Back to the Top ^
Home    /    Teaching Online

8 Effective Practices for Teaching Science 100% Online

Submitted by on February 28, 2013 – 12:08 pmNo Comment

Online science education may be at a fork in the road, but its creative and resourceful leaders are lighting the path to ensure we’re headed toward quality and improvement. As the demand for online science courses rapidly grows, new initiatives and studies help resolve the concerns from opponents and help answer the curiosities from proponents. For example, Dr. James W. Brown solved a transferability concern when he introduced an online lab-based course that included lab kits shipped out to students–after learning that many higher ed institutions would not transfer in credit from a science course having used a virtual lab, Dr. Brown integrated the lab experience by a hands-on wet lab that suited distance learning. Helping to foster online science education, Dr. Brown and other experienced online instructors have documented–and have been documented–in articles, blogs, videos, conference material, etc. You can take away great ideas and tips–or even find your starting point–from their trials, experiences, and feedback, which we’ve compiled for you below. Here are eight effective practices (from the experts) for teaching science online:

1. Create a Community

Dr. Brown describes online teaching as a special challenge where the teacher must recreate online the magic of a classroom (read more of Dr. Brown’s Q&A with the Online Science Educator). He expresses amazement at how his students bond before the course begins and how his students respond with enthusiasm and similar answers. His advice is to immediately create an online learning community:

  • Use an icebreaker to assuage students’ nerves and uncertainty–the easiest, most immediate icebreaker is for you to place a short introduction and some photos.
  • Assign students to share something about their interests, family, hobbies, pets, etc. (and with photos if possible)–Dr. Brown posts many photos of his family on various occasions.
  • Check in with your courses each week day and at least once per weekend; if you’ll be away for a weekend, let your students know ahead of time.
  • Stay in touch with your students–it’s so easy.

Another expert discussing the importance of the learning community is Peter Jeschofnig, PhD, Founder of the Institute for Excellence in Distance Science Education (IEDSE) and Co-Author of Teaching Lab Science Course Online. Surrounded by webcams, smart phones, cameras, and other devices, students can easily participate and contribute video to the course community. Jeschofnig advises how to begin the engagement process and build a learning community:

  • Start your course with a personal and a course introduction video–this helps students connect and establish a rapport with you.
  • Share your image and enthusiasm because it energizes your students about what they will be learning and it sets the stage for robust class discussions.
  • Encourage students to prepare a short video introduction to share with the class–”putting a face to the name” at the beginning of a course brings focus and meaning to communication.

2. Use Videos

Engage students and reinforce your course content with audio, video, and images that support your students’ myriad learning styles. Search the internet for credible media you can use; and make sure you know How to Find Creative Commons Licensed Material on Media Sharing Sites. Use video to

  • introduce yourself to students (and have students introduce themselves, too).
  • teach and reinforce course content, like how Dr. Brown found that inserting video clips throughout the course enriches a student’s learning experience.
  • resolve group issues, for example: how to find the best-fit-line through a data set and how to attach a DDM as ammeter into series and parallel circuits. (for these videos, use screen-capture software like Camtasia (commercial), CamStudio (free), or Jing (free).

Develop a well-constructed script to

  • ensure clear delivery.
  • use as an ADA-approved alternative to the video.
  • facilitate YouTube’s ADA-compliant automatic captioning feature.

To reinforce learning, require students to write a brief paper reflecting on the video content, and provide them links to presentations, blogs, journal articles, and science news that supplement video content. Read more about using videos in online science courses in Peter Jeschofnig’s post.

3. Use Skype

Skype has become the reliable, free tool in online communication–and its required equipment (webcam and microphone) is becoming a standard feature on basic computer models, continually granting access to more users around the globe. While teaching Biological Science, General Biology I and II, and Microbiology totally online, Dr. Brown began using Skype with students struggling with online lab work. He found Skype greatly helped students, even for just a short moment, and that the video function helped students feel as though the instructor was standing next to them in a lab. And the tool has proven especially effective as he’s started teaching microbiology to soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. Read Using Skype as a Tool to Teach Online Science (LabPaq) Laboratories. Use Skype to

  • instantly communicate with a student and help with an immediate lab issue.
  • walk a student through a process while displaying test tubes and microscope components.
  • guide students through setting up equipment (like microscopes).
  • correspond with your students around the globe.
  • invite guest speakers to demonstrate live from their labs.
  • facilitate virtual lab partners–students help each other through processes.

Dr. Jim Brown using Skype to communicate with student miles away. Photo Credit: William M. Brown photography


4. Mimic the Wet Lab

LabPaqs provide students with high-quality lab materials and an equivalent wet lab experience in a cost-effective way (from a review in the Journal of Chemical Education). Dr. Brown endorses Hands-on Labs’ LabPaqs, ready-to-go science experiments that are packaged and shipped to science students. LabPaqs solved Dr. Brown’s need for a hands-on wet lab experience:

  • Scientific experiments–in areas like biology, chemistry, climate change, pollution, conservation biology, habitat and soil degradation, carbon footprint and sustainability, acid rain and water quality, greenhouse effect, and energy.
  • Safety–students read/sign a safety information sheet and the material safety data sheets for chemicals in the kits; microbiology courses uses harmless biosafety level 1 organisms, while chemistry course is micro-scaled to use chemicals in low molar concentrations and small quantities.
  • Students work individually (providing a greater depth of learning)
  • Easy-to-use kits–packed with required materials and instructions on how to safely conduct and dispose of the experiment.
  • Lab manual included–additionally, instructors should link Hands-on Labs’ brief safety video into all online courses.
HOL kit

The LabPaq from Hands-On Labs includes all equipment needed to provide a “wet lab” experience to students around the world.

  Faculty can appreciate using the LabPaq kits because the grading is more consistent as all students have a level playing field; and faculty can use lab reports to ensure students are achieving the course outcomes (read the review LabPaq Science Lab Kits for Chemistry).

5. Use Instructional Resources

Before finalizing your course content, review the wealth of online instructional resources. For each resource below, type your discipline into the search field to find new and enriching teaching materials. Peter Jeschofnig suggests that physics instructors should enjoy MIT OpenCourseWare, which has great lectures and demonstrations by Professor Walter Lewin.

  • YouTube
  • TED–Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world
  • Annenberg Learner–Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum
  • TeacherTube
  • iTunes University
  • Vimeo
  • Khan Academy–learn almost anything for free; 242,033,466+ lessons delivered
  • Open Yale courses–free and open access to select introductory courses taught by Yale University’s distinguished teachers and scholars
  • webcast.berkeley–UC Berkeley’s central service for online video & audio for students and learners around the globe.

6. Upgrade Your Equipment

Many laptops are now built with microphones and webcams, but you might consider upgrading your equipment to produce quality video and audio. Jeschofnig found improved video quality in the Logitech HD Pro C920 webcam, which he supplemented with an external microphone, adding that the visual and audio quality of his videos improved sufficiently to justify the purchase. Check if your institution is willing to cover the cost of this equipment. Dr. Brown encourages students to take photos through the microscope using a USB Digital Microscope Eyepiece Camera (made by Hands-on Labs), which is compatible with Windows.

  • Ask your students to use their smartphones to take photos through the microscope (hold the camera over the eyepiece).
  • Encourage students to attach to their lab reports the photos of what they see under the microscope.
  • Use student-submitted photos to guide students and give feedback.

7. Add Enriching Activities

The demand for online science courses has helped fuel engaging, out-of-lab science activities that avoid safety or equipment hazards. For instance, Dr. Brown organizes his students to participate with public health issues, like when he took them to experience Tent City, a homeless community of 60 to 70 people who live in tents and use wood burning stoves for heat in the winter. Other science activities come by way of citizen scientists, volunteers who participate in science research by collecting and/or analyzing data for a specific science project (think Audubon Society and its bird counts). These projects are showing up frequently and might prove useful for online learning.

  • Galaxy Zoo–participants browse through SDSS (Sloan Digital Sky Survey) images and classify any of the millions of galaxies. For example: Hanny van Arkel is a Dutch school teacher and project participant who found a green gas cloud in front of a minor spiral galaxy in Leo Minor. This green cloud is speculated to be a small galaxy acting as a reflection nebula, which shines the reflected light of a bright quasar. The green cloud is now called Hanny’s Voorwerp, or Hanny’s Object.
  • NASA’s Be A Martian–participants examine the data from Mars that has been gathered by orbiting spacecraft and planetary rovers. Participants help catalog formations seen from orbit, or explore the surface and identify objects captured by the cameras on Rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity.
  • Project BudBurst–participants observe life-cycle characteristics, or phenophases, of plants in their local area.
  • Cell Slider–participants learn to identify various cell types, then classify digital images of cancer samples.

See more citizen science projects in Scientific American and in Zooinverse. And read about how Citizen Science is used at other schools.

8. Assign a Capstone Experience

Dr. Brown recommends assigning students a “mini” capstone experience at the end of each course. Each student can integrate the skills, methodology, and knowledge learned, and demonstrate it in a project where s/he analyzes and evaluates the experience. The capstone experience ties the course together for the student–s/he applies course-learned knowledge to the real world practice. A capstone field trip experience applies to any online science course, and is favored by Dr. Brown’s students for being worthwhile to learning and understanding, while being fun. For biology, a capstone experience may guide students do complete field trip to observe an area’s representative plant life or microbes and relate it to the ecosystem in which it was found. The field trip exercise has received positive feedback from students. Some students choose a capstone experience in collecting pond or marsh water. Using a pocket microscope, they can see microscopic pond life swimming about the slide. Dr. Brown’s students have used smartphones to snap photos and make videos they attach to their capstone reports (students have relied on the Pond Life Identification Kit). For a microbiology capstone, students may shadow a microbiologist, whom they join in a health or research laboratory to observe his or her routine. Read Dr. Brown’s Providing a Capstone “Field Trip” Experience in your Online Science Course.

Other Recommendations

Regarding academic integrity–

  • Ask students to photograph themselves performing the lab experiment with close shots of equipment like test tubes and plates–this step reassures you the student is completing the lab work and will flag any student issues you should troubleshoot.
  • If students try to slip by without ordering a LabPaq (to save money or because they feel they can fake a report with internet information), ask Hands-On Labs for a report showing you the students who have purchased the required kit.

Regarding equipment costs–

  • If students complain about purchasing a good-enough camera, send them any ads or sales from Amazon, Best Buy, or another retailer selling a camera for under $20–photographs chronicle and validate their work, so students must possess a reasonable camera.
  • Allot some time (perhaps the first two weeks) for financial aid disbursements–this helps students cover the costs for equipment, including LabPaqs.

Share Your Experiences

Are you currently teaching science online? If so, tell us about your methods and tools that enable the scientific process to continue off campus. Are you considering teaching science online? What are pros and cons to launching your course?

Comments are closed.