No Satisfaction in Finding on Online vs. Traditional Science Classes

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:

  1. Enhancing mastery of subject matter
  2. Developing scientific reasoning
  3. Understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work
  4. Developing practical skills
  5. Understanding the nature of science
  6. Cultivating interest in science and interest in learning science
  7. 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:

  1. Clearly Communicated Purposes
  2. Sequenced into the Flow of Instruction
  3. Integrated Learning of Science Concepts and Processes
  4. 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.”

WebCite alternative.

Edited 10.22.12 at 18:45; 10.24.12 at 06:50.

15 Responses

  1. […] A recent WCET study 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.  […]

  2. John’s insights, as usual, are very good. I must take issue with the idea that a university cannot meet these standards in large classes. It’s only because most professors are dedicated to research and not to teaching that such situations abound. I was such a professor with 350 students in freshman chemistry course with labs. I met with my 22 teaching assistants weekly and visited lab sessions constantly during the course. It left me little research time but helped to build a good quality course. (Today, I’d make a much better one, but I was new to teaching then.)

    In community colleges, there’s no excuse for not meeting the goals of ALR. It’s not a publish-or-perish environment, and the class size is smaller.

    Because John has listed the goals, I’ll comment on them. I see no excuse for not meeting those second set of four goals. These are overarching goals for any lab course.

    The first set of goals focuses more closely on the labs themselves. These are nice goals, but are not all equal when it comes to designing great lab experiences. For example, 7 — fostering teamwork skills — is a great thing to do, but hardly will affect the quality of the lab experience.

    Because labs take time, cost money, and occupy expensive space, they should especially focus on meeting goals that cannot be met readily in other ways. Three of the goals fit that category.

    2. Developing scientific reasoning [skills].

    While you can do this other ways, collecting real data and making the effort to understand and explain them really forces students to think scientifically. They often don’t like the experience because they’re not used to thinking, but will learn to love it once their unused brain cells become stronger.

    3. Understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work.

    This goal is so important that ALR singles it out as the one goal that can be achieved in no other way than through a science lab. In this context, it’s important to note the part of the report that John left out, the definition of a science lab. Here it is.

    “Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.”

    Note well that the data must always come from the “material world.” That statement completely rules out simulations that use equations and algorithms to create the data.

    Listing those goals without the definition is like teaching someone to ride a bicycle without a bicycle.

    5. Understanding the nature of science.

    Once again, it’s possible but difficult to help students understand the nature of science without labs. For example, students could read and discuss excellent scientist biographies. With proper guidance, they may begin to appreciate the nature of science. However, it’s much, much better to understand science by doing science. Then, you are much more likely to internalize your understanding.

    The other goals are less important for labs. You might say that they’re nice to have. By the way, “practical skills” (item 4) include such things as tabulating and graphing data. I take issue with the one practical skill regarding use of laboratory equipment, except for those pursuing lab-based careers.

    The two remaining goals, mastery and interest in science, should be bolstered by good labs but are better served by other activities in general.

    John does not mention this, but ALR and the NACOL report suggest that labs need not achieve all or even most of these goals. I disagree. The special three I’ve singled out should be met by every lab, or that lab should be removed from the curriculum, in my opinion. Except for teamwork, the rest should be served well by the lab if at all possible, at least in part. Teamwork is a great social skill and should be fostered, but it’s not a necessary part of doing or learning science.

  3. Just a note of correction, 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.

  4. As a means of correction, the study was done by the Colorado Department of Higher Education, not WCET. We published the blog about it written by Rhonda Epper, Vice Provost at the Colorado Community College system.

  5. For many years, as an onlilne educator in the community college system in Colorado, I have listened to traditional colleagues claim as a fact that students taking online science courses are not as well-prepared and in fact are at a disadvantage compared to traditional students. The traditional model was held up as the standard, without proof, even though, as John points out in his post, there have been studies indicating that the traditional educational model does not work as well as it should in the first two years of college.

    I have to take issue with John’s initial statement about “America’s Lab Report” and its findings. While this study is a striking indictment of our high school science programs, John’s assertion that it pertains directly to college programs is completely unwarranted. In fact, studies like “America’s Lab Report” make the results of the comparison study in Colorado even more impressive. In spite of the uniformly terrible preparation in sciences at the high school level, these students go on to perform fairly well at 4-year colleges after preparation at the community college level.

    For some reason, John then leaps from high school to a discussion and critique of large lecture courses at 4-year schools, when this was not in the scope of the study at all. The study compared online introductory science courses (with integrated lab components, by the way) to traditional community college courses, which have small numbers of students and which may or may not have an integrated lab component. The grade and GPA performance of students from each type of introductory course were then examined as they proceeded through the next two years of school at 4-year institutions in Colorado. While John rightly points to the lackluster learning that often takes place in the first two years of college, that is also not the point of this study. What the study shows is that online students do reasonably (and indistinguishably) well during the last two years of college compared with traditional community college students. Is John’s assertion, then, that the entire college experience in the U.S. is a waste of time? I hope not, and I’m sure the vast numbers of students from around the world who flock to the U.S. college system each year would agree.

    I see studies like this one as a first step in establishing the legitimacy of online educational experiences in the sciences. Rather than criticising each other, the traditional and online communities should be focused on making the educational experience for our students the best it can be. The fact is that online instruction meets a real need among the student populace and will not be going away any time soon. Students are not forced to sign up for online courses – they take them for many reasons related to their own situations and needs. Should the online programs be outperforming the traditional programs? Perhaps, but that is not the argument I would prefer to have. Rather, I hope that the entire spectrum of educational opportunities can serve our students well and produce the educated populace that is the only hope for a prosperous future.

    • It’s all a matter of balance and of individual situations. We’re not all the same in so many ways.

      We should have the best in both worlds. However, I must insist that online education should be the focus of much of our current efforts for developing courses and for analyzing results. We’ve had our centuries to perfect classroom and lecture-hall courses. The costs of online education are lower; they can deliver a self-paced course; and they allow commuting students to save on gas and help our environment.

      Finally, the promise of online education, if you look at all of the opportunities for innovation, is so great that it really does deserve our attention. Those who denigrate online courses should take a moment and think the entire situation through. Those online evangelists who find so much fault with traditional courses should realize that these will be an option many will choose for at least the near future and for good reasons.

      I’m not sufficiently prescient to say how education will look in the future, only that students on campus and student online will both continue for some time and that sometimes these are the same students.

  6. I have to agree with Dan that “studies like this one [Colorado Department of Higher Education study]” should be seen “as a first step in establishing the legitimacy of online educational experiences in the sciences.” His caution is that we need to be careful in how we interpret the results. For example, the lack of significant difference between online and traditional science programs on the basis of a single set of variables is not a clear indication that both are “not working.”

  7. Education , and science have become a big business. In many cases there is a significant group of people who are left out of the discussion and report making. SIGH.
    I just wrote a piece on augmented reality… but that particular piece is using tools to decipher, read and understand the ecosystem’

    I hate to admit that when I was teaching lots of people did not even teach science. It is messy, it requires preparation and knowledge.

    No one teacher is the font of knowledge.. and there are kids who are
    imprisoned literally in classrooms where science is not an avid interest. So something on line.. some combination of online and in person science work for them.

    I like the idea of science being facilitated by online resources, labs and initiatives, agent sheets,, and visualization and modeling.

    Sadly if your beat is online education you don’t really have to know anything about science. Just the transport mechanism to
    educate without depth of knowledge of how science teaching really, really works. We are just a few years unhinging from NCLB when science was NOT the interest of the testing people.

    • A good science teacher will know more than just the material in the textbook for a particular branch of science, lots more. You cannot motivate students about science if you’re clueless yourself. When training people to be science teachers, they must have a solid background in the history of science. Then, they should know about the philosophy of science. Next, they should understand life sciences, physical sciences, geology, astronomy, and so on. No science teacher should be afraid of mathematics but should rather be comfortable with statistics and calculus. Finally, all science teachers must be excited about science and constantly read Science News, Scientific American, and other journals that report on what’s going on in science today. Science is alive and continually in flux.

      No science teacher should deny evolution or teach some alternate Voodoo theory alongside it because science is science, not a set of opinions.

  8. So here is a set of information that was not a part of the report.

    I live in Washington DC, and I can pick and choose the reports I want to share . Has anyone shared any of the Cyberlearning Conference with you? ( well except me?)

    I attended a group effort to help science and I will keep it nameless and it was to show us URL’s. Hello? Earth to Sky?

    Reports, I can cite 18 of them on STEM and from the beginning when businessmen wanted to make a difference.

    America is more interested in dance, Snooky, and media that is
    fun to look at and not hard thinking. Not hard science. Some of the Cyberlearning is a set of hard thinking and new ways of working,
    Now that is on line..

    Let me ask a question. Do you really think that all of education is
    ready for online only. Broadband and other robust systems are in place, but not for all. Of course we ignore that.

    I love science , did not discover it online, discovered it in face to face courses, some that were so bad we ate and brought in food to keep from going to sleep in those long after school investments of time.
    The good thing about that is that at least you can go to sleep without other people knowing it because it is so boring. There are lots of
    webinars.. who classifies them in excellence, i.e. who rates them.
    Online can be deadly. I will say that I was online with the cyberlearning
    conference the whole time. It was a labor of love. Everyone does not love science. NSF has funded Festivals and public outreach which I have also participated in, but then I love science.

    Places online that provoke more learning?
    The NASA resources for students, the NOAA online courses for teachers, the Natioinal Geographic Education resources.

    Maybe until we can get the school board members , and the people who decide in communities involved they will pick a policy, or a paper and do little about STEM. It’s depressing.

    • Regarding access to broadband etc., we’re in a transition period now. Even if everyone had slow Internet, we’re still missing the tools that will make online really sing. Online learning should not require 5Mbps or faster. Even 1Mbps is beyond too many people. Much of the world still runs at speeds more like 10Kbps or so. But content developers take the easy way out and don’t even try to make their material easy to view.

      Online lectures and videos are passive learning objects. Online will remain just an adjunct and a medium for communication until we see truly interactive (not just picking parameters or answering quiz questions) learning activities along with individualized, self-paced learning to mastery.

      Even physically hands-on activities don’t spark the interest in science, the teachers have always provided the real spark. The activities go nowhere until a teacher puts them in context and promotes discussion among students about what it all means. Then, just possibly, students begin to understand that science is about really understanding reality. All of those “why” questions they used to ask when they were much younger and hadn’t been regimented in schools can be answered now. Because it’s hard brain work, many just quit and lose out on one of the most exciting things that you can do. Today, teachers must provide the interactivity that books, videos, demonstrations, and most online science do not. Tomorrow — who knows? It should be something completely different (with apologies to Monty Python’s Flying Circus). It has to be. Let’s build that future today.

  9. Ok, I will be your cheerleader. I used to not like science, except book science and got hooked by one of those teachers, and then the NASA program .. so much to learn so much to do and the teachers were so enthusiastic.
    Physics .. a tool it was what it was but they made it interesting and doable.

    There were free resources and experts and rewards for learning.

    I thought you might like to see this..

    Why the Current STEM Education Reform Strategy Won’t Work
    In an article for the National Academy’s Issues in Science and Technology, Rob Atkinson argued that much of what passes for accepted wisdom for STEM reform (science, technology, engineering and math education) is misguided and that we need a new approach. Advocates of what can be called the “Some STEM for All” framework want an approach focused largely on expanding and improving K-12 STEM education for all American students. Many of the dominant policy solutions being proposed, such as increased teacher pay and campaigns to get students interested in science, reflect this framing. In contrast, Atkinson argues for a new approach grounded in a “Some STEM for All” approach focused in part on providing high quality STEM education for students especially interested in and focused on STEM
    Hint.. I have attended many of his workshops , presentations and sessions. One advantage in living in Dc is that you hear it and can ask questions if you are clever enough to get the question in.

    • Robert Atkinson sets up a series of straw men and proceeds to knock them down. He the proposes his own alternatives that are just as subject to the same arguments he uses against the strategy he attempts to debunk. It all sounds good, but is built on sand.

      To deliver a proper refutation would require a lengthy article. I just hope that anyone reading his article or listening to him has their “baloney detection kit” handy. (Thanks to Carl Sagan.) If so, no refutation article is necessary.

  10. Dan Atkinson.. the PDF.. but probably the online people don’t even know who he is.

    Educators still have to break the silos.

    • Atkinson’s article is filled with specious logic. This sophistry proves Mark Twain’s old chestnut that there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

      To begin with, the article treats “Some STEM for all” as mutually exclusive of his advocated “All STEM for some.” Nothing could be further from the truth, and abandoning the former for the latter would be a huge mistake. He goes on to debunk a number of so-called myths of the “Some STEM for all” approach. His arguments do not hold water when scrutinized.

      In the end, Atkinson’s article proves that you must have “Some STEM for all” because either he needs some himself or he’s assuming that you didn’t get enough to read his article critically.

      A thorough analysis of the article would require a separate article. If you do read what Atkinson wrote, keep a couple of things in mind. Firstly, the use of the word “some” in both of his characterizations leaves you wondering how much is “some,” and do you measure it in numbers of people or in time spent or in some other way? With these fuzzy descriptions, you can determine that both are great ideas.

      Secondly, the acronym STEM is used very frequently throughout the article. This very recently coined term still has fuzziness itself. When you say STEM, how much of this four-way melding of disciplines belongs to each discipline? Is technology even a discipline unto itself?

      By mashing science, engineering, and mathematics together and then throwing in technology for good measure, you’re obscuring about what and for whom you’re doing the educating. We’re talking about three very distinct career paths here.

      By all means consider ways to make “All STEM for some” work better, but definitely do not abandon “Some STEM for all.” To do so will impoverish society.

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