teaching an online chemistry course. Except for the section about students driving to campus to do upper-level chemistry labs (unrealistic for general education or out of area students), this chapter can easily be applied to all natural science disciplines.
• “Developing Online Earth Science Courses and Online Delivery of Field- and Laboratory-based Environmental and Earth Sciences Curriculum” provides the book’s most complete overview of progressive activities to promote student inquiry, including student research, self-directed field trips, and virtual field investigations using Google Earth.
• “Physics Teaching in Distance Education and Assessment in Physics Distance Education” covers how to administer and assesses a variety of laboratory and homework activities.
• “Computer-based Laboratory Simulations for the New Digital Learning Environments,” “Remote Access Laboratory Equipment for Undergraduate Science Education,” “Situated Science Learning for Higher Level Learning with Mobile Devices,” and “Enabling Remote Activity” all describe different means to teaching science content and skills or improving science instruction. The article that stands out here is “Situated Science Learning.” Nearly every student has a mobile phone with them 24 hours a day. These phones can be used for collecting and sharing data, connecting to scientific instruments, recording and sharing video, and participating in citizen-science projects. In fact, nearly every tool described in this chapter can be used to enhance inquiry activities in face-to-face science classes.
• Appendix A compares online and face-to-face approaches for various learning activities such as examinations, lectures, and lab reports.
• Appendix B lists online resources, sorted by scientific discipline.

Uses for this Book
This book is useful for faculty and department chairs at many places along the online teaching interest spectrum. Here’s how people with different interest levels can use this book.

Just want to learn more. First read the articles about your specific discipline. They each describe many pedagogical techniques and tools that can enhance your face-to-face courses. Add a few techniques that are common to online courses such as online discussion boards, short recorded lectures, or online simulations.

Thinking about converting a face-to-face course to online. First read the article “Science Online: Bringing the Laboratory Home.” Next decide on the specific laboratory-related outcomes for your course. Then, research the specific tools and curricula available in your field. Try a few of these in the face-to-face version of your course as if you were teaching online. Finally, read the chapters related to your discipline for assistance in developing the online course outline and syllabus.

Ready to make your online course even better. First, read the articles about your specific discipline and the new tools you are interested in incorporating into your course. Then, follow up by reading some of the references that support and expand on the methods that you are interested in.

Online learning is here to stay, both in stand-alone courses and to supplement face-to-face courses. Science instructors should not avoid teaching science courses online simply because they feel labs are something that must be done in-person and on-campus. By using a variety of tools and methods as described in this book, online science labs can lead to cognitive, psychomotor, and affective gains.

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