A recent study by the Colorado Department of Higher Education (Epper)* finds no significant difference in the performance of community college students who took science classes online and in traditional classrooms. This is consistent with many studies that show online learning to be as effective as classroom learning, but the importance of this study in the area of science is, sadly, less significant than it appears.
The study had two parts. One compared the grades of students within the system. This has little value as an indicator since grading was left to the instructors and thus provide no standard basis for comparison. The other part of the study is more valuable, showing no significant difference in the performance of the students after they transferred to four year colleges and universities. The students who completed their first two years of science education online did just well as those who completed it in regular classrooms. The significance in terms of science is the challenge to the common perception that students need to spend time in a true laboratory to get a proper science education. This online program used specially designed kits to replace the formal lab experience, and other programs used other online approaches.
Unfortunately, the 2010 study Academically Adrift shows there is little reason for celebration. That study found that students in general learned very little in the first two years of college. The conclusion of this study, then, implies that the online science program didn’t do any better (or worse) than a traditional program that we know isn’t working. One would hope that the online program is an improvement, and, in fact, it should be able to achieve improvement without breathing hard.
In 2005, the National Research Council published America’s Lab Report, a devastating look at science education in America. It was particularly concerned with the very poor way in which laboratory work was incorporated into the instructional process. Although that report focused on high school courses, the nature of the identified problems is almost certainly just as likely to be found in college classrooms, if not more so. This study not only shows why lab courses are ineffective, it also points the way to how they can be improved, whether in the physical classroom or in the online environment.
This was a meta-analysis that looked at a huge number of studies in science education. Some of the studies actually indicated that students would perform better if labs were eliminated entirely. The reason is simply a matter of instructional alignment. Achievement in science is usually measured by the ability of students to memorize and repeat facts related to science. They are rarely assessed on their ability to think and perform as scientists, by investigating, forming hypotheses, and following the scientific method to solve a problem or reach a valid conclusion. Thus, instructional time spent on anything other than learning and memorizing facts is time wasted.
The main problem with labs is that they are rarely integrated into the instructional program in a way that makes pedagogical sense; it is as if the student is taking two separate and unrelated courses. The National Research Council believes that science instruction should focus instead on inquiry by having students experience the process of science. In such a course, labs are at the very heart of the learning process, not something added on and interfering with the memorization of facts. To make this happen, the inquiry process, including labs, must be integrated seamlessly into the instruction.
The National Research Council lists seven goals for labs, goals that they say are poorly met by the current lab process:
- Enhancing mastery of subject matter
- Developing scientific reasoning
- Understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work
- Developing practical skills
- Understanding the nature of science
- Cultivating interest in science and interest in learning science
- Developing teamwork skills
In addition, it has four curriculum standards for science instruction that are not met by most high school and introductory college science courses:
- Clearly Communicated Purposes
- Sequenced into the Flow of Instruction
- Integrated Learning of Science Concepts and Processes
- Ongoing Discussion and Reflection
It is hard to imagine how a university can meet those standards in a typical introductory science course with students listening to lectures in 400-seat auditoriums and then going to a separate lab, usually overseen by a graduate assistant without the professor even present. On the other hand, it would be easy for any online course to be designed that way. The inquiry work, including labs, can be fully integrated into the lessons. Lab processes could be included within the instruction with ease, with each step in the process fully sequenced into the flow of instruction as the standards describe.
In summary, the online education format makes reaching those seven goals and those four curriculum standards so much easier than a physical classroom that no one should take comfort in a study that claims no difference between online and traditional early science programs. Such results should, instead, be discouraging.
* ETCJ originally attributed the study to WCET. Correction submitted by Cali Morrison, WCET, on 10.24.12: “The study was done by the Colorado Department of Higher Education. We, at WCET, did publish a blog by Rhonda Epper, Assistant Provost at the Colorado Community College System, regarding the study.”
Edited 10.22.12 at 18:45; 10.24.12 at 06:50.
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