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Parkland College is hosting its fourth annual Designing & Improving an Effective Online Science Course workshop on Friday November 1 & Saturday November 2, 2013. The theme for this year’s workshop will focus on empirical evidence in online education. Here is a blurb from the conference website:

The need for empirical evidence to show the efficacy of online teaching, particularly when science laboratory exercises are involved, is great. Thus the 2013 conference will have a theme focusing on data collection and data-driven decisions in online science education. If you have research, please consider submitting a proposal to present it.

In the past, one of the most popular sessions has been student panel sessions which tout the advantages and challenges of online education. This is a tremendous opportunity for you to get the inside scoop on how students perceive their online education experiences.

Those of you that have tried to replicate a “wet lab” experience in an online environment can probably appreciate the challenge of making that experience authentic and meaningful. A number of current advances is making this goal more and more achievable every day. This year a group from Parkland College will be presenting their research data from over 300 students taking a variety of science courses (chemistry, biology, earth science, physics, and astronomy will all be represented in our data). Additionally, Denice Hood (UIUC) and Curtis Shoaf (Parkland College) will be talking about their research related to student experiences and attitudes in online courses.

Stay tuned to this blog for an approach to online discussions that will increase engagement in your students!

Your comments and feedback are appreciated. Check back frequently! —Dave


I’m going to focus here on chemistry labs. I’ll have some of my colleagues address other disciplines at a later time.

There is of course the perennial debate about the importance of a “wet lab” experience compared to virtual labs or other modes. My focus here will be on virtual labs. The primary basis for deciding whether to implement a virtual lab in any course should be “Does this exercise meet the stated objectives/outcomes for the course?” During our fall Designing an Effective Online Science Course workshop, we will look at some evidence comparing the effectiveness of traditional lab experiences compared to virtual labs.

Some will argue that students in majors courses have to “break a few beakers” before they can be considered properly trained in that discipline. I believe there is a lot of truth to this statement, and it has been the unwritten policy of my department to not have majors taking the lab component of their chemistry courses online. That is, all of our majors courses are face-to-face (F2F) or hybrid. There are certainly schools where majors do take chemistry labs online and there is research to support this mode. But every department has to make that call for themselves.

I have to tell you that the advances in technology have made the experience incredibly realistic (although I still haven’t seen anyone break a beaker in one of these environments). One of my favorites was developed by Carnegie Mellon and can be found here – This tool has many protocols from which you can choose, or – although I’ve never used this – there is a Virtual Lab Authoring Tool to modify or create your own exercises. You have to try this tool out for yourselves to really appreciate its potential. I’ve had students do several things, from measuring densities of unknown metals to preparing a titration curve in order to identify an acids concentration and pKa.

Another powerful tool, called Molecular Workbench, was developed by the Concord Consortium ( These are scaffolded simulations that engage students effectively by maximizing the use of interactive simulations that current technology affords. These exercises can effectively be used as labs, in class learning materials, pre-lecture assignments, and many other potential uses. In addition, the system allows for the development of completely custom activities and the ability to edit existing activities to suit your personal taste.

Another site that doesn’t have the complexity or flexibility of the above tools is And from the University of Colorado there is this tool which helps to fill that difficult role of nuclear chemistry lab –

If you have other suggestions please comment. Also, if you have empirical evidence on the effectiveness of virtual labs I would love to hear about it.


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During the workshop mentioned previously on this blog, we recorded a few of the sessions that can be accessed through these links. The emphasis for this workshop was on getting the student perspective to online education and there are two videos highlighting this aspect which are very interesting! Enjoy.

Dr Michael Ward from UIUC delivers the keynote on “Connecting from Afar: Teaching and Communicating Science via Online Teaching”

Dr Kristine Young from Parkland College talks about how online education got started at Parkland and where it might be going –

Perhaps the most popular part of the workshop was the opportunity to pepper students about their experiences in their online classes –

We had two online students co-deliver a student keynote –


I read an article recently about how people today have hundreds of “friends” on social networks, yet they feel isolated. At the workshop (See previous blog, posted Nov. 9) we heard from some online students that talked about feeling isolated in their online courses. This was a recurring theme in my online student evaluations early on in my online teaching experience. I rarely get this complaint anymore, even though I rarely see any of my students face to face. So what have I learned to combat this? Well, there are a few things that seem to help.

First, you must have a discussion board and you must not just encourage, but also enforce that students use it. You can provide a wealth of opportunities for students to interact with you and other students, but if you don’t require them to do it, they will not. Then they will complain about being isolated at the end of the semester. The key to a successful discussion board is to impose rules that require students to post, read all other student’s posts and reply to other student’s posts. Enforcing the reading of posts can be the most difficult, depending on how well your L.M.S. tracks user logs. If you can’t easily track how long students are spending on each post, you can create quiz questions specifically from content in student’s posts to encourage them to read all posts. Also, you must create rules so that meaningful dialogue between you and students and students with students can happen. This means that they can’t fulfill all posting requirements at one time. They need to post by a certain date, but must wait to reply until after a certain date. Students will tend to isolate themselves by logging in the least amount of times you require, so you must balance requiring them to log in multiple times each week with providing enough flexibility for students with difficult schedules. Keep in mind though, even the busiest of students can usually find 10 min. a day to “check in” your course. They will initially bemoan this demand, but look back fondly on it at the end of the semester. Let me again use the social network analogy to reinforce this point. You may have hundreds of “friends” in your network, but with most of them you rarely interact. Those that you are especially close to, you will make time in your schedule to interact with daily or several times a week. In other words, we equate time spent with relational importance. This dynamic holds true in your online course. The more often your students interact within the course, the more connected they will feel.

In my next post I’ll give more tips for avoiding student isolation.


We had a great workshop last Friday! It was our largest attendance in the three years we’ve hosted the workshop. Thanks to all who came out! We had visitors from Massachusetts, California and even Alaska!  Of course, we had several from right here in the Land of Lincoln and nearby states. If those of you that attended would like contact information for your colleagues please contact me. Also, check back soon for videos from the workshop.

The workshop reminded us all that there is still a lot of personal and collective deep reflection on the effectiveness of distance education. While some are practicing distance education with fervor, others are being very cautious. Some institutions have administration that actively support and promote distance education while others show little interest or even disdain for the practice. And some instructors animatedly tell of its merits and opportunities while others focus on its challenges and shortcomings. All of these will be addressed in future posts to this site.

For now, I would like to focus on the opportunities. Not only those opportunities that put distance education and face-to-face (F2F) instruction on the same level, but those opportunities that can make distance courses a superior mode of delivery. There are a number of practical differences that have promise if exploited properly.

Time: Students in distance classes engage with the material on their own time. This could work for or against distance learning, but for the motivated and disciplined student the advantages could be significant. Instead of being locked into a regular F2F time format, the student can work on their distance course when they are ready to focus. Also, the amount of focused time that a student can spend on the course may be greater for a variety of reasons – such as reduced travel time to a campus. Additionally, the amount of time that a student is actively engaged in the material is generally greater since there is less passive lecturing in most online courses. Even in courses with lecture videos, these can be paused and replayed to fit the students needs and attention span. Finally, the amount of time that students spend reflecting on material is often greater. In a live classroom discussion students have to generate responses almost instantly. In a distance course, students can reflect for several minutes or even hours before posting a response to a discussion board or completing a lab question.

Location: Students in distance classes are not locked to a particular location. Again this could be a negative in some situations. But the opportunity to learn in an environment that is comfortable and free of distractions is greater in distance courses. However, distance education still provides the opportunity to do group work and engage in discussions and other collaborative activities. Also, students often feel more comfortable responding to their classmates in an online environment.

Technology: Although this is certainly not restricted to distance courses, there is a greater reliance on technology in distance courses than in F2F courses. Instructors are more likely to include novel technologies in their distance courses because technology is always at the forefront of attention in the development process. Often technology is an afterthought or used minimally in F2F courses. One opportunity to exploit, especially in lab based courses, is that technology offers the possibility to do the impossible.

Although some of these opportunities can be perceived as negatives depending on your perspective, the world of online education is here to stay and will only grow. I’m sure many of you will have other opportunities to expound upon. Please post your comments. Check out more on The Evidence on Online Education in Inside Higher Ed.  —Dave

Glad you found us! We are a new blog concerned with all matters related to science education in an online environment. We are particularly interested in creating online laboratory experiences that are as authentic as possible, and reflect the learning objectives of the traditional lab environment.

Parkland College is hosting its third annual Designing an Effective Online Science Course workshop on Friday, November 4, 2011. This will be our largest workshop ever with nearly 50 registrants including a few vendors. We have participants coming from as far away as the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska (I suspect it is slightly warmer in central Illinois this time of the year). The theme for this year’s workshop will focus on the student perspective in online education. A student panel and student ambassadors will tout the advantages and challenges of online education – particularly, in reference to authentic laboratory experiences.

Those of you that have taken a lab based science course can probably appreciate the challenge of replicating this experience in an online course. A number of current advances is making this goal more and more achievable every day. Many of these will be highlighted in future posts.

Your comments and feedback are appreciated. Check back frequently! —Dave