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The Genesis of an Online Chemistry Course

Barbara McGoldrick
10 Oct. 2000

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Dr. Barbara McGoldrick
Sr. Professor of Chemistry
Union County College
Cranford, NJ 07016


The development of an online chemistry course for

non-science majors is traced over the course of four

teaching semesters. The evolution of the following

course components is described:

methods of communication, lecture content, laboratory

content, and course management.


The nonscience major's chemistry course at Union County

College is a one-semester course that I had taught on

campus for the past twenty or more years. The course

fulfills a lab science requirement for students in the

business, fire science, education and liberal studies

programs. Students register for lecture and lab separately.

Registration can currently be accomplished online. The on

campus lecture is 150 mins/week and the lab meets for 3

hours weekly. The course, Chem 106 - Consumer and

Environmental Chemistry, has no math or chemistry

prerequisites. It had usually run during the spring term with

one section of about 12 - 18 students.


In 1997, the college undertook a significant distance

education initiative. Incentives and release time were

provided for faculty to develop and teach distance

education courses. The delivery modes that faculty

prepared to use were instructional television (ITV),

videotape (telecourses) and web based. I was

among the cadre of faculty with a keen interest in

developing these new courses in order to improve service

to a student population that was increasingly older,

working, and going to school part time.


My initial efforts were to develop a distance education

lecture course that was founded on "The World of

Chemistry" videotapes which are produced by the University

of Maryland at College Park and the Educational Film Center

and are provided by PBS Adult Learning Services. These

include 26 thirty minute television programs with a

textbook, study guide, lab manual and faculty manual. This

delivery option seemed most viable at the time because it

required students to have no more than a VCR to take the

course. In addition, this text provided a course that

duplicated the content of the on campus course. 


My philosophy in teaching chemistry "at a distance" was no

different than in teaching on campus. My goal was to

maximize student contact and encourage students to work

at a consistent pace throughout the course. Since learning

chemistry is a progressive process, these two elements are

essential to student success. Without seeing students 

regularly, frequent grading was the best way to ensure

students were working at a steady pace and for me to

quickly intervene to assist students who were having 



Trial 1

In the fall of 1998, I offered the lecture only as a telecourse

using "The World of Chemistry" materials with the

exception of the lab manual. The laboratory was 

unchanged. Students attended on campus labs running the

course of 13 weekly meetings. The first meeting included

equipment check-in and safety orientation and the 13th

week was reserved for a comprehensive written lab final

exam. During the intervening 11 weeks, students spent 3

hours per week completing lab experiments that were

based on handouts either another department member or I

had previously developed.


With only 5 registered students, the class was permitted to

run with the hope that the investment would bring in more

students in future semesters. As soon as these students

enrolled, I had mailed them a welcome letter and a survey

to determine the most convenient time for the class to

meet. Students attended an evening orientation session

during the first week of the semester. At this session, they

received a complete syllabus, which correlated the textual

readings, complementary videos, graded assignments,

announced on campus tests, and due dates for the entire

term. Graded assignments included chapter homework and

a series of four short papers, each of which reviewed a

chemistry, related journal article they chose to read. On

campus written tests covered 3 - 4 chapters at a time

(please see the sample assignment sheet).


In this initial offering of the course, there was no

requirement that students have their own computers or

Internet access. Students were given a variety of options

to submit work: by US mail, fax, in person to a chemistry

staff member, or by email. Regardless of the option chosen,

submissions had the same weekly deadline. Point penalties

were charged for lateness.


I designed the course such that its structure would force

students to work consistently and maintain contact with

me. This was done two ways. First, students had to submit

weekly graded assignments from the end of each chapter.

Students were directed first to complete and self-check all

odd problems, since their answers were included in the

study guide. If students had difficulty with these problems,

they were encouraged to consult with me before

progressing to the assigned even numbered problems that

were graded.  Second, students were required to telephone

the telecourse class voice mailbox every Monday by 9 AM.

At that time, they listened to my recorded tips for the

chapter for the upcoming week as well as to a weekly

"concept question". I had had a special voice mail box

created, separate from my general voice mail, exclusively

for this course. Individual messages up to 20 minutes were

accepted. Concept questions were posed that related to the

reading of the prior week. Students had 48 hrs to respond

to the concept question by voice mail. The following week,

I used the voice mail to review student responses.

Participation counted for 10% of the lecture grade. This

was two-way communication between me and each student

but certainly did not foster or address the need for

student-student communication.


Three students used email regularly to communicate and to

submit homework. This encouraged me to further develop

my web site to include information for this chemistry

course. The course policies and grading, full syllabus,

chapter tips, and on campus meeting dates were posted.


During the semester, I began work on redesigning the

existing lab experiments such that most could be done at

home. Each experiment included an introduction with

background information, a procedure section and report

sheets. Two experiments were taken from the study guide;

one was the traditional cabbage indicator acid/base lab and

the other, a study of heat effects and gas production in the

reaction of vinegar and baking soda. By the start of the

spring term, I was ready to offer the chem 106 telecourse

with @home labs (please see the current lab assignment



Trial 2

During the spring 1999 semester the lecture telecourse

portion of Chem 106 did not undergo significant change.

Class size increased only by two. Three students had email

and only one used it consistently to communicate and

submit assignments.


The lab, however, was another story. At the orientation,

students received a laundry basket or lab "kit" containing

all the materials they would need for the first half of the lab

course as well as a binder with safety guidelines, a

schedule, and copies of the experiments. Students viewed a

chemistry department lab safety video that I had created

years earlier from a grant using the assistance of our own

media center. After students viewed this video, I made

editorial comments to adapt the safety considerations

appropriate for @home experiments.


Two major on campus lab tests replaced weekly on campus

lab quizzes. The first was given at midterm. Students took

this test, exchanged their kits for a new one for the 2nd half

of the course and completed an on campus experiment all

in one evening. It was a long evening. At the end of the

term students took a comprehensive on campus lab final

exam. The lab schedule was added to my web site.


Trial 3

By fall 1999 word had spread and the investment was

starting to pay off. Class size doubled to 14. Every student

had access to a computer. Everyone emailed written

assignments as MS word attachments and referred to the

course information posted on the web site. Some students

scanned their lab reports and emailed them as well. 


The lab materials were improved and modified. The scale

that had been included was simply a food scale with 5 gram

precision. This proved to be inadequate. An Ohaus top

loading single pan balance with 0.1 gram precision replaced

the food scale.


The survey, kit list and @home lab safety guidelines were

added to the web site.  Chapter testing, grading and

concept  phone questions remained the same.


Trial 4

In spring 2000 the class was still in double digits and

everyone had computer access. The inadequacy of class

discussions was addressed during this term. By the middle

of the term, the telephone concept questions were replaced

by threaded weekly discussions using O'Reilly WebBoard (a

trial board is available at:   - A user can create a

new account or enter as a guest to see how the board

works ).

Questions were posed every Monday by 9 AM. Students

were directed to respond to the question and to at least

one other student in the class by no later than Wednesday

at 9 AM. Participation still counted as 10% of the lecture

grade. The management of the student lab  experience did

not fundamentally change with the exception of deletion

and subsequent addition of one experiment.


Student evaluations had been collected every time the

course was offered. These had consistently been critical of

the videos that accompanied the textbook chapters. I

thought that the videos were dated, and questioned their

usefulness to students. By this time, most assignments,

discussions and test questions were based on readings

from the text or completed lab experiments.


By the end of the semester, I had gained administrative

approval to drop the videotapes and offer the course

completely online with @home labs for the fall 2000 term

(please see the sampler).


Trial 5

WebBoard was so successful that it led me to spend the

summer examining features of WebCT to add to the course

(to view a demo WebCT course from a publisher see:

To request for a trial course go to: ).

I decided to keep the O'Reilly WebBoard and add online

testing to the course. I had concerns about security once I

had decided to adopt online testing. Thus, before the term

started I placed individual password protection on the

conference and testing portions of my site and class

password protection on other informational parts of the



I thought three interfaces were plenty for students and me

to handle (my site, WebBoard and WebCT). Therefore, I

limited the use of WebCT features to a total of 5 online lab

quizzes, leaving the lecture tests unchanged with 3 on

campus tests. I could have transported the entire course

into WebCT but wanted to make changes gradually. I knew

WebBoard worked well. My approach was to use the best of

what I had found and had plenty of experience with.


By the start of the fall 2000 term, the enrollment was a

steady 13 and all students were required to meet minimum

technology requirements. This allowed for a significant

change in administering the lab. A lab manual was not

provided at orientation. Instead, downloadable lab reports

were posted on WebBoard each week along with weekly

discussion questions. The lab kit materials were modified. 

First, only one kit was issued at orientation to provide

materials for the entire semester. The lab schedule was

revised slightly; one on campus lab was replaced with

another @home lab.


The new kit excluded those materials easily found at home

or in the supermarket. Students were expected to review

the materials list for each lab, compare it to the posted list

and provide the missing items themselves. The posted "kit

list" was revised. A comprehensive list of @home lab

materials was posted on the web site with those items

students needed to provide distinguished from those

provided by the department.


Safety issues were addressed anew for the current term.

Formerly, my telecourse students had viewed the same

safety video, read the same safety regulations and signed

the same release form that was traditionally used by on

campus students. My printed and posted page of @home

guidelines along with verbal comments amended this

information. This was not enough. At the college attorney's

behest, I rewrote the two pages of safety regulations

specifically for @home labs and reworded the release form

that all students sign. In addition, I used our ITV studio to

prepare a 20 minute orientation, which was pasted in front 

of the departmental safety video. The ITV room has a

computer with Internet access connected to the projection

and video recording systems. These 20 minutes specifically

spoke to the @home lab students. It included a demo and

identification of kit items, a review of @home safety

regulations, and a demo of website navigation including

WebBoard and WebCT. A copy of this tape was made for

each student and distributed along with the lab kits at



The 1st week of the term was used to test all systems.

Students went to take a "navigation practice test" on

WebCT, introduce themselves on WebBoard and email me

an MS word attachment. This semester is a 5th trial but is

still very much an experiment for my students and me.


I am anxious to evaluate the online testing experience. I

have very purposefully limited this trial to 5 short (15min)

online lab quizzes. All these quizzes are timed but available

during an announced 24 hour period. Nothing prevents

students from copy/pasting into a test. However, with only

a 15 minute test window, taking the time to do this

seriously detracts from the test time. This would not be the

case for longer tests. In addition, 5 quizzes online save

students the two on campus trips telecourse students were

making. This new process adds convenience but does not

risk course integrity because the quizzes do not reflect a

major portion of the students' grades.


Right now, it is too early to evaluate online testing.

WebBoard, however, I can wholeheartedly endorse based

on my experience using it this calendar year. Lately, either

my questions are getting more provocative or the students

are getting less inhibited but 13 students are currently

posting 33 messages weekly! - And they are talking

chemistry. My greatest challenge is to NOT get involved in

discussions until the week is over. During the week, I sit on

my hands, and watch as one student challenges or corrects

another. By the end of the week, I provide a wrap up to

pull in the stray thinkers that have not been corralled by

their peers.


Trial n?

At this point in the semester, I am  anticipating more

improvements for spring 2001 and beyond. I am

considering using the WebCT assignment drop box in order

to avoid the management and storage of volumes of

emailed homework on my hard drive. In addition, I'd like to

test the use of net tutor for live chats. During the summer

of 2001, it will be time to change texts and make the

requisite revisions to my site, to keep the course fresh.

Streaming video would be another useful feature to add

to replace portions of the safety/orientation  videotape.  

After that… I might rest when I reach the 7th trial.