Not Satisfied, but Hopeful, About Online Science

By Dan Branan, Ph.D.
NANSLO Lab Director
Colorado Community College System

John Adsit wrote a recent article (“No Satisfaction in Finding on Online vs. Traditional Science Classes,” 22 Oct. 2012) commenting on a study by the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s study showing, among other things, no significant difference in long-term college grades and GPA when comparing community college students who had taken their introductory science courses online with those who had taken them in the traditional community college classroom (Epper, 18 Oct. 2012). I had initially posted a response to John’s article, and was asked by the editor of ETCJ to expand it into an article, which I greatly appreciate. In short, it seems to me that John has largely missed the mark with regard to the Colorado study and its implications.

For many years, as an online 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.

John’s initial response to the Colorado study is to merely sneer at the demonstrated equivalence of online vs. traditional science classes at the community college level by stating that “students in general learned very little in the first two years of college,” relying on the excellent analysis in Academically Adrift. While I cannot dispute the findings in that report, I do have an important question about its true meaning: Do we have proof that college education has ever been different? While it may indeed be a cause for alarm, could it be that the first two years of college are a time when students undergo a wide range of mental and personal transformations in readiness for the culminating two or three years before they earn their degree? Isn’t it true that the first two years of college are often filled with fairly bland courses in preparation for study in one’s chosen field of interest?

After all, the U.S. still possesses an undergraduate educational system that many students from around the world envy. According to a report last year from the Institute of International Education, the number of international students enrolled at U.S. colleges is 32 percent higher than it was a decade ago, and this is largely due to undergraduate enrollment of Chinese students. 

I also take issue with John’s 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 and unsupported by the study itself. In fact, studies like America’s Lab Report make the results of the comparison study in Colorado even more impressive, in my opinion. In spite of the uniformly terrible preparation in sciences at the high school level, these students go on to perform fairly well at four-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 four-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 four-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 over 700,000 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 criticizing each other, the traditional and online communities should be focused on working together to make the educational experience for our students the best it can be. One of the many ways we are attempting to improve online science education in the Colorado Community College System is through a program called the North American Network of Science Labs Online (NANSLO).

This program, which was initially funded by the Gates Foundation and was recently awarded a large grant from the Department of Labor under the TAACCCT program, makes remote access to real scientific instrumentation available through the internet and allows students to control the instruments and collect real data as if they were physically in the laboratory. In conjunction with other modes of delivery, like at-home laboratory kits, we are attempting to give students a first year science education that is as authentic and as rigorous as possible.

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.

__________
Dan Branan is currently the North American Network of Science Labs Online (NANSLO) Lab Director for the Colorado Community College System. He provides leadership and coordination for the CCCS discipline teams that work on this project. He also teaches chemistry for Colorado Community Colleges Online. Previously, he served as Assistant Professor of Chemistry (1996–99, 2004–2011), Co-Director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (2005–2007) and Research Director for the Institute for Information Technology Applications (2005–2007), all at the USAF Academy; he was an active-duty Air Force officer for 20 years. Branan received his B.S. in chemistry from the University of South Alabama, his M.S. in inorganic chemistry from the Ohio State University, and his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Denver.

6 Responses

  1. […] By Dan Branan, Ph.D. NANSLO Lab Director Colorado Community College System.  For many years, as an online 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…  […]

    • My comments were quite clearly aimed at the comparison of the online community college program to the university program, so it only related to the first two years and the ability of those programs to prepare students for their later education. I am in no way denigrating the ability of online education to provide a quality product. It is quite the opposite–I have been a strong advocate for high quality online education for many years, and when I directed a high school online education program in Colorado, I enrolled students in some of the CCC online classes. I see CCC online as a leader in that area, and I regret that I did not make it clear.

      My point is that in comparison to what is happening in too many regular college classes, a well-designed online program should not be providing a comparable education for its students, it should be providing a superior education. This last week’s Time Magazine, which came to me after I wrote the article, said exactly that. It echoed my point by comparing a well designed online physics class with a traditional college program. (http://nation.time.com/2012/10/18/college-is-dead-long-live-college/) That well-designed physics class is the sort of thing I am hoping we will move to in the near future.

      That will require course designers to be thoroughly trained in the most effective ways to design curriculum. In my work over the last decade, I have seen very little of that. In fact, I would strongly argue that the biggest obstacle to the success of online programs over that time has been the failure of online programs to use high quality course design. Online curriculum design was my job for most of that decade, and the main roadblock I encountered was the difficulty of getting course designers who understood what this means. We would write clear curriculum design requirements, provide training, and then watch as those designers created classes that worked the way they had learned originally and not the way we had taught them to do.

  2. […] By Dan Branan, Ph.D. NANSLO Lab Director Colorado Community College System.  For many years, as an online 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…  […]

  3. Dan has made some very good points, and I go along with most of them with a few qualifications.

    Dan’s remark, “…John’s assertion that it pertains directly to college programs is completely unwarranted and unsupported by the study itself” is a bit off the mark because the first year of science in a great many colleges is the final year for most students. Even though ALR specifically focuses on high school science, grades 9-12, its findings certainly apply to most grade 13 science courses.

    Were Dan to qualify his remark as applying to science majors and science courses beyond the first one in college, then I could agree.

    That’s one problem with this sort of discussion. We must all agree on the meaning of terms and on the target audience for the educational experiences were talking about.

    Because Dan remarks that CC students go on to do well at four-year institutions, I have to conclude that he’s thinking about science and medicine majors and leaving out the many others such as business majors who must take one year of laboratory science to graduate with their AA degrees.

    Dan also says, about one of their programs that it “…makes remote access to real scientific instrumentation available through the internet and allows students to control the instruments and collect real data as if they were physically in the laboratory.” Once again, this approach to learning science is appropriate for students who are bound for careers in science and closely related fields and who have already developed a certain level of sophistication in their understanding of science. The business major will likely find it all to be confusing and meaningless because they’re being presented with data just as with simulations. These students must interact with the devices to take their data, not just plug in some parameters and have the data handed to them.

    Dan goes on to mention the use of laboratory kits for at-home, physically hands-on experiments. In my opinion, having reviewed some of these, they often provide cookbook experiences that do not involve inquiring, exploring, and discovering. They’re also very expensive for what they provide. That’s all good for the science majors. However, your typical business major is more likely to attempt to game the system and not really do those experiments. They’ll view the high cost of a lab kit as the cost of passing the course and getting their college degree and not as an opportunity to learn science. I could write much more about lab kits but will reserve that discussion for another time.

    Lest you think that I’m down on all that Dan says, I’ll conclude by strongly seconding his assertion that online instruction can match traditional instruction in all ways. In fact, I believe that the range of possibilities for online learning is just beginning to be explored, that it will prove to be much better than traditional education, and that the future of education beyond the early grades will be primarily online.

    The potential for individualized, self-paced, learn-to-mastery courses is tremendous and will result in students who are better educated than ever before. This will happen. We will take some false paths and stumble a bit on the way, but we will ultimately reach that goal.

  4. […] By Dan Branan, Ph.D. NANSLO Lab Director Colorado Community College System John Adsit wrote a recent article (“No Satisfaction in Finding on Online vs. Traditional Science Classes,” 22 Oct.  […]

  5. Here is more room for thought.. this caught my eye.Researchers Launch Innovative, Hands-On Online Tool for Science Education
    Computer scientists at the University of California, San Diego and at St. Petersburg Academic University in Russia, have developed a one-of-a-kind, hands-on online learning tool that weaves together for the first time science and programming education—and automatically grades homework too.

    “While modern biology is inundated with computation, biology students at U.S. universities are taught neither programming nor bioinformatics and as a result are unprepared for the challenges that await them in their own discipline,” said Pavel Pevzner, a computer science professor at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego. “We provide a tool to fill that learning gap.”

    The new tool, called Rosalind, diverges from large-scale, online open education platforms such as Coursera and Udacity. Instead of listening to a lecture, students are required to complete increasingly difficult problems at their own pace. Researchers say it’s the only online tool using this method to teach science that they know of.

    Computer scientists hope to make Rosalind a premier educational resource not only for students lacking access to higher education, but also for universities aiming to update their curricula. The site offers an environment designed for professors that grades homework assignments automatically. This environment promises to help universities offer online courses to a larger student population by creating a “zero-cost teaching assistant.” Rosalind also could act as a complement to the lectures offered on Coursera and Udacity.

    “In a traditional classroom environment, teaching assistants wind up grading the same homework assignment over and over,” said Phillip Compeau, one of Pevzner’s graduate students at UC San Diego, who created Rosalind with Nikolay Vyahhi, a graduate student in St. Petersburg. “By automating grading, we hope to foster individualized instruction and fuel the transition from traditional textbook exercises to a programming-driven homework environment.”

    Rosalind primarily targets biologists who want to learn bioinformatics, and is also helpful for biology or computer science professionals who want to learn more about bioinformatics. The platform has already attracted more than 1,600 beta testers from more than 50 countries. “Rosalind is already helping students who are brave enough to dive into bioinformatics without waiting for their universities to update their curricula, and it’s only a matter of time before this model spreads to other disciplines,” Pevzner said.

    The beta version of Rosalind became available only six weeks ago, but students from six different countries have already solved all the problems in the platform, said Vyahhi. “To keep up with them, the Rosalind team aims to add 100 new problems by the end of the year.”

    Rosalind begins with a simple computational problem: given a strand of DNA, count the number of times that each of the four nucleotides appears in the strand. Subsequent exercises steadily grow in complexity, creating a problem tree in which the students’ biological and computational knowledge is constructed simultaneously. After solving only a few dozen problems, students will possess a wide arsenal of bioinformatics algorithms and will be prepared to tackle advanced problems that even graduate students may find challenging.

    “The way in which Rosalind problems build on each other ensures that students are continuing to process the material instead of simply regurgitating notes for a test,” said Pevzner. “Completing Rosalind problems constitutes mastery of the subject, which is difficult to achieve with traditional courses online. I am happy to give top Rosalind students an A even though they have not attended my class.”

    Rosalind is a joint project between UC San Diego and St. Petersburg Academic University. The project is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Russian Ministry of Science and Education. Learn more at http://rosalind.info.

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