During my undergraduate degree at Simon Fraser University, I took Japanese as an elective. The course was offered as either an on-campus version or by distance education. That semester I was taking several chemistry classes with associated labs, so I decided to take advantage of the scheduling flexibility that distance education offered even though I walked past the languages learning centre every day.

Like chemistry, learning a language involves practical skill development. Rather than devoting hours to chemical synthesis, my elective involved practicing penmanship in hiragana, katakana, and kanji, as well as watching videos to observe and hear people conversing in Japanese. Naturally, I would also need the opportunity to engage in speaking the language myself.

To facilitate skill development with conversing in Japanese, each week I — and all the other students in the course — were given the same one-hour period to phone the course teaching assistant for a 1 minute conversation in Japanese. During that one hour, I would repetitively hit speed dial, hoping to not get a busy signal even as I did my best to keep new vocabulary foremost in my mind. A second form of assessment involved using my modem to dial up the university’s classroom management system and complete a timed test. If the modem connection timed out during the test there was no second chance. I was at the mercy of technology. It was an interesting experience, but not one that I would want to do again.

Fortunately, methods for distance-based and online learning have advanced, as has our internet connectivity. Athabasca University, located 145 km north of Edmonton, is a leader in online and distance-based education. Dietmar Kennepohl, Professor of Chemistry at AU, is editor of Teaching Science Online: Practice Guidance for Effective Instruction and Lab Work.[1] He describes the major emerging trends in online-learning as three-fold.

“First, there are new technologies in communications, remote or virtual laboratories and GPS-enabled mobile devices — mainly for fieldwork. Second, there is the entire area of learning analytics, together with artificial intelligence, in personalizing learning environments.”

The third trend that Kennepohl identifies was explored in one of my previous ACCN articles.[2]

“Most important, is the move to ‘open’ in both research and learning. Open can mean employing open educational resources, open publications, exploring connectivism and discovery-based learning, or even just doing citizen science. It is underpinned by the idea that learning occurs everywhere. As we freely share knowledge we will also see traditional boundaries between formal, informal and non-formal learning blur.”

Open learning environments aim to reduce barriers to student learning. For online learning, this typically involves barriers of location and scheduling. However, online learning has also been found to be appealing to mature learners because it avoids the social dynamics of being an older learner in a room of recent high school graduates.

Perhaps the most profound demographic of the AU student body is the percentage of graduate students that are female: 74%. Kennepohl explains that this is a common feature of online learning. “Off-campus learners are more likely to be female and about five years older on average. They bring with them more formal educational experience and, not surprisingly, more life experience.”

Additional life experience comes in handy for chemistry students at AU, where the program is almost entirely online.

“Our students reside across Canada and around the world. In our model, outside of some key laboratory components, we do not have an on-campus mode because it is, quite frankly, impractical.”

Some chemical laboratory skills development is managed at a distance, including “virtual laboratories known as simulations, home laboratory kits, self-guided field work, and remote laboratories.” According to Kennepohl there is still a place for face-to-face lab sessions even at an online university.

“We concentrate one-term worth of experiments into a 4-day visit to either our facilities or with partners at other institutions. The underlying theme is not so much moving all labs online, but increasing student accessibility to a quality laboratory experience.”

While Kennepohl envies the direct human interaction and social network that on-campus learning provides for students, he sees online and remote learning as options that reduce barriers and provide the flexibility that many learners desire.

“While it is always very easy to see new technologies employed in online and distributed learning, it is the flexibility, access, openness, and therefore the opportunity, it affords the learner which is more important. I strongly believe the right mix of on- and off-campus modes offers some great benefits to the learner that is better than either one on its own. On-campus educators exploring the integration of online components or experimenting with flipped classrooms have realized there are alternative ways to engage and support the learner.”

Kennepohl sees online learning as serving another important role in society by stimulating conversations about teaching and learning, both in education and industry.

“I remember years ago when MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) first appeared on the scene. The initial conversation among my colleagues was that MOOCs were there to cut labour costs by replacing faculty with automated content delivery and learning assessment. MOOC enthusiasts were making incredible claims, that in the near future there would only be ten brick-and-mortar universities left in the world and everything else would be online. Faculty felt their profession was directly under attack.”

However, a study of 29 different MOOCs by Katy Jordan found that the average success rate was only 6.8 percent. One MOOC by Princeton University had a course completion rate as low as 0.8 percent. These experiences with MOOCs revealed that the learning process is more complex than simply providing content to students.

“Conversations about MOOCs quickly morphed into a bigger and better discussion around the role of the teacher. In a world of ubiquitous knowledge, what added value do educators provide in the learning experience?”

In his book, Kennepohl muses that “students are connecting with more than content; they are also meant to find and link with teachers, mentors, peers, and communities.” He proposes that faculty are particularly valuable in online environments as guides while learners acquire “the necessary skills to effectively navigate the sea of knowledge.”

The role of educators is pertinent for all learning, including on-campus, off-campus, industry training, and informal learning. As we continue to explore new possibilities in learning environments, including learning chemistry online, the role of educators will need to be examined in a meaningful way. In the meantime, it’s clear that online learning has evolved since my undergraduate experience with speed dial and a 56k modem.

Brett McCollum is a professor of chemistry at Mount Royal University in Calgary, AB, a 2019 3M National Teaching Fellow, and chair of SoTL Canada (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Canada). His research focuses on effective uses of technology for chemistry education, student development of chemical language and representational competencies, and approaches to enhancing student engagement in research partnerships.

[1] https://styluspub.presswarehouse.com/browse/book/9781620361887/Teaching%20Science%20Online

[2] McCollum, B. (2018, September). Opening up textbooks and students’ reading habits. ACCN (Canadian Chemical News). https://www.cheminst.ca/magazine/columns/opening-textbooks-and-students%E2%80%99-reading-habits