At the beginning of his teaching in the Chemistry Department at Carleton University in Ottawa in 1991, Professor Robert Burk recognized the possibilities of technology as his lectures in the Science for Today course were broadcasted to reach beyond the walls of the lecture hall. After he began teaching first-year chemistry in 1996, he recommended using television to reduce multiple sections of the course to one large section reached simultaneously through having his live lecture offered in multiple rooms through video, as well as recorded for later viewing. At the same time, he developed a course website and offered lectures with PowerPoint slides, which he would bring into class on floppy discs. Building from this experience as an “early adopter”, Dr. Burk now offers students online and in-class options, stressing the capacity of technology to support learning outside the classroom.
The first-year chemistry course now reaches 700 students using live and recorded lectures, a comprehensive course website, online communications, and a homework management system.
Lectures: The lectures are offered live in a face-to-face classroom where they are recorded and broadcast simultaneously in another classroom for additional students (the course has 700 students; the lecture hall capacity is 350). After each class, the lectures are available for streaming as well – offering students options on attendance that fit their work, family, and other responsibilities.
Course Website: The course website offers access to course materials, including the PowerPoint slides used in each lecture, assignments, videos of lab experiments, previous mid-term and final exams, information on the compulsory, face-to-face lab sessions including schedules and how to write a lab report, links to additional resources, and information on the Peer-Assisted Study Session. These face-to-face sessions are held every week with a senior student helping current students who choose to attend.
Dr. Burk is working with the Media Production Centre of Carleton University OnLine to produce a series of demonstrations and experiments offered through YouTube. Some of the videos have more than 100,000 views and one has over 450,000, including such titles as Paramagentism of Liquid Oxygen and Acetylene Explosion. His students view these as preparation for their lab sessions.
Synthesis of Salicylic Acid on YouTube
Through the learning management system, Dr. Burk is available to answer student questions online for a couple of hours each week in the evenings. He has found that this results in far more communication with students as it coincides with their study time. He describes the encounters as “having a chat while they are studying”. The communication is one-on-one, as he provides immediate responses, supporting students as they work through problems and readings. Before mid-term and final exams, he offers extended evening online hours.
The learning management system features a news forum, which the professor uses to highlight information such as the format of the final exam. It is also used extensively by students, who exchange thousands of messages on content, challenges, and successes.
Homework Management: Tied to the textbook is an online resource called WileyPlus, which offers problems, tutorials, simulations, instruction, and other resources linked to specific themes in the course. WileyPlus delivers adaptive, personalized feedback to students as they work through the problems; it can comment on the specific areas of the problem solutions. The system learns about the students and asks questions linked to their strengths and struggles. WileyPlus exercises are not compulsory, but are strongly recommended; the majority of student subscribe to the service.
Outcomes and Benefits
Working with Patrick Lyons, the Director, and other staff in Teaching and Learning Services, Dr. Burk undertook detailed research on how students used and benefitted from the numerous learning tools in the first-year chemistry course offered in Fall 2011 and Winter 2012. All the students in the courses agreed to be part of the study, and their attendance, academic performance, and use of the online resources were tracked. The study was done with funding and support from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO).
Lectures: The research showed that students who relied on the online lectures for learning were equally as successful as those who attended the face-to-face classes. The quality and extent of the online resources are the essential components to ensure equivalency. Also revealed was the fact that the average student watched 120% of the lectures – in a combination of in-class, on the simulcast video, and online viewing. This 120% viewing underlines the usefulness of the web resources for repeat reviewing, exam preparation, and individually paced learning.
Course Website: The use of the content of the website is important in terms of results, but it is the interaction and feedback that has the greatest consequence. Being available online at evening times that coincide with student studying allows Dr. Burk to provide just-in-time guidance to students. He finds the questions are more specific and the communication more beneficial and frequent than when he had only day-time office hours. This interaction provides him with useful guidance on points to stress or review in lectures, as well as insight as to how, what, and when students study, an area of learning to which professors usually have very limited access.
Homework Management System: The use of the Homework Management System was shown to have the most significant link to better grades. The impact was two-fold:
- The more the students used WileyPlus, the higher their grade; and
- The higher the grade the students got on WileyPlus, the higher the grade they received in the course.
Dr. Burk uses these results as a “cautionary tale” for the next class as a way of encouraging them to make use of the resources.
The tools for trial and error with adaptable feedback in the Homework Management System allow the students to learn in a safe environment. Patrick Lyons describes it as “a way of shrinking a very large class to personalized attention.”
The use of Homework Management Systems like WileyPlus offers particular advantages in other problem-based learning subjects, such as mathematics, physics, and economics. The meaningful, individualized feedback provided, regardless of class size, is valuable to both students and educators.
Within Teaching and Learning Services, other innovations are being developed and tested:
E-Portfolios: The potential of e-portfolios developed at the program, rather than the course, level is being explored as an effective way of demonstrating achievements at graduation. Students could highlight their mastery of program content, as well as examples of wider skills, such as critical thinking, leadership, and collaboration for sharing with potential employers and other universities. The Sprott School of Business, Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Department of English, and other Carleton University departments have expressed interest in the application of e-portfolios in their programs. A pilot will be implemented and assessed in Fall 2014.
Faculty Development for Online Teaching: Carleton is planning to develop a comprehensive program of online and blended modules for faculty development in online learning. Through research with Ontario universities about their faculty development for online learning, Carleton discovered a lack of longitudinal, certificate-level programs. Modules – both online and blended – will be developed for delivery beginning in May 2014.
The modules will be offered as open educational resources (OER), available to every post-secondary institution in Ontario and beyond. As OERs, they can be customized, re-structured, and branded to fit the needs of colleges and universities. Carleton has received funding for this initiative through the Productivity and Innovation Fund of the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.
For Further Information
Dr. Robert Burk
Associate Professor and Chair
Director, Teaching and Learning