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Monday, December 18, 2006

Fall 2006 Post-Mortem

Another quarter at Drexel is done. I taught the introductory organic chemistry course CHEM241 to about 170 students and special online only sections of CHEM242 and CHEM243 for about 20 students with demonstrable conflicts in their schedule. All lectures were assigned as pre-recorded screencasts and the class time was used as a workshop in the case of CHEM241.

This is what I did and learned.

1) Instead of a blog assignment on any topic for extra credit, I required that they relate some aspect of reactions from the lab notebook of my research group with something learned in class. Here are some selected reports. There were 2 deadlines, each worth 1%. This was tricky for the first deadline because of the limited amount of material covered but the students who were serious in doing this worked with me well before the deadline to come up with a question that they could answer. I used a wiki this term instead of a blog and it worked much better because the evolution of each assignment can be tracked, including my feedback. This was time-consuming but I think that it was beneficial to the students to stretch their understanding of chemistry in a way that relates to the real world.

2) YouTube is a good way to answer student questions that are not directly answered in the lecture archive. The resolution is not as high as a Flash screencast but copying molecules drawn with the default settings of ChemSketch and pasting in a 256 x 256 pixel window in Paint works well. Paint is perfect for drawing curly arrows. Not bad for 100% free software. All of these images are then also standard format for an EduFrag map or a WebCT quiz. I used Camtasia 4 to record and produce an m4v file (for eventual publication as a vodcast), which I uploaded directly into YouTube. This part is not free but I'll bet uploading the avi file generated by the free CamStudio into YouTube would work. However, you can't edit the video in CamStudio.

3) I started to use my collection of high quality sources on Google Co-op to help students in the workshops. For me, this is clearly the way forward in open courseware. More on this next term.

4) All of my Flash files created by Camtasia 2 stopped working on Firefox on PCs and Macs. This is a known issue and we found a solution for this that we are still in the process of implementing. The files were also available as a vodcast on iTunes so the Mac people were fine. With all of the things that can go wrong with technology, redundancy is imperative.

5) The feedback from the evaluations was overall very positive. A few students suggested that I provide a more detailed timeline for watching lectures and doing problems. I gave them a guideline of about 4 hours/week and an inventory of what would be on each test but I can appreciate how something more definite would be comforting for some. I can implement that easily. The freedom to set their own schedule was empowering for many. Others commented on their struggle with procrastination. I don't think there is much difference between an online class the way that I run it compared to face to face lectures. Organic chemistry is about doing problems. In a F2F class, students who procrastinate have the problem of getting good notes from their friends for the classes they skipped in addition to doing problems at the last minute. I learned early on, way before doing anything online, that a good wake-up call for procrastinators is to have a test, a review session then an automatic make-up with more questions in the same amount of time. Failing on the first test is usually motivating.

6) Drexel migrated to a +/- grading system this term and I learned that Excel cannot support more than 7 nested functions in a formula. I use nested IF functions to convert numbers to letter grades.

7) Students who could not make it to the workshops or wanted quicker feedback emailed me their work. Chemistry is very visual. We interacted via text, chemistry program generated structures and scanned paper. But when both student and teacher have TabletPCs, it is probably the most effective way to communicate. Here is an example by Justin, who made really good use of that technology over the term:

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