Honors Chemistry Without the Textbook

Course eliminates the lecture and the textbook

Part of the A New Type of Classroom Series
Steve Craig, doing a video lecture in his chemistry course.
Steve Craig, doing a video lecture in his chemistry course.

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.