Designing, building and supporting online lab science courses

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The use of online courses in colleges and universities is really taking off as a way to reach more students, more affordably. But one constant challenge every school faces is how to handle classes that have hands-on components, such as science labs. Like many other schools, University of South Carolina wanted to expand its competitive, experimental research without increasing its reliance on physical space—which was expensive and growing increasingly more limited.

Two professors at USC found a way to put a biology histology course online, even though students needed access to a microscope to look at detailed cell structure. Roger Sawyer,  executive dean, College of Arts and Sciences, and Robert Ogilvie, professor of cell biology and anatomy, partnered with University of Iowa, which had slides available online but no accompanying audio. They then created their own audio program, called WebMic.

Barry Duvall, director of media services for USC, discussed their solution at UBTech 2013.

Using Adobe Presenter to create the slides and WebMic to record the audio, Sawyer and Ogilvie built lectures, grouped slides together and developed quizzes. The program offered the flexibility for faculty to record and post content right from their desktops.

With each set of slides, students can move ‘bit by bit,’ drilling deep down into a cell, reading the accompanying information, and listening to a narrative as they go. Since the self-paced content requires large files, it is hosted offline via Screencast (by TechSmith).

In fall 2011, the biology histology course had 60 registered students. At the end of the course, 92 percent of students gave positive marks to how the course was organized and said they really liked the course. Ninety-six percent also felt that going at their own pace helped with their ability to study. As a result, annual enrollment for this course has jumped from 70 in the first class to 350 as of last summer.

As technology for online courses improves, USC is moving toward application development, where they are able to create a unique app for a specific course. “Everything is plug-and-play today,” says Duvall. “All you have to do is choose A, B or C, and you have an app. There’s no longer any need for programmers to code for hours on end. And we see this capability expanding over the next couple of years.”

To view this entire presentation, click here.