So This Traditional Lab Science Course Walks Into an Online Environment
During the Spring of 2018, my administration asked me to offer the College’s first fully-online science lab course so that our students enrolled in the online degree programs could complete the lab science course requirement. I have to assume that before my course, these students either had to attend the physical classroom or get a course substitution. MET101 – Introduction to Weather is a four credit science elective course taken mostly by non-majors. The lab portion of the course was essentially already online because students accessed real-time weather data in order to create a three day forecast for various cities around the country. Students are physically in the room but they could just as well be at home. I worried about how to offer the lecture online but thinking I was already halfway there, I said yes.
At Suffolk County Community College all faculty who wish to offer an online course must enroll in our e-Learning Academy. I attended in Fall 2019. Although I was already very comfortable with BlackBoard and other technologies, I did learn “best practices” and most importantly, how to make sure my course was accessible to students with various learning disabilities. I learned about 14 pt font sizes, not using colored text, alt and titles tags on every image, close-captioning all videos, etc.
My biggest concern was making the lab accessible to visually-impaired students because much of the weather data comes from real-time maps published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). I asked to meet a student who is about 90% visually impaired and he told me I had set up the course as well as possible but there was no way he would be able to read the maps to collect data. I made an executive decision. Because the data analysis is so much more important than data collection, I told him that I would provide the data to any student who had trouble viewing it. After all, aren’t we here to measure critical thinking? It is what students DO with the data that really matters. Problem solved.
“After all, aren’t we here to measure critical thinking? It is what students DO with the data that really matters.”
In the traditional course, I have one lab per week per section. I record the data at the same time the students in the room do. In the online modality, students needed to be able to do the lab around their schedules. In order to accommodate fluid schedules, I offer three different lab dates: Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday. Students can pick which day they wish to do the lab. Everything is due by 8 am Friday so they either must collect the data on the lab date or download the maps for offline use whenever they want. (The numerical weather models are updated four times per day so all of the maps will “reset” in 24 hours.) This has worked out well because some students work during the week and use the weekend for online hours while others want their weekends to be with family so they prefer to do their work on weekdays.
The lecture was the part where I really spent a lot of time. I estimate I spent about 200 hours developing the course before it first ran in summer of 2019. My goal was to recreate the in-class experience as much as possible. For each topic, I imagined going through my lecture. Where did I stop for Q&A? When did I use examples? When did I throw in a bad joke? (I am famous for bad puns.) Where did students typically look like deer in the headlights but were afraid to raise their hands? I chose to create many BlackBoard pages so each page only had a little bit of text and maybe an image or two. In this manner students would not be overwhelmed at the screen in front of them. I have numerous “Question” slides where I ask student to ponder a question and the next page has the answer. I also used Camtasia to record myself speaking and clicking around BlackBoard so students not only could read my content, they could hear my lecture and see where I was pointing. These videos are all located on a private YouTube channel I created and all are close-captioned.
“Each week students learn from previous mistakes as well as from my feedback so as the semester goes along they really elevate their discussions.”
Of course, an online course must foster community so for each topic I have a discussion board Q&A as well as an assignment that requires students to post and to comment on other posts. I use the same set of questions for each discussion post. Each week students learn from previous mistakes as well as from my feedback so as the semester goes along they really elevate their discussions. This might not happen if students had new questions every week. I often hear students ask, “Why do I have to know this stuff if I am not a science major?” When they are asked to draw connections between the content and their lives, students see the value of the topics they are learning. The questions they discuss each week include:
- What did you find most interesting and why?
- Did anything you learn surprise you? Explain.
- Describe a concept you learned that you think will be useful after you leave this course. You must provide details to show how this concept will be used by you.
- How might one or more of this week’s concepts be important to members of society in general? What professions might require understanding of these concepts? You must provide details to show how this (these) concept(s) will be used by a professional. Do NOT choose meteorology as the profession.
- What, if anything, did you find confusing? What have you done to try to decrease the confusion?
I also use a detailed scoring rubric and require students to understand Bloom’s Taxonomy. I want them to get to level 4+. To do so, I have a short page dedicated to Bloom’s that features the standard pyramid, text, and three short videos to help explain Bloom’s. (One video uses Harry Potter movie scenes as examples.) It takes them several tries to get there but they mostly figure it out as the semester moves along. For example, in the Latitude-Longitude & Sun Angles topic, a student wrote “My sister went to Ecuador last summer and I was surprised she said it was cold the whole time she was there.” I replied, “Look at a map. Why might it be cold?” She responded, “Oh, Ecuador is along the equator so she must have been south of the equator so it was winter!” I replied, “But aren’t the tropics always warm due to high sun angles year-round? Why was it cold in the Tropics?” She then figured it out. “Aha! There are tall mountains in Ecuador so she must have been at a high elevation to be so cold.” Bingo! I now use this example to show students how to get beyond Bloom’s level 1-2 thinking which is what most of their educational career has required of them.
“The greatest challenge is getting the right student into the course.”
The greatest challenge is getting the right student into the course. Too often I see students enrolling who think this is an easier format or that “Hey, I can take a course without going to school.” To attempt to mitigate this, I open the course well before the semester begins and make sure they all read the Getting Started section. While viewing a fitting room image titled “Is This Course a Good Fit” they are asked:
- Are you able to schedule time each day for this course?
- Are you able to carefully read and follow directions?
- Are your note-taking skills strong?
- Are you comfortable with technology? (Can you save files, send files, open files in various formats, use MS Word, etc.?)
- Do you feel comfortable entering into class discussions which are required in this course?
If you said NO to any of these questions, this online modality may not be good for you at this time.
To wrap things up, I am often asked which course is better: traditional or online? I think the labs are definitely better in the traditional format because students are in collaborative groups and I am right there to help them. Online they are pretty much alone with the data. The lecture portion of the course is much better online. Students can read the notes and view the videos at their own pace. The notes are already there which helps students with weak note-taking skills and students can repeat the notes as many times as they like. I also think students are more comfortable posting their thoughts online from the safety of their homes vs raising their hands in the classroom to ask a question. And, of course, if we wish to offer fully online degrees, we must be able to offer every course required in that degree program. I am pleased my course was the first to do so and more are coming online each year at Suffolk County Community College.