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Honors Chemistry Without the Textbook
Durham, NC - Steve Craig's honors-level introductory chemistry course is in session. Craig isn't at the board, lecturing the group; he's walking around, eavesdropping on conversations going on in the small clusters of students sitting at tables around the room. The student groups are working to arrive at the answer to a problem, without benefit of a lecture or notes taken in class.
Their resources -- the material they used to prepare themselves for class, and they'll consult if necessary during this problem-solving session -- are video clips from recorded lectures, PDFs and ePUB documents, captured whiteboard animations, all available online. Occasionally, when a group needs clarification, one of the students opens a laptop or picks up an iPad, navigates to one of these online resources and then shares the information with -- or even replays a video segment for -- the rest of the group.
This is a typical class session for this section of Chemistry 43, because Craig has given up on textbooks and lectures in favor of giving his students the opportunity to learn from multimedia open-source materials and from each other.
Craig's course is structured around a set of learning objectives developed in concert with other chemistry faculty. At the end of each week, he gives the students links to a new collection of media-rich open educational materials -- everything from existing websites like The Orbitron, from the University of Sheffield, to YouTube videos produced by Craig himself. When they return to class the following week, students take a quiz to assess their grasp of the material, and then break into smaller groups to work through the quiz questions or other problems to build a deeper understanding of the material.
"What we've done essentially is to flip the course," said Lynne O'Brien, director of Academic Technology and Instructional Services for Perkins Library. "In a traditional course, students get their information from the professor in a lecture, and then they go off and study what they've heard. Here, their study time is used to gather information, and class time is dedicated to checking their understanding, solving problems and learning from each other, guided by the teacher."
Richard MacPhail, co-director of undergraduate studies for Duke's chemistry department, said that structuring a chemistry course around learning objectives and problem sets for each unit is not unusual, but Craig's use of open-source educational materials as a substitute for the traditional lecture is.
"Steve started talking about his interest in team-based learning last year," MacPhail said. "We agreed that Chemistry 43 -- an introductory course, but one designed for students who have a reasonably solid background in chemistry -- would be the best place to explore the new format."
MacPhail said that he and other chemistry faculty were involved in finding materials, curating them to assemble the strongest collection and sequencing them to fit the course curriculum. Craig has been helped, as well, by Andrea Novicki, an academic technology consultant with Duke's Center for Instructional Technology (CIT).
"We pulled from the best open educational resources available on the web to assemble a dynamic collection that we can use instead of expensive, static course textbooks," said Craig. "By choosing from all of the great open resources of the web, we have been able to address the learning objectives Duke's chemistry department defined for this course and give our students easy access to more dynamic, varied and richer learning materials than ever before."
The greatest benefit, Craig added, is the discussion and problem-solving that occurs in the small groups.
"I fully believe that one of the richest resources available to Duke students is the students themselves," Craig said. "I walk around the room listening to them work through the problems and explain things to each other, and I'm always impressed with the diverse and creative thought process those conversations reveal."
Duke Provost Peter Lange, the university's top academic officer, applauds Craig's efforts.
"Discussion, collaboration and creative work are an essential part of the vibrant intellectual life here on Duke's campus," Lange said. "The structure of Dr. Craig's class, with the students encouraged to absorb as much as they can from the online materials and then given the opportunity to build on that understanding through interactions with their peers, is a perfect example of our ongoing exploration of how technology can enhance education."
A sample unit from the course is available now. The project team plans to make the full collection of materials available by the end of the calendar year, with the hope that other chemistry teachers will find the materials informative, and will see the modular format as easy to adopt, and adapt, to their own teaching situations.
"I appreciate the chemistry department's willingness to explore this approach to teaching in what would normally be a large lecture situation," said Stephen Nowicki, vice provost of undergraduate education. "Inspiration for this idea comes from the success we've seen in team-based learning, perhaps most notably at our Duke-NUS [National University of Singapore] medical school in Singapore, an approach we're now adapting to undergraduate courses here in Durham. Duke chemistry's course should be seen as a vanguard for this new approach, in particular for introductory level courses that serve a large and diverse student population."
Nowicki notes that an introductory course in global health and a political science course in international relations will launch next year using this approach, with courses in statistics and biology in the wings. "My office and the Center for Instructional Technology (CIT) are ready to help any member of the faculty interested in exploring new approaches to classroom instruction," he said.
Today, students access the Chem 43 syllabus through Sakai, the university's new course management system.
"The students seem to find Sakai easier to use, and an improvement over Blackboard," Craig said. Sakai will replace Blackboard completely in June 2012.
The multimedia materials Craig is using are available on almost any device -- desktop computers, laptops, tablets, even smartphones. CIT, because of its interest in exploring the use of mobile devices to enhance teaching and learning, loaned iPads to students in Craig's section of Chem 43 to give them one convenient way to consume the content.
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