Bush science: bringing labs to rural students

CHEM 106 students Nathan Lester (right) and Jeremy Folk (left) work on a "virtual" lab. Photo by Keane Richards/The Sun Star

By Mark Evans
Sun Star Reporter

Last semester, UAF’s Faculty Senate considered a motion to restrict core science classes to only those that included a hands-on lab component. The motion did not pass, and still sits in committee while the senators try to resolve the issue of how core science requirements can be met in distance-delivered courses.

In this two-part series, The Sun Star takes a look at how core natural science labs are currently conducted and the challenges of presenting them to students in rural Alaska.

Part 1: Two approaches, one class

“If we don’t change, we’ll lose these students,” said Alex Hwu, Director of UAF’s Center for Distance Education. Hwu was talking about rural Alaskan students that begin a UAF program and then transfer to another online provider when they are unable to get the courses they need from UAF.

Last year, said Hwu, UAF’s Distance Ed served up 21,000 credit hours to over 6,000 students. Enrollment in distance-delivered classes far outpaced the university’s on-campus class enrollment. “We’ve seen our enrollment increase an average of 10-11 percent a year for the last three years,” said Hwu. “That’s four times higher than on-campus enrollment.”

Many of the Distance Ed students are not even distant. Hwu said that half of the students taking online courses are living in dorms on campus. Offering online options to students on campus is part of the debate over distance education. Also at issue is how to administer core science labs, which have traditionally been tactile, face-to-face interactions. Virtual labs are becoming popular alternatives for many distance-delivered science classes and that has sparked protests from instructors that question the quality of online labs.

Hwu said many critics of virtual labs just don’t realize how far the technology has come. “A lot of faculty are resistant to the change to virtual labs because they are used to doing it the way it’s been done,” he said.

Many UAF distance-delivered science courses use some combination of virtual and face-to-face labs. Hwu couldn’t say what percentage of online classes feature some simulation, but when asked if he knew of any courses that used only virtual labs, he said, “only one lab, MSL 111, is completely simulated at this time.”

Making a case for ‘Face-to-Face’

Dr. Peter Winsor has strong feelings about the importance of hands-on labs in the teaching of his course. “The fundamental block of our class is the lab,” he said. “If you deleted me from the course, the lab could stand alone.” Winsor teaches MSL 111x – The Oceans, on campus. Winsor said that most of his students are not science majors. “They take it because it’s about the oceans… it’s interesting,” he said.

Still, said Winsor, he feels that he needs to provide his students with a real lab experience. Although most of the labs for MSL 111 are experiments that could be presented in a virtual format, Winsor said that to do so would be robbing the student of experience that they will someday need if they are to pursue a career in ocean science. “If I were an employer, I wouldn’t hire a student [for a laboratory position] that didn’t have hands-on lab experience. If you never set foot in a lab but only did virtual labs; how can you safely work in a chemistry lab full of acids? That could be a very bad thing,” he said.

Winsor agrees that the suitability of virtual labs

will vary with the course and with the lab. But, at the very least, he said, online classes with virtual labs should have two requirements: that the name of the class should be different than the same class offered on campus with hands-on labs, and that the certificate or degree earned by the student should identify that the online class did not provide a hands-on lab.

Giving in to technology, or getting on board?

Dr. John Kelley, 77 years old and one semester shy of retirement, finds himself reinvigorated by the possibilities that online teaching presents. “It doesn’t have any fences around it,” he said. “There are no boundaries.”

Kelley teaches the Distance Ed version of MSL 111x. Five years ago, he never would have envisioned himself teaching online. “I came into this kicking and screaming,” he said, “but like St. Paul, I got religion. Now I’m out there proselytizing.”

Kelley’s conversion came in 2005 when he was asked to teach a 300-level online ocean studies course. It wasn’t long before he was hooked by the possibilities. “I told myself ‘My gosh, what have I been missing?’ I saw at once that this was a great tool for teaching science and engineering,” he said.

Kelley had been teaching the on-campus version of MSL 111 for many years and thought that the online format would work for it as well. Working with UAF’s Center for Distance Education (CDE) and the American Meteorlogical Society (AMS), the online version of the course was first offered in fall of 2008. It sold out with 25 students. The course has since been offered every semester, including the summer session, and every semester it is full, he said.

Kelley’s labs, furnished by AMS, are all virtual. He said the content is newer and more relevant than what he used to provide in his face-to-face class. “The student can link to AMS or NOAA while they’re doing the lab and download actual, real-time data,“ he said.

The best part of the lab, said Kelley, is that “Everybody’s a participant. I’m able to monitor their progress individually.” In a face-to-face lab, he said, “You can’t monitor everyone.” Kelley said that, for many students, virtual labs can be better than hands-on labs. “Except for the touch and feel part, we can give the students a superior lab experience,” he said.

Kelley is constantly connected with his students. He tracks their textbook reading with online questions. He electronically peers over their shoulders and coaches them as they write term papers. He engages them in group discussions in the chat forums and the students have 24 hour a day access to their professor. “Each semester I get 350 to 400 emails from students,” he said, “and I answer them all.” Kelley said that there was no way he could ever give that kind of attention to individual students in his face-to-face classes. “You can’t do this during lecture and office hours,” he said.

When asked how much time he spends on the class, he said. “I hate to tell you, but it’s every day, seven days a week.”

This, said Kelley, is the dark side of the online teaching experience for the instructor. “It takes a tremendous amount of my time, and this is what makes it hard to sell to the other members of my community [fellow faculty]. I’ve been met with open hostility by some.”

When asked if some of the faculty resisting the change to online labs may be worried about losing their face-to-face lab students, he is unequivocal. “It’s true and they will [lose students], but you can’t fight it. You have to make the technology work for you, not against you… I just wish I could convince some of my colleagues of that,” he said.

“Part 2: What do we want? How are we getting it now?” can be found here.

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