Is Teaching Lab Science Online Possible?
When I was first approached by the chair of the geology department at Onondaga Community College and asked if I was interested in putting historical geology, with a lab component, online, I was incredulous, but enjoying a challenge, and believing that I can do anything I set my mind to, I said, sure.
Why was I incredulous? Well, after all, isn’t this how a laboratory science is to be taught? This is how I learned science, and it was a terrific way to learn about something I was passionate about, by getting my hands dirty, and actually “doing” science. This method is still effective in training today’s scientists, but with the increasing popularity of online learning, more and more department chairs are asking (some reluctantly) their faculty to put more, and more lab based science courses online. Why reluctantly, well, there is still quite a bit of pushback from those who learned science “the old fashioned” way, and are reluctant to change, but more about that in another post.
What Have I Found?
I have been teaching online lab based courses in geology, geography, and environmental science for 9 years, and my thinking, and attitude about putting “field-based” courses such as geology online has evolved, and changed (pardon, the much over-used phraseology). Can it be done, can online be as effective in achieving student outcomes, and providing authentic self-growth, and learning as face-to-face? Absolutely. In fact, I have found that my online geology students often take away more from the class than do my face-to-face students. Why? Well, it may simply be that I need to ramp up my efforts in my face-to-face classes, certainly possible, but I think other factors are in play here.
First, in an online class, students need to be proactive, take ownership of their own learning, or they will not be successful. Getting students out of their comfort zones really helps to push them into new growth areas. Second, even though the course is online, fieldwork is required, and it is this fieldwork that I often here the most grumbling about initially, but it is also described by many students as being the best part of the course, that getting their hands on the material that we are discussing, and they are reading about really entrenches concepts more so than simply reading about them. They often tell me how much their attitude, and perspectives change after completing the course, they now look at the natural world differently, and that after all is one of my most important goals for all of my students, something that they can take with them throughout life.