Online education provides both students and educators with numerous benefits: lower tuition, greater convenience to complete assignments on one’s own schedule, no need to pay for gas or on-campus parking, etc. Especially in an era when more and more non-traditional students — such as single parents or people with full-time jobs — are trying to expand their knowledge and earn a degree, online courses are helping to bridge the gap and make education more accessible to a wider variety of learners.
With that said, many professors are still hesitant to move their curricula online. Having received their own education in a face-to-face environment, they tend to think that there is simply no substitution for the proximity and collaborative nature of a classroom setting. Lab science instructors, in particular, are often averse to the idea of teaching from a distance — how can they achieve the same level of learning online that they would in an on-campus lab facility?
At eScience Labs, we’ve noticed that professors who enter the world of online education with these sorts of fears often find them quickly dispelled. Using our lab kits, they discover that teaching lab science online is not just possible; it’s beneficial to both themselves and their students. In order to break down the myths that keep so many educators from unlocking the advantages of online learning, we sat down with a handful of instructors who use eScience Labs to discuss the concerns they initially had when using our products and how we quelled them. Here’s what they had to say.
Myth: The material won’t be applicable to every student’s learning needs
For Dr. Scott Melideo, who teaches at Bucks Community College while also designing online courses for Massachusetts School of Pharmacology and Health Sciences, a major fear regarding teaching online grew out of his personal experience. As someone with a learning disability as well as ADHD, he understands that not every student processes information equally. Some students might learn best through reading text, for instance, while others might excel with more visual or tactile exercises. He worried that without the flexibility of face-to-face pedagogy, his online courses might favor one type of learner over another.
“One concern I had was, how is the material being presented,” he said. “I have trouble with reading and writing comprehension. I need things in small chunks. I need different ways of seeing it.”
But when Dr. Melideo started looking at eScience Labs, he was happy to learn that not only were their products ADA-compliant for students with learning disabilities, they also followed the Universal Design for Learning, ensuring an educational framework that accommodates every student’s individual learning needs. In addition to the hands-on lab experiment, eScience Labs’ online modules offer different types of visual and text-based exercises (which are compliant with screen readers) in order to provide each student with an equal learning experience.
“You guys have multiple ways of getting that information,” he said. “That’s what’s really important to me. It helps everyone.”
Myth: You won’t be able to address every student’s questions
In a face-to-face lab facility, instructors have the advantage of supervising their students as they conduct an experiment. If a student runs into a problem, they can simply raise their hand and discuss it with their professor on the spot. Another concern Dr. Melideo had when first exploring eScience Labs was that he would lose that ability to answer student questions quickly and effectively.
“For me, doing the lab, demo-ing the lab, and seeing the student doing the lab is totally different than the student emailing me a question that they have about the lab,” he said. “I’ve only gone through the labs once, and if a student comes to me with a question, I have to remember back to that.”
Though answering student questions in a distance-learning course is not as expedient as it is in a classroom, Dr. Melideo has found that this isn’t as great a problem as he’d initially expected. Why? Because the students are working together to answer the questions themselves. eScience Labs integrates with learning management systems such as Canvas and Blackboard, and these platforms provide discussion boards that can accompany any lab experience. In his own courses, Dr. Melideo has observed students responding to each other’s posts and answering their peers’ questions, just as if they were standing in a laboratory and asking their professor to walk them through a certain step.
“The students say that they love this,” he said. “You have the students that go above and beyond and work ahead, and they’re helping pull along the students that are on the border. That really helps them. Having those discussion boards is great because they still get that interaction.”
Myth: The students won’t be engaged
Cathy Hunt, who teaches anatomy and physiology, microbiology, and general biology at Henderson Community College, has been using eScience Labs since its founding, and her number-one concern when she first started out was perhaps the most common concern facing all online professors: engagement. Engaging students with course material is difficult enough in a face-to-face setting — it can often be even more challenging when teaching from a distance.
“When you’re dealing with an online course, and they have a text, either a hard text or an etext, they have rich pictures and interesting text, but it’s still very static and is not, in itself, as engaging as you want,” she said.
But Professor Hunt is quick to point out that because eScience Labs provides a multitude of interactive experiences, student engagement is rarely an issue for her. Each lab module includes tutorial-like reviews of the basic concepts and techniques involved with that experiment. Moving beyond bland blocks of texts that less engaged students might scan over passively, eScience Labs illustrates its key ideas through captivating videos and interactive drag-and-drop exercises. If a student is struggling to grasp a concept after reading the chapter in the course textbook, Professor Hunt can direct them to a particular tutorial that will force them to engage with the material on a deeper level.
“I have found that material in eScience Labs to be so rich and so helpful in terms of helping those students who are struggling with those basic concepts and engaging them in it because much of it is so interactive,” she said.
Myth: The student won’t learn as much as they would in a face-to-face classroom
Conservative instructors who received their own education in state-of-the-art lab facilities will often argue that the rigor of a physical lab can’t be replicated in a distance-learning environment, that an at-home lab kit experiment is nothing more than basic kitchen science. What they fail to realize is that eScience Labs are written and designed by Ph.D.-level educators and scientists and that the materials contained within each kit are just as sophisticated as those found within a modern lab space. Furthermore, online educators are never limited by particular structures or procedures; through their learning management systems and course design tools, they have the flexibility to challenge their students to whatever degree they see fit.
“You have people who think doing science at home is not the same rigor as doing it in the lab,” Dr. Melideo said. “But you can make it as rigorous as you want.”
This flexibility is something that Professor Mary Bonine capitalizes on when using eScience Labs. Bonine, who teaches online at five different schools across the country, said that a major obstacle to her providing an experience equivalent to that of a face-to-face classroom is the fact that many of her students procrastinate when ordering their lab kits. They often do not have the tools they need until week two or three of the course. Therefore, instead of waiting idly by or assigning her students something they don’t yet have the materials to complete, she utilizes the tools at her disposal to take advantage of the time they have together.
“I am a fool if I think I’m going to assign a lab in the first two weeks, but I don’t set me or them up for failure,” Bonine said. “The first week we have one assignment due and it doesn't require a textbook. We have a lab that doesn't require any lab materials. It does point them to things in the eScience Labs manual, but there are ways around all of that. I can say, hey watch this video and then use Microsoft Word to draw a picture of an Erlenmeyer flask… I build in options for students who aren’t on board yet.”
For Dr. Melideo, designing the evaluation portion of his course is the most important step in adjusting the content to his desired level of rigor. He can make the pre-lab, post-lab, and examination questions as difficult as he wishes. But he never forgets that the experiment itself is the fun part of the course, the tactile process of discovery that causes students to fall in love with science. He always focuses on keeping his labs fun, and his favorite part of any course is hearing from students that are excited to be conducting experiments alongside their children or siblings or roommates — it’s a particular aspect of distance learning that could never be replicated in a face-to-face environment.
“That is an unforeseen thing I’d never thought of,” he said. “You can actually be promoting the next scientist because that mother or father or brother is now doing it with their child or sibling next to them. You’re getting more people into STEM without them realizing you’re doing it.”