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Taking Chemistry Online with Digital Video

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 net.

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 and Physics.

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 protected] or take a tour of the course at

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