Illinois Online Network myion

I.My experiences and interests.

I first became interested in online learning in my first year at Parkland, when I became interested in expanding access for students in Chemistry 100 . In 1997, we first offered Chemistry 100 online, one of only 5 online courses at Parkland. Gradually, as the course evolved, I became interested on information literacy and copresented a workshop on the topic. I also was involved in a pilot project, called TechCARI, which focused on assessment of technology as a learning tool. By 2000, I was no longer teaching Chemistry 100, having developed a new course also offered online called Chemistry in Everyday Life (Chemistry 104). This is definitely a course still in progress and I've altered it a number of times. A summary of how my courses have evolved can be found at

In addition, to course development, I also have done two projects I'm really proud of- the Online Faculty Handbook and Online Resources for Classroom Activities (ORCA), which I managed. The former, which was reviewed in your class, is an explicit attempt by Parkland College to aid in the preparation of instructors for online learning. It is publicly accessible and due for an update, but I think some of what is there, such as the checklists, you might find helpful. ORCA is an academic portal designed and developed at Parkland College for our students and employees. The idea was to create a "common space" for faculty and students where due dates, email, college activities, and chats could take place independent of course software. We have also added remote access to databases from Parkland's Library and will have a gradebook online in the spring.

The focus of my interests in online education have been in four areas: open learning environments and their design, laboratories, constructivism, and quality issues:

Open Learning Environments-"Teaching Across Different Delivery Modes: Creating Flexible Learning Spaces." Illinois Prairie Higher Education Consortium Distance Learning Conference, Eagle Creek State Park, June 16, 2000. (Based on "Growing Up Digital" by John Seely Brown, Change, March/April 2000)

Laboratories- "Assessing & Comparing Outcomes in a Lab-Based Science Course Delivered Traditionally and Online," “Best Practices: Past, Present, and Future” ICCFA Conference November, 2000

Constructivism- "Developing Constructivist Online Science Units (COSU)" In partial fulfillment of requirements for HRE 382 "Design of Learning Systems," UIUC, Spring, 2001

Quality Issues- I am currently involved in an project that will do two things: evaluate a peer review instrument developed at Parkland College for online peer review, and evaluate the quality of a limited number of courses on their "degree of constructivism." Sorry, no results yet!

So that's it. As we enter our dialogue, you know my interests and strengths, and, from the WebBoard, I know a few of yours. I'd like to make this somewhat active, however, so I'd like you to try to do a few activities on pencil and paper as you read my comments. The questions are in regular text with my "answers" in italics.

II. What is our goal?

Please take out a piece of paper and draw, in whatever mode makes sense to you (text, diagrams, pictures, etc) the process in which you believe students learn.

I believe strongly that learning must occur in a supportive environment that allows students to deal with their own misconceptions and experiences. My diagram would look something close to a social constructivist model (from Krajcik, J.S. (1994) “Developing students’ understanding of chemical concepts.” The Psychology of Learning Science. p 130). It's a classic constructivist philosophy, but I teach in an discipline that tends to emphasize facts and objective tests. This is a problem and requires me to use a variety of methods and concepualizations, emphasizing constructivism in some aspects of the course and behaviorism in others.

III. How do we achieve it?

A. Design- Using the results of the activity above, how might any course (not just an online one) "look" in order to successfully allow the process to occur.

B. Implementation- Now what has to be present in an online course for this to take place?

C. Community- Is is necessary in your model of learning for a community to be present? How does this occur?

Courses can be designed in many different ways and provided they match the instructor's philosophy, I believe they can be successful. If the design must match the philosophy, we ought to be really careful about "canned" courses. Furthermore, we must be cognizant of the problems associated with learning a topic. I believe that any instructional design ought to begin with our beliefs about how learning occurs. Planning should be made to ensure that our designs are in keeping with our beliefs.teaching philosophy diagram

Because I bring a constructivist approach to the the design of Chemistry 104, the course has a variety of options for students, such as what topics we cover, what will go into their summative portfolio, and what we discuss. I do not do "lectures," but I have incorporated lecturettes using Flash to give students an overview of what do look for. (Click here for an example on the scientific method.)

IV. Issues

A. The value of place- How do we establish what Stanley Ikenberry has called "the value of place," in which students feel they are getting something special, something they couldn't get on their own or out of a book?

I am completely enthralled with the ideas of John Seely Brown found in "Growing Up Digital." In it he states that "learning to learn in situ is the key..." implying that we must help our students develop as online learners and not expect the experience to be the same. He also raises the notion of Community of Practice in which he describes the importance of individuals working together in order to learn more. We create a unique experience by allowing student input, demanding student participation, and allowing some flexibility in the ways we assess, for example, using portfolios. In Chemistry 104, for example, students are given choices, in terms of topics and some assignments. Students are also encouraged to use their own data through authentic experience, such as the Municipal Waste Lab and the Nutrition Lab. Finally, student participation is required weekly in discussions relating chemistry to everyday experience or current events.

B. What to do with labs- What should be the nature of activities we ask students to do? To what end?

The most important aspect of laboratory experiment design, in my opinion, is knowing why we are asking a student to do a particular experiment. What are the outcomes we desire as instructors? Categorization of laboratory instruction reveals four basic types: expository, inquiry, discovery, and problem-based.  These types can be contrasted based on the desired outcome, the pedagogical approach, and the experimental procedure (See Table below).  Expository labs have been criticized for the lack of time students are given to reflect on the experiment and the emphasis on lower order cognitive skills according to Bloom’s taxonomy. Research indicates that students may come away with greater understanding when inquiry, discovery, and problem-based laboratories experiments are used (Domin, 1999).





Expository (ie. traditional cookbook lab)







Student generated








Student generated







Choosing the appropriate solution first requires that you predetermine the type of lab, the equipment necessary, and the outcomes expected. Labs in which mastery of scientific equipment is an outcome usually require attendance on campus. However, simulations, labs modified for home use, kits, museum trips, and internet labs can all substitute effectively for particular kinds of labs. Can poker chips, playing cards, or other household items be used in place of animals in a predator-prey lab? Is a stick figure sufficient or do we need a multimedia CD able to transmit the concepts? Can the student use household materials? Such questions require thought about the degree of realism needed and the fidelity and bandwidth available. I lean heavily toward the use of "kitchen labs" and internet activities, with only limited use of simulations. I love simulations, but I am interested in keeping the cost down for my students and the best simulations require purchase of CDs.

Simulations should be used for specific purposes. Pence (1997) has written a pretty good online paper on the topic in which he states,

At this time, available simulations cannot replicate the physical experiences that students would encounter in the laboratory, although virtual reality programs may soon offer a possibility of accomplishing this. Simulations do allow the student to focus on the conceptual background without the distraction of physical manipulations. In some cases this can be quite beneficial. Using a simulation as a pre-lab preparation allows students to go into the laboratory with a better understanding of what they will be doing. Laboratory simulations do not provide a replacement for laboratory, but at least they may improve one aspect of chemistry teaching that is far from perfect.

Pence's statements are limited to chemistry, but they do illustrate something important that I'd like to raise in this lecture which is the conflict between trying to reach an appropriate degree of realism while using technologies appropriate for your audience. Graphically, this conflict can be shown using Dale's Cone and the degree of fidelity needed. Selection should be based on availability rather than the required capacity. Who are your students and what do they have access to? I believe simulations are appropriate whenever students are unable to actually go to a place, perform an activity, or afford a higher degree of fidelity.

Fidelity + Time and location + Interaction + Realism = Bandwidth

Communication Service

Transmission rate

OC-3 (optical carrier-level 3)

155 Mbps

FAT 5 cables

100 Mbps

DS-3 (digital signal-level 3)

45 Mbps


1.544 Mbps

ISDN (integrated services digital network)

128-384 Mbps

Telephone line

9.6-19.2 hbps






(Lockee, 1999)

However, there are some excellent sites using simulations out there, in a variety of fields, that take special pains to consider bandwidth and other issues. Both of them use Flash as a multimedia development tool. DNA from the Beginning describes the history, chemistry, and uses of DNA. I use one section of it in my courses: DNA Detective which uses simulations to show students how DNA fingerprinting is done. Since few students will ever have an opportunity to actually do DNA fingerprinting, this is an excellent use of a simulation. Another excellent site that simulates experience is Becoming Human, a site that allows students to experience physical anthropology and studies of human evolution in settings few of us will have an opportunity to go. In my opinion, this sites could serve as a model of appropriate technology selection in order to maximize student learning.

C. Should online courses be equivalent to on-campus courses? Is it "good enough" to show that we have taken an on-campus course and "canned" it online? Should the outcomes be equivalent?

In my view, attempts to show equivalency between online courses and on-campus courses may actually undermine what we are trying to. In meeting the needs of online students, we should be tapping into their daily experiences through the use of authentic activities, discussions, etc. We also should be taking advantage of existing material online. By bringing the global to someone in their home, we enrich the course. Most courses I've seen are very linear, objectives-based, and intended to look like the same linear, objectives-based course on-campus. But on-campus, the shared experience is guaranteed, so long as the students attend. Online this is not the case at all. The online experience for each individual student is unique. In other words, we ought to be inventing novel pedagogies online to facilitate experience and this might necessarily mean that the online course design is different than than the on-campus design. This issue has been addressed very nicely by Michael Simonson (2000) who writes, 

Online students and those in face-to-face classes learn in fundamentally different environments. Despite the differences, every student should have the opportunity to learn in acceptable and appropriate ways. Some professors attempt to make experiences equal for online and face-to-face learners. A more appropriate strategy is to provide different but equivalent learning experiences (p. 29). 

The emphasis in our courses, therefore, should be on the experiences, not the assignments. It makes sense that we should be doing something different with students at a distance to enhance those experiences.

Online learning is complex and anyone who claims to have all the answers fails to recognize this complexity. My guess is that there are many different solutions to the issues I have raised in this presentation. From the writings you have all posted on the WebBoard, I am sure that you all will discover methods that work well for you. As you do, please continue sharing and realize that you have become a community of learners. Hopefully, that won't end when the semester does.

In this presentation, I have tried to raise some issues important to me, and, possibly, important to you as well. Certainly there are other issues, and I'd invite you to raise them with me as we continue to discuss ways to help our online learners achieve their goals...and ours! Thanks again for the opportunity to join you.


Domin, D.S. (1999). "A Review of Laboratory Instruction Styles." J. Chem. Ed. >76: 543-547.

Krajcik, J.S. (1994). “Developing students’ understanding of chemical concepts.”  The Psychology of Learning Science. (p 130

Lockee, B. & Moore, D. (1999). "A taxonomy of bandwidth: Considerations and principles to guide practice in the design and delivery of distance education. In R. Branch and M.A. Fitzgerald (Eds.). 1999 Educational Technology Yearbook (p. 65-71). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Pence, H.E. (1997) "Are simulations just a substitute for reality?" Chem Conf '97,

Simonson, M. (2000) "Making decisions: The use of electronic technology in online classrooms." In R.E. Weiss, D.S. Knowlton, & B.W. Speck (Eds). Principles of effective teaching in the online classroom. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 8

Links to Tod Treat's Website were updated on February 28th, 2006.


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