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Lessons in Online Learning

Massively open online courses, or MOOCs, are rapidly revolutionizing the face of higher education, but this may not be a good thing when it comes to instruction of the physical sciences. A MOOC is a class created by an expert in a particular field (often a university professor) that is posted online and open to the public. The number of MOOCs available has increased dramatically from roughly 100 in 2012 to more than 1,200 at the beginning of 2014.  Over 200 universities have contributed courses, and it is estimated that more than 10 million students have signed up for these free online classes so far. MOOCs allow students to learn at

A student completes coursework outside on her laptop.
A student completes coursework outside on her laptop.

their own pace, from anywhere where they can find an Internet connection. Several universities in the United States are even beginning to offer credit for online courses, allowing students to replace in-person lectures with time behind the computer. While many are hailing MOOCs as the future of higher education, it can be argued that hands-on, real-life science education can never truly be replaced by virtual learning.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, science is the “intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” The physical sciences are unique among other disciplines in that they describe the principles that govern our world. These mechanisms surround us, and the only way to understand them is to witness and experience them. No number of online simulations or lengthy descriptions can substitute for feeling the heat from an exothermic reaction in a chemistry lab, or measuring for yourself the flow of electricity through a circuit that you have constructed. As an undergraduate science major, I used to mope and groan when I had additional required lab time in conjunction with all of my chemistry, physics, and biology courses while my friends in business and arts and letters majors were free from study outside of their normally scheduled lecture times. By the end of my four years, however, I came to appreciate how essential these hands-on experiences

Young students gain first-hand knowledge of basic chemical principles.
Young students gain first-hand knowledge of basic chemical principles.

were in cementing and clarifying abstract scientific principles.

If online courses cannot sufficiently replace face-to-face class time, how can online learning platforms improve science education? The smartest application of MOOC technology to education in the physical sciences is to implement a “flipped classroom” approach. In this course structure, students watch lecture videos in advance in order to learn a lesson’s fact-based material before meeting with their instructor.  The flipped-classroom approach permits the most efficient use of one of the scarcest resources amongst students and professors: time. It allows class time to focus on demonstrations and applications of those principles instead of the recitation of background information that students can master on their own. Students are free to do a good deal of their learning online at their own convenience, while still gaining practical understanding of the principles in their textbooks through in-person classroom experiences.  This greatly increases the value of classroom and lab experiences, allowing greater depth of education and improving the retention of information and experience. So, while online courses should not be a replacement for classroom education, they can serve as a way to augment students’ work in the classroom, improving and accelerating education in partnership with traditional approaches.

Rebecca Marton is a senior Biological Sciences major at the University of Notre Dame and co-Editor in Chief of Scientia, the undergraduate journal of research for Notre Dame’s College of Science. She studies retinal regeneration in the adult zebrafish and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in stem cell biology. 

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