Each educator faces challenges in teaching which vary from class to class and year to year. The biology venue I teach in has the challenge that it is completely online. Online education is no longer a new method of delivery, but it is still an educational option that is growing and changing continually. Educators in the online world face challenges such as technology updates and glitches, trying to help students over e-mail, and perhaps most critically finding the best way to teach difficult content in a virtual manner.
A common activity in online courses to facilitate discussion is asynchronous chat, usually in the form of discussion boards. For example, a topic is given to the class and each student provides a response, usually along with replies to other students, on a group discussion board within the course. Asynchronous chat allows for students and educators to participate in discussion without regard to time zone differences and personal schedules. For information on asynchronous chat, the LifeSciTRC provides articles on this topic:
- Expanding the traditional physiology class with asynchronous online discussions and collaborative projects
- What is the optimum duration of an asynchronous distance learning course?
One problem, however, with asynchronous chat is that discussion can be limited such to the point that students feel like engaged discussion does not occur well in online courses (2). This is important in light of Garrison, Anderson, & Archer’s online learning framework which highlights three main domains working together to form the educational experience they term the Community of Inquiry (1). The domains include a social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence (1). Asynchronous chat is a worthy step toward incorporating the domains and making science education more student-centered as directed by Vision and Change, but there is room for improvement.
As with all effective education, curriculum should be updated to reflect changes in content, methodology, and technology. Improvements can be made to asynchronous chat, however, my proposal is to start including synchronous chat, in other words live! I’m piloting this in my online biology courses using an online meeting software the university utilizes. This software allows for myself to present information live either from my desktop or a webcam, and students call or type in to ask questions and discuss information. Feedback from students has been very positive, and I am currently working on assessing if these sessions positively affect assignment scores. My course does still offer asynchronous chat as scheduling live sessions includes inherent managing issues, but offering a mix allows students to feel more connected to the course, content, and instructor.
- Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T, & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education 2: 87–105.
- Niess, M., & Gillow-Wiles, H. (2013). Developing asynchronous online courses: Key instructional strategies in a social metacognitive constructivist learning trajectory.Journal of Distance Education (Online), 27(1), 1-16.
Danielle Plomaritas is a LifeSciTRC Scholar and Fellow who teaches biology to undergraduate students and high school students. She teaches undergraduate biology for non-majors, online, through Liberty University in Virginia and biomedical science courses at The ASK Academy charter school in New Mexico. Her passions include teaching students about the wonders of the life through the lens of biology and mentoring students.