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Virtual Learning 2020: Reimagining Chemistry Online

The year 2020 has been an extraordinary and challenging year, to say the least.  However, as educators teaching chemistry, a subject that requires problem-solving and critical thinking, we were abruptly forced to solve the problem of delivering course content for lecture and lab amid the pandemonium of a pandemic, COVID-19. 

A year ago, neither of us would have thought it was possible to deliver an online version of chemistry that was equivalent to our on-ground course.  However, the silver lining of the pandemic was the innovation, collaboration, and modification as we agreed we will not do our students a disservice in the continuation of a quality education.

March 2020, as we departed campus for our annual spring-break we never imagined what was to come; NO ONE CAN RETURN TO CAMPUS?  We had a week to get our courses ready to be completely online. But did online have to mean the traditional format that so many of our students refer to as “teaching themselves” (asynchronous). Could we reimagine a model where students received live (synchronous), in-person lectures, and group problem solving via Zoom, if being in the classroom was not a possibility? We had a week to figure it out.  Doug and Chrysa, into the think-tank we go as we spent exhausting days and nights discussing how to reimagine and modify Chem 1030, Fundamentals of Chemistry.

Chemistry 1030 was a bit ahead of the curve. Our students were well acquainted with eLearn and knew how to use a DropBox, take Quizzes, and post to a Discussion Board. This was a huge help! 

We had to expeditiously learn how to use Zoom and find out its capabilities. The Big discovery was “breakout rooms” as we had to rely on our spouses to interact as students to further explore its function. We discovered we could split our students into groups and let them work on the home prepared videos in small groups, just like in lab on campus. The Spring videos were rough, but it gave us enough of an idea of what we needed to do to make them better. So, during the week of Spring 2020 finals, we had the task of going on campus (masked & social distant) shooting 11 videos before the summer classes began the following Monday. Plenty of time.

From April to July, we spent lots of late nights working on exams, labs, how we ran the lecture course, how we ran the lab course, what worked, what didn’t, how could we make it better? We talked about everything from attendance, to times for each type of question on the exams. During spring we asked students for feedback on what we were doing. We were still running our courses but being virtual we had no data to forecast, so we had to collect our own. What did they like, what did they struggle with, how do we make this work for all our students? How do we keep the academic integrity of our course intact without putting an undue burden on the students? When we figured out our parameters for testing, we knew we had it right, when the Spring students commented that while the questions were tough, they thought they were fair and much easier to deal with than our previous attempts. We couldn’t go back and change the Spring, but we could apply our learning going forward.

After surveying our summer students, we realized that our format was working. The students liked it. While the course was still difficult and challenging, we had enough time with them as we did on the ground and they could work with each other to help them learn the material.

Our advice to everyone; is don’t try to do it all on your own. Find a partner or a small group; testing things, trying things out, having people to bounce ideas off, and give alternative perspectives is what makes our collaborative modified chemistry course successful.

Below are a few sample videos from our labs.


Screenshot of Professors Doug Williams and Chrysa MaloshBlog authors Doug Williams and Chrysa Malosh, VSCC Chemistry professors.

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