Taking Chemistry Online with Digital Video
- By Catherine Murphy
The anticipated tidal wave of 2 million new students entering higher education
in 2010 has forced institutions around the country to seek out ways to accommodate
the influx and resulting strain on campus resources. Anticipating a 43 percent
increase in full-time enrollment in less than 10 years, the University of California-Berkeley
has been considering a number of options, incorporating technology where feasible
to lessen the impact of high enrollments and expand learning opportunities.
Digital Chemistry 1a serves as an example.
Perhaps hardest hit by the bump in enrollment in higher education over in the
next several years will be introductory-level courses that already fill large
auditoriums to capacity. Two obvious solutions are to move courses to online
environments or build larger lecture halls. But a more strategic initiative
is in place at UC-Berkeley, which has developed a set of online resources to
enhance and supplement the campus’s most heavily enrolled course, Chemistry
1a. The new course, called Digital Chemistry 1a, is composed of a mix of traditional
tools (lecture and lab) and online content (including online lectures, self-correcting
quizzing, and lab support).
The course was developed to help reduce the number of faculty members and graduate
student instructors (GSIs) teaching in the fall and spring, so that more of
them would be available to teach in the summer. Another priority was to reduce
the amount of time students spend in lab, in order to increase the number of
lab sections being offered. With 2,000 students already enrolled in the course,
resources were stretched to the maximum. With these goals in mind and a Mellon
grant in hand, the chemistry department launched a new course in Fall 2000.
Principal faculty developers were Drs. Alex Pines and Lawrence Rowe, along with
project director Mark Kubinec, Web designer Jonathan Henke, and principal investigators
I. Michael Heyman and Diane Harley.
Digital Chemistry 1a is designed to use technology as a means to enrich teaching
and learning rather than as a replacement for face-to-face teaching. Although
Berkeley d'es have to reduce the number of students sitting in the lecture and
lab rooms, it isn’t moving entire groups out of the hall and into the computer
lab. Instead, it is experimenting with ways to leverage the regular ebb and
flow of student lecture attendance with either a lottery system or a systematic
opt-out requirement that would have some students viewing virtual lectures while
others were attending in lecture halls.
Likewise, by providing extensive pre-lab and post-lab support online, the department
can reduce the time spent in lab from three hours to two, allowing additional
sections of lab. The idea is to provide such a rich collection of online resources
that students using them as a supplement to or even replacement for lecture
or lab would benefit from the experience.
The first priority of the developers was to improve the learning experience
for students. Surveys at Berkeley have shown that 80 percent of students do
not want an all-online lecture course. The charisma factor is important. Students
at Berkeley value the lectures, because they are so well done.
Keeping that in mind, the instructors created a cache of current and archived
video lectures, taking a simple pedagogical tool and adapting it to an online
environment. The videos, which are highly engaging, are searchable by keyword,
so students can either watch the entire lecture or jump to specific parts while
studying for an exam. Students can view their own professor’s lectures
or someone else’s. They have all of this available to them as a safety
Digital Chemistry 1a also features animated PowerPoint lecture slides, synchronized
with the lecture Web casts. The online lab manual offers boxed cross-references
to the course textbook and helps students prepare for their laboratory experiments.
Online quizzes and assignments provide immediate feedback. The quizzes are automatically
corrected and graded, saving the GSIs a large amounts of time. Students each
have their own password-protected account, which they use to take weekly randomized
quizzes and do the prelaboratory exercises. The course also features an online
discussion group, tutorials, and links to online resources such as the periodic
table, videos of chemistry demonstrations, and the CRC Handbook of Chemistry
Despite the archive of video footage and PowerPoint slides, it’s unlikely
that the department will ever move to a standardized approach or to an all-online
solution. At Berkeley, faculty prefer to build their own courses. They will
continue to build and develop new teaching tools, rather than adopt a prepackaged
course format. More likely, these materials will continue to be used as available
learning objects as the online course archive matures.
For more information on Digital Chemistry 1a, contact Diane Harley at UC-Berkeley, email@example.com or take a tour of the course at http://socrates.berkeley.edu/%7Echem1a/tour/tour.htm.