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Thursday, November 24, 2005


I am chairing the Teaching track of HigherEdBlogCon, which is a fully online event to be held in April 2006.

These are the potential topics for my track:

* Challenges surrounding intellectual property
* The changing nature of in-class activity in the age of podcast lectures
* Impact of new media on attendance patterns
* Impact of new media on online learning
* New media and course platforms
* What do new media mean for the so-called digital divide?
* Video versus screencast versus podcast
* Wikis and learning
* The RSS divide
* The role of games in education
* Open courseware
* Changing expectations of the student and teacher at the educational interface

More information to follow as it is still early but I am currently accepting proposals.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

ChemSketch integrates Chmoogle

ACD (Advanced Chemistry Development) just announced the integration of Chmoogle and PubChem into the free and commercial versions of ChemSketch.

That means that from the molecule editing page in ChemSketch you are just a few clicks away from commercial sources, toxicology data, lists of similar molecules, etc.

This will do for chemistry what calculators did for math. It is the combination of several integrated and invisible technologies that allow for the leveraging of minimal chemical knowledge. You still have to know what you are doing but this dramatically reduces the amount of detail needed to be mastered.

This will change how I teach organic chemistry.

Chemistry Department Head Search


The College of Arts & Sciences invites applications for the Department Head of Chemistry. The applicant must demonstrate outstanding leadership and interpersonal skills, and have a distinguished record of research and undergraduate and graduate education. It is expected that the applicant will continue an active, extramurally funded, research program while providing vision and administrative leadership to advance the department. Key objectives include increasing the number of both undergraduate majors and Ph.D. students, and increasing the breadth and depth of interdisciplinary research, with an emphasis on biological and nanoscale areas of chemistry. Opportunities exist for substantial research collaboration with other departments in Arts & Sciences and the Colleges of Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Medicine. Further information about the department can be found at http://www.chemistry.drexel.edu. The application should include a curriculum vitae and a letter of intent that describes research, teaching, and administrative accomplishments and goals. Names, addresses, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses of at least three references should also be included. Application materials should be sent to: Chairman, Chemistry Department Head Search, Room 4020 - McAlister Hall, College of Arts & Sciences, Drexel University, Philadelphia PA 19104. Drexel University is a private, urban university with over 10,000 full-time undergraduates and is well-known for its emphasis on technology and its cooperative education program. Review of applications will begin on December 1, 2005 and will continue until the position is filled. Drexel University is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and encourages applications from qualified women, members of minority groups, disabled individuals and veterans.

Saturday, November 19, 2005


Jay Bhatt just told me about Chmoogle, the new eMolecules search engine for chemicals. Doing a quick search, I was able to find many commercial sources for fragments the potential HIV protease inhibitors on the watch list at UsefulChem.

This is going to have a significant impact on chemical research and teaching.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Teaching Usefully with Open Source Science

The assimilation of technology into the educational process offers new opportunities to intertwine teaching and research.

As I have previously described, the archiving of lectures in my organic chemistry course enables the use of class time in workshop format. The students already have an extensive set of problems with screencast solutions that cover every reaction and concept needed to understand all of the course material. For students who have mastered all of the assigned material, the workshops offer an opportunity to challenge them with problems that require the integration of everything they have learned and more.

Wouldn't it be more motivating to work on problems that could have practical applications?

A convenient way of offering such problems is to pool them in a blog, as I have done in creating UsefulChem. For example, during the last workshop I asked them to come up with a synthesis of one of the 90 potential anti-HIV compounds listed here using reactions we covered in class. These compounds were calculated to have a good probability of inhibiting HIV protease, an enzyme required in the replication of the AIDS virus.

Analytical chemistry students may want to tackle the arsenic in drinking water problem brought up by David Bradley (no relation), who runs several of the best science blogging sites I have seen. (and thanks for the post on UsefulChem Dave!)

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is a new service to track the information of visitors to your site. I have had it running for a day on this blog and it is amazing what it delivers for free. Number of visitors, most common search words, entry pages, a map of visitor locations, etc.

It does pretty much everything that even the paid version of SiteMeter does except for putting an icon on your page to share your visitor information publicly.

It took 2 days for the data collection to start getting reported so be patient. It is worth the wait.

Thanks to Elmer

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Virtual Race

A few times this term I have been running races in my organic chemistry class using a first person interface. Students run through a maze on their laptops. Each room has a set of doors painted with chemical information. Walking through a correct door takes you furter into the maze while an incorrect door makes you start over.

So far, all the races have been held in class. This Saturday, I'll be holding a "virtual race". At noon EST, I'll upload the maze on the EduFrag blog and students from anywhere will be able to download and run it. The first one to finish emails me. The winner will have to be able to provide a screencast proof that they actually completed the maze.

Students can contribute doors on the listed topics and can practice parts of the maze ahead of time.

This is a way for the fully online students to participate and to extend the opencourewariness of the class.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Video Podcasting Caution

Update: I did end up creating a vodcast

Several people have started podcasting videos (usually mp4 format) in addition to the standard mp3 audio. However, there some issues that you must take into consideration before doing this:

1) Short videos (a few minutes) are probably not problematic but hour long lectures, such as MIT's are generally going to run close to 200-1000 Meg per file.(Thanks Dan for link) This is about 10-50 times larger than the corresponding audio file and this may irritate a lot of subscribers who are not expecting this in terms of memory and bandwidth usage.

2) Even if you provide a separate feed and your subscribers are aware of the file size issue, you may find a nasty surprise server-side as your subscribers automatically download all back episodes. This might not be a problem for a place like MIT but I have heard of servers getting maxed out by smaller operations switching to video podcasts.

3) Think about what you are trying to accomplish by podcasting video. The technology to do it has been around since the start of podcasting but I have not seen the need for hour long lectures for the reasons mentioned above. The reason audio podcasting works so well is that you can listen while your visual system is busy dealing with the world (driving, walking, exercising, etc.). If your visual and auditory attention is available, wouldn't it be better to watch a full screen webcast or screencast?

4) I have usually supported multiple channels to disseminate content so I am not trying to dissuade anyone from trying it. Just keep a close eye on your server bandwidth usage and subscriber experience if you do experiment with it. And warn your subscribers about the file size issue. For my classes I currently podcast PDFs with MP3's, list streaming screencasts in blogs and I provide instructions to download the flash files of my lectures for students who request it. But if demand arises for video podcasts, I'll respond.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Google Creative Commons Search

I was looking for this at our last RSS club meeting and it looks like Google finally has a way to filter for some Creative Commons license parameters in the advanced search.

Thanks to Leigh Blackall for the update.

Curricula by Google

Through the tentacles of the blogosphere, I have met a fellow chemist Mark Ott at Jackson Community College. He has been screencasting some material on general chemistry and we have had a chance to compare our experience. He likes to create short Flash segments to augment his class that he records without an audience. My current approach is to screencast the entire lecture so that the whole course can be experienced remotely.

Even though we differ in exactly how we implement screencasting, we agree that our material should be openly accessible and welcome that others use it (with attribution). This create the interesting situation where we both cover the same material in different ways. For example, here is my way and Mark's way of teaching Lewis structures. All of our students benefit from this.

Mark has also started a blog for his class. With Michelle Francl's quantum chemistry blog and screencast/podcast, Berkeley's webcasts, Woodman's tutorials, Claremont's pre-lectures and my Organic I and III we are actually developing a robust and redundant collection of high quality university level chemistry lectures that are available to anyone. And this does not include all the material that is just audio or text.

We are approaching a time when anyone will be able to learn anything by turning a Google search into a curriculum of course lectures and self-grading assignments. It seems that this bottom-up approach of educators acting independently and without a common format is moving faster than coordinated efforts such as MIT OpenCourseware or World Lecture Hall.

Of course students will still have to pay to get credit.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Archived Lecture Update

We are about midway through our fall term at Drexel.
Here is a brief update on my Organic Chemistry CHEM241 class, where I assigned the archived lectures as homework and held workshops instead during class time.

1) Performance. The grades are in for the first test and the make-up for the first test. In both cases, the averages are within 1% of what they were in the spring term. This tells me that the bulk of the students are learning the essentials of the course from the archived screencasts.

2) Attendance. The attendance is about the same (about 10%) whether I am giving lectures or holding workshops. There is a core group that shows up routinely and others only when they really need help.

3) Type of interaction.
a) Help with assigned problems. If they do not understand where they went wrong in a problem or quiz or test question, I ask to see their work and can show them quickly where the misunderstanding took place.

b) Help with concepts. For some there is not an issue with specific assigned problem but rather with an abstract concept used in the course. The way we work through these is with a discussion around what-if scenarios. Molecular models are usually very helpful in this case.

c) Technical issues. Most students bring their laptops and I can show them directly how to subscribe to the class RSS feed, how the podcast works, how to install Unreal Tournament, etc. If they don't have a laptop I bring one that they can use.

d) Course rules and procedures. Although I have an FAQ students sometimes want to reiterate how to find out where and when the tests are, the open book policy, how the make-up tests work, etc. I hate reading manuals also and I have to see something several times before I really learn it so I can understand this. But what I have found is that many students use rumors to learn about the class rules instead of reading the syllabus and FAQ. A face to face conversation is a good way to dispel those rumors.

e) Games. So far we have run 2 Unreal Tournament races (with prizes) covering much of the material on the first test. Also one student has constructed doors that we incorporated in the second race and I think that was a good exercise for her to consolidate her knowledge the subject matter.

f) Additional Problems. For students who have no problem with any of the assigned problems I usually give additional problems that really make them think about the basic concepts from new perspectives.

Overall, I think the workshop model is working well for the students who choose to take advantage of it. The learning is driven almost entirely through conversation, which is well suited to consolidate the basic material in the archived lectures.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


Once again I find myself going back to Google to recommend a service: BlogSearch for finding blogs.
They just have a way of making everything so simple.

Here is what I like:

1) RSS feeds of searches. Google has been slow in implementing RSS but when they got around to it they made it really nice. After your run a seach an RSS chicklet comes up that you can subscribe to like any other RSS feed. Technorati uses a watchlist that I never found really intuitive when all I wanted was the RSS feed for my search.

2) No registration. I have little patience for registration unless absolutely necessary and subscribing to a feed should not require that.

3) Advanced Searching. You can search by author, certain dates, in the blog title or post title, etc.

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