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Online learning innovations: Bringing science to the world

By Debbie Farris

Online courses

Take a chemistry course online? Work in a virtual online lab? If this sounds implausible, thousands of former and current science students will tell you it is not. Students find these courses engaging, effective and academically rigorous, according to surveys and assessments administered by the College of Science.

For more than 15 years, the College has pioneered online chemistry courses that have proven popular among students, providing flexible scheduling, access to courses previously unavailable and an alternative way to learn. The courses attract students from around the world. Currently, there are more than 20 chemistry courses and labs offered online.

“It is rewarding to observe a broad use of the work we have developed in multiple delivery modes. Many students have accessed these instructional modules to increase their success in chemistry,” said Dr. Richard Nafshun, a senior instructor in chemistry at OSU for more than 20 years.

The online chemistry program began in 2001, when Nafshun taught the first section of General Chemistry with just four students. Using video modules, online homework and email, students learned chemistry, and as word spread, the program grew. Initially, the program utilized laboratory simulation software through an outside vendor. But the department sought a more innovative solution when instructors and students expressed strong dissatisfaction with that material.

This led to the creation of OnlineLabs, a spin-off business developed by three entrepreneurial OSU chemists: Nafshun, Michael Lerner and Mike Schuyler. They masterminded a way to deliver engaging online chemistry laboratories to college and high school students and educators nationwide. Students and instructors both reported a significant improvement in outcomes as a result of the improved virtual lab experiences.

The award-winning chemists credit key formidable educational experiences to their success:

  • Nafshun estimates that he has instructed more than 40,000 chemistry students throughout his 20 years of teaching.
  • Lerner has taught inorganic and general chemistry for 25 years.
  • Schuyler brings more than 35 years of teaching experience, from introductory undergraduate courses to advanced graduate courses.

“I am proud of the strong history of outstanding teaching and learning in our College. Through online learning, we can advance OSU’s strategic priority of increasing access to a high quality science education to people across the state and around the world,” said Sastry G. Pantula, dean of the College of Science.

“This will enable our College to build a diverse and inclusive science community focused on excellence,” added Pantula.

The College offers nearly 70 online courses with courses in mathematics, biology, physics and statistics. Some online courses have a long legacy spanning more than 10 years, such as bacterial molecular genetics and college algebra, while others have been developed in the past five years and reflect growing areas of science, including principles of statistics.

But growing online learning programs in the College of Science is one strategy for achieving our strategic goal of building a diverse and inclusive science community focused on excellence. By capitalizing on the pioneering work in online chemistry courses, the College of Science expects to make tremendous strides in the online learning space in the next couple of years into the online space.

In the past decade, the online chemistry courses have made solid traction with students on and off campus. In 2007, roughly 2,100 student credit hours were taught in online chemistry courses. This year, that number will quadruple to more than 9,000. About 15% of all credit hours in chemistry are now delivered online.

“Given our student success and the demand for access, it’s exciting to see how we can go further. Synergistic developments across the College of Science are an enabler,” said Lerner, chair of the Distance Education Working Group.

Many students and skeptics often wonder how an online experience compares to a traditional classroom learning model. Students registering for an online class sometimes expect a watered-down course and are often surprised to discover that the workload and the course outcomes are equivalent to traditional courses. Rigor and expectations are high, and serious students appreciate this.

In fact, student satisfaction in the online chemistry courses is as high or higher than the on-campus experience, sometimes as much as 14% higher, according to student satisfaction surveys. Students consistently rate their experience high, citing their appreciation for the ability to work at their own pace, to repeat experiments to develop comprehension and to explore state-of-the-art labs not available in a more traditional course.

As one general chemistry student puts it: “The online labs do a great job of simulating the work and teaching you good habits to get into. It lets you make mistakes and doesn’t prohibit you from learning anything.”

Online classes employ industry best practices and the latest technologies to create an enriching, interactive learning environment. Faculty work closely with OSU’s Ecampus instructional designers and multimedia developers to develop dynamic, effective courses. Course- and program-level assessments ensure online students meet the same learning objectives and are evaluated using the same criteria as on-campus students.

Highly skilled instructors and sound pedagogy greatly contribute to effective online courses. All science courses are developed and taught by science faculty, a factor that distinguishes OSU science courses from others. The depth of their expertise and experience helps ensure students succeed, evidenced by the assessment of learning outcomes.

Faculty administer frequent quizzes and exams to evaluate student outcomes and assess students’ understanding of specific chemistry concepts. These same tools also help instructors improve course materials and pedagogy. To date, the online and on-campus cohorts have shown comparable outcomes.

The College’s efforts in online learning have accelerated thanks to the nationally recognized online learning platform of OSU’s Ecampus unit. For the second straight year, OSU ranked in the top 10 nationally for online education by U.S. News & World Report.