Successful courses are those designed to work in collaboration with learners. Underlying the design of CDL course learning activities is the understanding that our students are adult students, and that it is essential that the activities engage them in meaningful ways. Following current research in the field of adult learning, (Wlodkowski, R. J. 1993), our activities are designed for adult learners who need to:
know why the learning is required;
direct their own pace/style of learning;
contribute their personal/professional/life experiences to the learning environment;
apply what they have learned to solve real-world problems, and
feel competent and experience success throughout the learning process.
For example, the Global Climate Change course engages students in a self-directed project called the “CO2 Calculator”. This activity requires students to directly observe their own daily routines, and then to assess how they might contribute to CO2 reduction by changing their daily behavior. This hands-on activity invites students to contribute to global energy conservation while also developing an individualized and very personal understanding of the effects of climate change.
A photo of a lego car built by a student in the Invention by Design course, as part of an online lab.
Laboratory experiments are often considered the defining characteristic of science courses. Engaging CDL students in active scientific experimentation as part of their distance learning coursework not only fosters scientific cognition, but provides evidence for the effectiveness of the design and delivery of online science courses that include a lab component.
Exploring how experimentation can be integrated with content in distance learning courses for non-science majors, a research team comprised of CDL faculty and instructional design staff is currently analyzing selected activities from three online science courses that have been developed by an interdisciplinary team at the center.
Each of these courses – Invention by Design , Contemporary Environmental Issues, and Energy: the Issues and the Science – are designed to promote scientific literacy and provide students with direct, hands-on experiences with science, all while using an online delivery platform.
This course, Energy: the Issues and the Science, includes an overview of the physics of energy. A number of animations are created to graphically illustrate some of the scientific concepts of physics, many of which students might feel are abstract. Concrete explanations of potential, kinetic, and rotational energy are provided via graphic animations, with the goal of increasing students’ understanding of each concept and establishing relationships between course concepts. Upon starting each animation, the student hears narration that accompanies the action of the graphic. The animations can be viewed as many times as the student deems necessary.
Energy: The Issues and the Science is a course that includes a focus on chemical bond energy and how it is contained in various molecules or fuels. Jmol is a molecular visualization program that is widely used both in chemistry education and macromolecule research.
In this example, students can rotate and zoom in on the glucose molecule to illustrate how glucose is the building block from which cellulose is created. The concept of bond energy is also highlighted in the unit on biology, which discusses the role of glucose and cellulose in plants and how the energy in these molecules can be released for our use. Students simply right-click on the image to get the Jmol menu, which includes the commands needed to rotate and zoom these images.
This course uses interactive simulations from the Physics Education Technology program (PhET) from the University of Colorado at Boulder. These simulations were designed with a high degree of accuracy to replicate bench laboratory work. The simulations start with basic electrical concepts and increase in complexity and realism as the module progresses.
Students build a basic understanding of circuits using the PhET online materials. Discussion questions, which are designed to require synthesis and analysis, follow.
As part of the lab work component for the Plant Ecology course at CDL, students participate in ‘virtual field trips’ by visiting the websites of national parks and forests. The sites are representative of a number of different geographical areas selected to introduce students to ecologies different from those found in New York State.
Students complete their lab write-ups by participating in discussions designed to focus on the unique aspects of the ecology of the particular site. Taking several ‘virtual field trips’ serves to strengthen understanding of the course concepts and improve information literacy.