July/August 2002 // Case Studies
Teaching General Chemistry as a Distance Education Course
by John R. McBride
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: John R. McBride "Teaching General Chemistry as a Distance Education Course" The Technology Source, July/August 2002. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

My first encounter with distance education took place 20 years ago when I enrolled in Calculus II. The course seemed straightforward: I was to purchase a textbook, receive a list of assignments that would be mailed to the instructor for grading, and, when I felt I was prepared, receive a final exam that would be administered by an approved proctor. Like many distance education students, however, I failed to complete the course requirements. The Calculus II course afforded little opportunity for meaningful student/instructor interaction or personal accountability. Even a very disciplined student would have difficulty completing such a course.

The Calculus II course I enrolled for resembles many contemporary distance education courses: they are text-based presentations delivered over the Internet that employ a variety of evaluation methods through the technology of the browser interface. The major feature of these classes has been the use of communication tools such as e-mail and bulletin boards. Even with this enhancement, most students still need more personal help than can be delivered, and they often fall by the wayside. Because of this limitation, subjects that require the representation of processes and unseen phenomena have not lent themselves to distance education courses.

Chemistry is just such a subject; without the opportunity to query an instructor, access guided problem-solving exercises, or interact with visualization media, the content of a thorough chemistry course will be hard to assimilate. With the advent of modern Internet technology and software, however, these obstacles are no longer significant, and with a reasonable effort an instructor can design and present a respectable on-line chemistry course. In this article, I detail my personal venture into the development and presentation of an on-line chemistry course and my observations of the course effectiveness.

Course Development: Tools and Infrastructure

To any chemistry educator, the search for tools to teach the principles, concepts, problem solving strategies, and applications of the chemical world is an ongoing process. Advances in multimedia, Web-authoring, and Web-design software have sent chemistry educators and textbook companies scrambling to produce non-traditional chemistry content. Although most of these materials are intended to supplement the traditional textbook, a few companies and educators have been able to develop a chemistry curriculum that stands alone and replaces textbooks commonly used in colleges and universities. Over five years ago Archipelago Productions, a division of Harcourt Publishing (now owned by Thomson eLearning Solutions), began producing a college chemistry course delivered through CD-ROM and supplemented with a Web site for support and course administration.

When the beta version of Archipelago's general chemistry course became available, I began using the materials in my traditional general chemistry course as a tutorial aid for my students. Archipelago also hosted a Web site with instructional and administrative tools that allowed instructors to orient the general course content to their particular classes. This site can be used for communication with students, testing and evaluation, supplemental exercises, and class administration. The CDs can be used as an interactive multimedia content presentation tool for 24/7 instruction, while the Web site served as an asynchronous class reporting area. Although these capabilities provided me with the foundations for a true general chemistry distance education course, I encountered institutional resistance for a number of reasons, including protection of the union shop, lack of vision, and reluctance to invest in distance education.

I have not found these barriers in the community college where I now teach, Northwest Vista College (NVC), in the Alamo Community College District (ACCD), where innovation and experimentation are commonplace. The college's mission statement encourages distance education and increased access to education. ACCD adopted a course management system, WebCT, as the online interface for support, administration, and content delivery. Because both our traditional and our distance education courses in general chemistry employ Archipelago's course material and WebCT's interface, we have grounds for comparing the two forms.

Course Structure: Distance and Traditional Formats

At NVC, the Archipelago general chemistry course is divided into two offerings according to semester: Introduction to Chemistry I (CHEM 1305.001) and General Chemistry (1311.001). During the first semester, as well as during summer school, we cover the topics common to university chemistry (CHEM 1305.001). The course consists of 37 media rich, interactive lessons, each of which takes from 30 to 45 minutes to complete. The supplemental material for the CDs includes links to modules (Exhibit 1, Exhibit 2) directly tied to each lesson and self-tests (Exhibit 3, Exhibit 4) analogous to problem sets at the end of each chapter in a textbook. During the second semester the course consists of 30 lessons, but it does not cover nuclear chemistry or complex metal chemistry (CHEM 1311.001). By posting links and his or her own materials, the instructor can add or remove topics as needed. In addition this material, WebCT also allows us to incorporate e-mail, daily and monthly calendars (Exhibit 5, Exhibit 6), class grade books (Exhibit 7), PowerPoint slides (Exhibit 8, Exhibit 9), online audio lecture archives (Exhibit 10), and discussion forums (Exhibit 11). It also allows us to provide links to other supplemental materials, including links to three well-organized general chemistry Web sites (CHEMystery, General Chemistry Online, and Ohio State Quizzes and Tutorials).

Students at Northwest Vista College can take general chemistry either on-campus or as a distance education course. Both forms use the same Web site and CDs; both forms use the same lectures, tests, and self-tests for evaluation. All assignments are due at the same time for both distance education and on-campus students in order to pace student progress, but all students have the option of working at an accelerated pace. Since WebCT allows 24/7 access to all materials, students working ahead can access tests and evaluation tools when they are ready; however, it should be noted that the tests are password protected and must be taken at a proctored location. Using the same materials and pace for both courses allows us to put all sections into one administrative WebCT course. This synchronicity also allows students in the distance education course to attend an on-campus class if they find themselves needing face-to-face help. Grades are assigned based on the overall class average of all students taking the course, regardless of format.

Course Assessment: Evaluation Results

Anonymous evaluation surveys show that students are impressed by the ease of use and navigation of the chemistry Web site. Their favorite features are the notification of new information posted since their last visit and the access to the supplemental materials. Surveys show that students do not use every link but find their own favorites. For instance, the topical chemistry links to other sites were rarely listed as necessary, but one student found them extremely helpful and listed them as his or her favorite link. During the course orientation we encourage students to find the resources that meet their particular learning styles. Inspection of the tracking feature in WebCT and the survey support this goal. The only negative comments concerning WebCT refer to the system downtime and the slowness of the server, neither of which difficulties relate to the software. Upgrades and additional hardware scheduled to go online this summer should alleviate these problems.

About half of our students report that they desire or use a textbook. Our philosophy is that the text is a reference book that can be used as a supplement to the CDs and the lectures. Since we are not committed to one text, students can purchase inexpensive older texts or check one out from the library. Half of the students never use a text, and there is no indication that their performance is hindered. Half of the students are very positive toward the use of the CD presentations as the main source of content. Students gave positive marks in the surveys to the self-paced nature of the CD presentation, the animations for visualization, and the sample problems. Negative comments note the lack of an apparent connection between self-test questions and the CD lesson and technical problems with the operation of the CDs. Viewed objectively, these comments stem from a lack of investigation and comprehension of the provided materials and resources by the students.

Although more data sets and audience analyses are required before meaningful statistical analysis can be done, the following conclusions seem warranted based on information that we have. Student success, as measured by test grades and attrition rates, does not differ significantly between distance education sections and on-campus sections. Because of the different audiences reached by an on-campus as opposed to a distance education section, it is not valid to compare the student grades without a thorough knowledge of student backgrounds. Attrition rates, roughly 40% during most semesters, are approximately the same for both. Many of the on-campus students have found it possible to do well without attending lectures. As a result, only about 40% of all of the students are taking advantage of the on-campus presentations, and student performance has not suffered.

Organic chemistry has also been successfully taught as a distance education class, although the course content was a hybrid of two textbooks and three different CDs. No one resource would have been sufficient to provide the full pedagogical effect. We also plan to offer college physics in the near future since a general physics course on CD was also produced by Archipelago; this material is now available in a more concise format through Thomson Learning.

Lessons Learned

This is the eighth semester that we have conducted classes using the Archipelago CDs. The lessons learned from this experience have led to several modifications to improve student retention and content presentation in this course:

  • a comprehensive orientation on the use and installation of the CD material with 24/7 tech support until all students are up and running;
  • a required orientation meeting on the use of WebCT with an emphasis on daily communication for all NVC students that take Internet courses and live within 50 miles of campus;
  • assignments with hard and fast deadlines to encourage students to keep up (since procrastination is deadly for online learners);
  • alternative content delivery (via text, lecture notes, audio recordings of on-campus lectures, content-rich Web sites, alternative content CDs, or PowerPoint slides with embedded media) for distance students who find that they need extra help, as well as to appeal to students with different learning styles.

These modifications have allowed us to meet the needs of a wider variety of online and on-campus students. Online students have access to all of the on-campus lecture materials, and on-campus students may use the CDs at the computer labs as a tutorial aide.


Current information technology tools make it possible to provide students with course content delivered in a variety of ways, with online access to tutorials, diagnostics, peers, and their instructor. These tools were not available in the days of my first distance education experience, but now an innovative, energetic, and imaginative instructor can work wonders with a distance education course and increase the chance of a student's success. All of these classes are works-in-progress; as new technology and innovative software has become available, the quality of the online aspects of both my traditional and Internet courses has seen drastic improvement. For those of my peers who wish to proceed in this direction, remember that the content is already available—it just requires your professional touch to tailor it to your students' needs.

[Editor's note: This paper is modified from a presentation at the June 2001 3rd Annual WebCT User Conference in Vancouver, BC.]

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