Distance Learning 4/4/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Thanks to the current viral crisis, many colleges and universities have closed including the one where I’m currently teaching. Many courses have moved online as a result. As such, I’m teaching an online lecture, and presenting a lab online as well.

Transitioning to online is not an easy thing to do for either faculty or students. From personal experience, I’ve noticed that the typical student will drop a full letter grade in an online class as opposed to a traditional course. I suspect it’s because most people are not as self-motivated or organized as they believe. Heck, a lot of people are now realizing that all of those projects that they would do if they only had time are still not getting done while quarantined at home.

It is my good fortune that I’ve been teaching online courses for many years now. It’s never been my primary mode of teaching, but I’ve taught enough online courses that I’m very comfortable doing it. The reason it seems most difficult for me, frankly, is the lack of interaction with the students.

Okay, let’s be real about this. I teach chemistry, and this semester I’m teaching at eight in the morning. There’s never a lot of student interaction to begin with, but at least there’s something there even if on their quiet days it’s little more than eye contact.

A lot of faculty will record their lectures and post it online. This approach is fine as most of the faculty will supplement the lectures with mechanisms for asking additional questions so students who truly are motivated and disciplined enough to keep up with the schedule can get answers to any questions they might have. Unfortunately, most students wait far too late and ask their questions around three in the morning when the professors, let’s be honest, are actually asleep.

For my lectures, I actually perform the lectures live. Conferencing software, like the one I use, often have a “whiteboard” feature where the other participants can see you draw on your tablet as if you were writing on, well, a whiteboard. I require my students to meet at the regular class time they’ve already signed up for. I know that they have this time open in their schedule (although I can’t stand 8 A.M. classes myself and I know it’s all in my mind), and it helps force them to maintain a schedule and keep up with classwork.

Lab is an interesting problem. The greatest advantage to lab is the tactile experience. Students in lab learn finesse, how to manipulate lab equipment, and to use their senses, including touch and smell, in making observations. One of the first lab simulations I’ve ever owned was from the late ‘90’s. I’ve been keeping an eye on these simulations ever since, and, yes, I’ve looked at modern ones as well. Although the graphics are better, as it turns out they’re really not significantly different today than they were back then. The package I purchased had a series of experiments, you had to choose your chemicals, it could take simulated measurements of temperature and pH (and I believe other things as well), and you could make “mistakes” as well. In fact, the online modern high end simulation I looked at a couple of weeks ago was not even as good as this one, because the one I had back then included a complete reputable textbook (one that I’ve used in my teaching) included that you could open and look at on your computer as well, graphics and all.

I can hear a reader screaming “okay, Mr. Expert, so what are YOU doing?” in my mind. Again, to help the students maintain a schedule, I am still having them log on to an online meeting at their usual scheduled lab time. The difference is that now, when I log on, I perform the lab live for them. They lose the tactile sense, as they would in a lab simulation, but there are a couple of advantages. First, they get to see the errors of a real lab. In simulations, the only thing that can go wrong are those things that the programmer can consider, but the reality is that there are so many more things that could happen that most people don’t think about. For example, in a titration, if you forget to fill the tip of the buret it will throw your calculations off, but I have yet to see this common mistake in a simulation. What’s more, other observations, such as smell, are lost in simulations. While you can’t get this online, as their “lab partner”, I will explain the observations that I make live. For example, in this week’s lab, I noticed condensation in the lab equipment that could have easily thrown off the calculations.

As this continues, I expect that many administrators will begin to rethink online courses. The biggest problem from this perspective is that many administrators tend to think online courses are a way to save money. In their mind, if the faculty creates videos, it’s easier to teach, and there is no limit to classroom size since there is no room capacity. The reality is that it’s actually more challenging to teach online than it is in person. It’s harder to get and keep students involved, and answering questions is very challenging since they cannot be answered for the entire class. It’s disconnected, so answering questions is far more difficult, and the questions usually have to be answered multiple times because they have to be done individually. But the good thing is that, in an evolving world, it also forces a lot of faculty who have been resistant to utilizing modern technology to make the transition. Even if they continue to teach in a traditional classroom setting, hopefully they’ll see some of the benefits of online resources always available and begin to supplement their classroom material.

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