Developing Concepts in General Chemistry; Symposium on Chemistry MOOCs

Last week I attended the national ACS meeting in Denver. It was great to catch up with old friends and network with vendors and publishers, but the highlight for me was the symposium at which I presented: Online Courses and the Effect on the On-campus Classroom. Don’t feel like I’m tooting my own horn here, though—there were some amazing folks in the room. The symposium organizer said it best: preparing a MOOC can be a very lonely experience. Even though thousands of people might be watching your videos and hundreds (if you’re lucky) may be posting in course forums, the act of putting the course together is generally a solo venture. To some degree, all of us at the symposium were commiserating with one another.

John Hutchinson‘s talk (from Rice University) was one that stuck out to me. His approach to teaching general chemistry deserves to be spread to all corners of the globe. He emphasized that in addition to bringing education to those who want or need it, MOOCs can act as a vehicle for publishing teaching—not publishing research about teaching, or work in the domain of chemistry, but publishing teaching itself. Naturally, as someone who advocates for the publishing of teaching per se, he’s developed an excellent system for teaching general chemistry through Concept Development Studies.

The idea of the CDS approach is to reveal chemistry concepts in a mostly inductive manner through experimental results. Results of relevant experiments or observations are presented first (say, the gas laws), and a conceptual model is built around these results (say, the kinetic molecular theory of gases), mirroring the way scientific concepts are developed in practice. He argued that most general chemistry is taught backwards, using a deductive model: here are the concepts; now let’s use the concepts to solve deductive problems.

It’s delightful when hearing a speaker rekindles interest in something you haven’t thought about in forever. One of the earliest questions Hutchinson poses in his CDS text is: how do we know atoms exist? He displays an image of a single atom taken with an STM, but then throws a curve ball: the image doesn’t really help us much. After all—and here’s the kicker—to develop the technology to even build the microscope that made the image, we already had to know that atoms exist! The real question is, how do we know atoms exist given only macroscopic observations? That’s where the CDS approach comes in, as he uses mass data to inductively reveal the Laws of Definite and Multiple Proportions.

It’s easy for students and instructors both to take atoms and molecules for granted, but this can be problematic if it means stoichiometry turns into a simple game of dimensional analysis. I also think there’s a good argument to be made that grounding chemical models and theories in data makes them “stickier”—especially when the data runs counter to what we might expect based on a simple model.

Hutchinson has a MOOC through Coursera available here; from the URL, I’m pretty sure it was the first general chemistry MOOC on Coursera. Other online courses/content I’ve checked out since the symposium are Canelas’s Introduction to Chemistry, Sorensen et al.’s Science and Cooking, and John Suchocki’s Conceptual Chemistry. Beautiful production value in the last one, although it seems to be targeted at a lower level.

ACS San Diego: Meeting Notes + More

ACS San Diego: Meeting Notes + MoreI’m sitting in the airport in San Diego, ready to head back home after a stint at the 243rd National ACS Meeting. All I can say is…wow. It’s been an amazing two days of presentations, posters, and networking. I finally met some long-time Twitter followers in real life, and got the chance to talk shop with some of my heroes in chemical educationVery cool. Some of my favorite highlights from the chemical education programming follow.

A symposium on Sunday “by grad students, for grad students” focused on research in chemical education (and featured yours truly… :D). Taken as a whole, the symposium highlighted the amazing breadth and focus that chemical education research has gained over the past few years. Clear research paradigms are emerging that, in the long run, are going to fundamentally alter how we teach chemistry. Although I think it’s sometimes hard to feel excited watching the literature and working day to day, the wheels are in motion and the community is alive and well.  Continue reading →

Illinois Faculty Summer Institute 2011

A couple of weeks ago, the University of Illinois held its annual Faculty Summer Institute, a conference for Illinois collegiate educators. A large focus of the conference, luckily for me, involved educational technology—how to implement it, how to teach with it, how to assess with it, etc. I had the privilege of presenting some of the technology we use in the chemistry department at UIUC (specifically in our large non-major organic chemistry courses). It’s amazing to see educators across the board embracing technology as a medium for instruction—really an exciting time to be an educational technology junkie!

One of my favorite presentations, addressing how to assess student engagement online, was given by Diane Hamilton-Hancock and her colleagues at Western Illinois University. Understanding student engagement online is a tough but interesting problem because, as Diane skillfully demonstrated through a group exercise, losing the ability to interpret non-verbal cues significantly affects our ability to understand each other! In many ways, though, instructors can structure and investigate online interactions (e.g., forum posts) in ways that are impossible in a traditional classroom. We all recognize the self-motivated, independent student as the ideal for both face-to-face and online education. By laying down expectations early, identifying and rewarding positive behaviors, and serving as examples for students, we can make this ideal the expected norm online—basically doing what we’d do in a classroom anyway, with a somewhat greater degree of control.

Here’s where things get interesting (for me, anyway): some of Diane’s co-workers took student forum posts and analyzed them for depth and critical thinking, using frameworks developed by Garrison and based on Bloom’s taxonomy (see this paper for a very similar idea). General trends were difficult to pin down, but there was a definite “ebb and flow” to the depth and content of forum posts as the semester progressed. Generally, periods of very low critical thinking preceded large “surges,” during which students would build on one another’s ideas toward greater and greater complexity. Imagine a forum that automatically detected these surges…remarkable insight for educators there, no?

The FSI’s key speaker was Cable Green, a champion of open educational resources at Creative Commons. There’s a very interesting battle going on right now concerning open educational resources, with the majority of conscientious educators on one side and what I’ll call the “big businesses of education” on the other. I’ll leave it at that—that’s a post for another day. All in all, the FSI was a phenomenal event, and I recommend it to all Illinois educators!

Coming next week: I managed to track down a stupendous Javascript library for network visualization—the Javascript InfoVis Toolkit. Tuesday I’ll begin a series on building a web-based concept map builder (and important things to think about as far as analysis of maps is concerned). The pages and code will be available on my personal domain, so hopefully you’ll be able to use it too, when it’s all said and done. In a nutshell, I think I’m finally climbing aboard the concept map bandwagon…

Blended Learning Studies and Models

I’m hanging out today at an Educause Learning Initiative workshop (what they call a “focus session”) on blended or hybrid learning, teaching and learning via a combination of live and online environments. Some highlights…

Larry Ragan’s research at Penn State is pretty cool. He’s a faculty development specialist at PSU working on educating faculty about how to manage online components of courses. He surveyed over one hundred faculty members with 5+ years online teaching experience about what tasks they viewed as most important for teaching online. Factor analysis of the survey results revealed core competencies for online educators. Much of his results make good sense as far as online education is concerned, and provide a nice starting point for faculty training programs all over the country.

Despite it’s gimmicky name, Brian Beatty’s Hyflex design is a great way to model blended learning courses. He emphasizes four core principles: learner choice, equivalency, reusability, and accessibility. More importantly, he practices what he preaches, particularly with respect to equivalency of materials for live and online students. Hyflex was built with commuting students in mind—to increase flexibility for students who may have issues getting to every single “on ground” class (such as working adults). It provides a nice framework for thinking about how to use a course management system for both live and online students effectively. To be effective, says Dr. Beatty, LMS’s must provide materials that are relevant to both live and online students, and serve as a common repository for learning materials generated in both environments. Interactions in the live and online settings of Hyflex courses are designed to mirror one another, so that as much as they can be, the live and online environments are identical. I know, I know, you naysayers are scoffing right now that making the two exactly the same is impossible. But think about it: even if it’s not true, we continue to advance closer to this goal on a daily basis as technology develops.

Deepa Godambe is a woman after my own heart. She teaches a blended chemistry course at Harper College in Palatine, IL. She used the simple task of making a list of what can be taught online versus what cannot to work out an effective blended course design. In her model, interactive content is a big part of online materials, while live sessions focused on things like student-instructor Q&A, lab experiments, and the like. Echoing a sentiment of most of the presenters, she spoke to the importance of communication in blended learning models.

The difference between Brian and Deepa’s examples is interesting. Hyflex is basically a model that equalizes live and online course sessions and materials. So, one could complete a Hyflex course using either strictly live or strictly online course materials. Deepa’s course, on the other hand, required students to use both live and online materials. I suspect that her design was partially motivated by a need to cover a great deal of content. In the sciences, content coverage often requires instructors to squeeze learning out of as many moments and materials as possible.

Gerald Bergtrom’s blended cell biology course speaks to the challenge of content coverage. He discussed the idea of moving his unchanging “canon of content” online, leaving class time for him to discuss and exemplify the process of science and it’s application to problem solving. For science education, the idea of shifting boring, content-heavy lectures to an online setting is a powerful concept.