Benefits of Teaching Chemistry Online

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Editor's introduction: Please welcome Kathy Carrigan as a new 2YC (Two-Year College) monthly lead contributor. A seasoned veteran Kathy recently retired from Portland Community College (OR) after 22 years with a rank of full-time Chemistry Instructor. But she's not done teaching though as Kathy will continue spreading her positive message of academic and life success as an adjunct faculty "for as long as they let me". Kathy begin teaching college chemistry courses online in 2008. Her educational philosophy can be summed up with the following quote, "We must learn to build classrooms, face to face and online, to be a welcome place for all. I am continuing to learn how to make chemistry more equitable for all learners. I plan to bring my experiences and my “her story” into my ChemEd X blogs in a way that relates to today’s learners. I hope you let me know if you agree or disagree with me and join in on the conversation as we travel together down this road." Kathy also was national chair of the Two-Year College Consortium (2YC3) and currently serves as the 2YC3 liason representative to the ACS Division of Chemical Education. As Kathy transitions into retirement (lucky!), expect to find her playing golf, taking leisurely bike rides (when not raining in western Oregon), taking a quiet, slow walk in the woods, and finishing off a tasty, filling meal with a glass of wine.

As always...thanks for reading! Scott Donnelly, ChemEd X 2YC editor

Benefits of an Online Chemistry Course:

I have been following the Facebook page “Strategies of Teaching Online Chemistry” along with helping to organize and host the upcoming online 2YC3-sponsored COVID-19 teaching forum. Though I have grown frustrated with how many chemistry teachers have posted about how much they dislike teaching online, I really don’t blame them. My comments in this blog are based on my experiences teaching online since 2008. This spring with short notice, faculty were forced to move face-to-face (F2F) classes to online. The remainder of the spring term, the summer and in many places fall terms, will be online as well. I can see why teaching online now produces a repellent attitude for so many faculty. I am here to share with you that after 12 years of teaching online I have discovered many benefits for myself and for the students.

I teach an asynchronous online year long GOB course which utilizes a hands-on at-home lab kit which students are required to buy. We had the wonderful privilege to develop this course at Portland Community College (PCC) as a team, with sabbatical support, and release time; it took over a year to complete the 30 weeks of instruction and to help develop the at-home labs. We also have had funding opportunities to update the course over the years and worked collaboratively as a team every step of the way. If you want to hear more about how this was accomplished, contact me. But this blog focuses on the benefits I have experienced as an instructor and those benefits I have seen my students appreciate.  

Though I love teaching F2F, this is not a comparison of the online (OL) vs on-campus, F2F classes. The benefits I will share are from my experience in teaching OL classes that students have an option to choose because these courses are also offered as F2F (pre-COVID). The GOB OL course is limited to 24 students and combines the lab and lecture credits as one course.

Benefits for Faculty:

#1:  You can get to know your students as well as or possibly more than in a F2F setting. How can that be possible? There are ways to actively get to know your students in an OL course. You can ask them to introduce themselves in the discussion; I ask them to include their transfer program. I keep an excel sheet to keep track. Many students include pictures of their spouses, children and include pets. I seldom see the families of my on-campus students. Then I follow up at every opportunity to use their names and try to include a direct relation of the GOB course to their field of choice when grading labs. I ask for photos to prove they did the labs, and the images almost always make me smile. In email exchanges, I try to ask how they are doing, even more so now during this difficult time. During OL office hours, some will have children peaking over their shoulders, waving at me. I do not get to see this when they show up for on-campus office hours. And there is often less time to ask about their home life in a F2F setting if other students are waiting. It is really up to the teacher to try to get to know your students.  

#2: Working as a collaborative and collegial team to develop curriculum and pedagogy of delivery for your chemistry courses and teaching as a collaborative team improves the overall quality of the course. In order to work well as a team, we had to keep an open mind when listening to the ideas of each person, from the newest teacher to the most experienced teacher to work out the approach we all felt comfortable with, overall and for each individual topic. Being part of a team means to check your ego at the door, which is an important step in being more inclusive. This collaborative process continues with all updates to content, labs and assessment. We even try to merge two smaller sections into one course shell with two instructors in order to provide faster and broader response times to students. We choose to mentor faculty who are new to online teaching by adding them into a section with an experienced teacher, or adding an experienced teacher into their class. This does take creative FTE work by the Dept Chair, but the success rate is high because faculty new to online teaching and learning gain confidence and these new teachers bring updated technology and other skills to enhance the course.  

#3: Flexible scheduling for faculty. I was asked to teach my full load fully online for one term a few years ago, and I was able to get special permission to teach the class from Italy for 7 weeks. I spent the first week orienting students while I stayed local, then I moved to Rome for a over a month with some travel around Italy included. I was able to host live office hours for my students with some time management. I worked very hard on my classes to be responsive and carefully set up a schedule. On the days I was not on duty, I would explore the city. Although I will admit that it was tough while visiting Venice to spend many hours in my hotel room with blinds down in order to finish my grading, but the rewards were so worth it.   

After returning to campus, I was under contract to show up on campus and participate in campus activities even when teaching an online section, and I respected that. Honestly, I very much wish I was teaching online when my children were small as I could have flexed my schedule to better meet the needs of their busy days and still make it to meetings and on campus office hours. I know many of you are teaching while having your small children at home now because daycare is not available during this pandemic and you have my ultimate respect! However, can you imagine how teaching one class online once the campus doors open again can alleviate the drive time to campus and still allow you to be a parent?  

#4:  Health issues that might keep you from teaching on campus in a lab. I had a knee replacement one summer and was able to teach my online courses in the fall, before I was allowed to drive. Imagine having a health issue that may prevent you from working safely in the lab, but you can still guide students from the safety of your home.   

#5:  Flexible scheduling for lab space. If your online course has a lab component, then you do not have to worry about running out of lab space if your campus has only one chemistry lab room. For example, if the only time the lab room is available is Friday evenings, then you are stuck teaching lab section Friday evening. Working online allows you to schedule the time you can be most prodcutive.  

#6:  Teaching online has helped me to be a better teacher. Putting chemical concepts into writing when replying to student can be very difficult. I usually use my arms and hands to help me to guide student thinking and stress particular points. I have had to dig deep to write clear, yet concise responses to complicated questions.  

Benefit for Students:

#1:  Opportunity and accessibility. Many community college students work full-time or close to full-time hours. Many students have children and struggle with daycare issues, travel issues, and car issues. Taking an online class can offer them the flexibility they need to take the courses required for their transfer programs and manage their work and daycare schedules. For example, on-campus lab might be scheduled from 3:00-5:50 PM on a Wed afternoon. Well, daycares may close at 6PM so students rush to leave so they do not get charged by the minute after the 6PM deadline.

#2: No lab partner. Students must prepare well for each lab, making sure they have all the materials well ahead of time and read the lab before doing it. They do not have a lab partner who won’t let them do anything because they try to control the results. They also cannot depend on a lab partner to do the lab for them. The hands-on experience students get is really their own. (This is for a first year course for students who are not going to be Chemistry or Engineering majors).

#3: Online office hours, via Zoom or another format, at their convenience (and yours). They can schedule office hours at a mutually agreed upon time that works around their work schedule and their childcare schedule. This is valuable one-on-one time with the instructor.  

#4: Recorded lectures with closed captioning. Students can refer to as much as they need, and they are closed captioned to help with taking notes.

#5: Online students can also take advantage of on-campus office hours and tutoring centers.

#6: Savings on gas, childcare and parking.

There are many pros and cons in OL instruction, particularly in chemistry.  In this blog my goal was to focus on the positive issues related to OL classes.