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Creation of successful online course not an easy task

Time, energy, creativity, and personal commitment are keys to the success of the Department of Chemistry's only online course. Transforming a course from the traditional classroom to online is a difficult task; however, General Chemistry Director Michelle Driessen has succeeded in delivering a rigorous, rewarding course to students.


The challenges of translating a lecture course to an online version forced Driessen to think creatively about course design, to be intentional about what she wanted to convey in online lectures, and to create or enhance instructional support systems for students.

Online courses offer many benefits to students. They can view the lectures and do the work when and where they want to, allowing for flexible work and study schedules. But there are challenges as well. Students must take the initiative to talk to the professor, whom they don't see in person without making a special effort.

Contrary to some popular opinions, online courses are not cheaper to develop and deliver than traditional classes. Creating and delivering an online course takes as much, if not more, time and energy as a traditional course. Driessen ensures that her course is as rigorous online as it was in the traditional classroom. She also ensures that her students receive the help and information they need to be successful in the course, which includes expanded office hours to encourage students to meet with her in person.

The result of Driessen's efforts is Chem 1015, an introduction to chemistry course, which now is only available online. In its second year, the course had an enrollment of 1,186 students this fall. Another 700 students are expected to take the course in the spring and summer of 2011.

Chem 1015 bridges the gap between high school chemistry and general chemistry courses such as Chemical Principles I & II. When combined with a laboratory component, this introductory chemistry course meets the core physical science requirement. However, a large number of Chem 1015 students take additional chemistry courses.

Similar, but different

The online version of Chem 1015 is similar to the structure of traditional chemistry courses complete with lectures, homework assignments, and exams. Available to students through the University of Minnesota's classroom portal, Web Vista, each online unit also includes lecture videos, practice problems, online homework assignments, practice exams, information that must be assimilated, support links, study group sign-up sheets, exams and answer keys, and frequently asked questions that are updated when necessary. Students can download the video lecture files through iTunesU.

In her videos, which are mini-lectures organized by topic, Driessen talks to, not at, her students. With 12 years of teaching experience, she has come to anticipate students' questions and addresses a lot of those in the videos.

Clear communications

Driessen prizes clear communications. She communicates extensively via email, making a personal commitment to respond to her students' individual questions or concerns. In addition, she urges her students to ask questions in person during office hours, to participate in study groups and the class online discussion board, and to seek help in the tutor room.

"It can be difficult to discuss chemistry when you're not talking face to face," said Driessen

Like with many freshman-level courses, Driessen said that students sometimes come to her course with unrealistic college expectations. "It doesn't matter if the course is taught online or in a large lecture hall, the students must learn how to study in a college environment and, of course, do the work," she said.

What's next

Courses need to evolve to meet the needs of the students. A next step for Chem 1015 encompasses adding a real-time, video conference component to the course, through which Driessen can interact with students and answer their questions online. She is working with the Department of Chemistry's information technology unit to create these videos.


While the Department of Chemistry was out-front in creating an online course for the university, there are a lot of questions surrounding online learning. It may not suit the learning styles of all students, may not meet students' expectations, and may not be suitable for all courses.

Currently, an E-Education Task Force is evaluating online learning and what e-technology means for the College of Science & Engineering. Chemistry Professor Ken Leopold serves on that task force, which is looking at a number of e-learning issues such as cost-effectiveness, course quality, and access.

"We recognized that while online learning works well for some students and for some courses, it is also clear that many of our chemistry courses will not fit an online learning model," said William Tolman, Department of Chemistry chair. "Hands-on laboratories, actually doing experimental chemistry, are a critical aspect of learning chemistry. We cannot lose sight of that."