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When in doubt, turn to the internet.

In a couple of weeks, I’m going to start teaching my first on-line course. So far, I’ve been preparing by:

  1. learning how to use Blackboard
  2. getting a subscription to iFinch so we can do bioinformatics in style, and share data and other files
  3. getting a microphone and some software for making video podcasts

But, since this is brand new and I’m used to seeing students face-to-face, I have a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I do not want to be one of those people who simply puts lecture notes on a web site.

So, I’m turning to you for advice dear readers. Have any of you taught or taken on-line science courses? What kinds of things worked best for you?


  1. #1 Berci Mesk�
    January 2, 2008

    Sandra, what about the advantages of Second Life? 🙂

  2. #2 Sandra Porter
    January 2, 2008


    I think Second Life would be great but there are three things that concern me.

    1. The program is HUGE and requires lots of bandwidth! This might be a problem for students on slow internet connections. Right, now I don’t know.

    2. I’m already asking the students to download and install about 4 new programs. Plus, they’ll have to use Excel and a few other sites and programs that they’ve never seen before. I’m worried that having to learn about Second Life, too, could put them over the top.

    3. I don’t own any land in Second Life and I don’t think that school that I’m teaching for has any sort of facility. I don’t know where my class would meet.

  3. #3 Cameron
    January 2, 2008

    My master’s program in biology was online (except for some lab work) through the University of Maryland. Almost every course had lectures notes posted online, but the most valuable aspect of the classes were discussions and assignments regarding the relevant literature. There was a dedicated part of the website for discussion, either for the entire class, or your particular group. I found there was much more discussion than in any “live” classroom I had attended.

  4. #4 ancientTechie
    January 2, 2008

    There is nothing wrong with posting lecture notes and syllabi on Blackboard sites: students can review the materials at will. For supplementing face-to-face instruction, many sites consist of little more than review materials and students do seem to appreciate the availability of those materials. If your class is presented strictly on-line, the following hints may help.

    Blackboard offers excellent communication tools for class discussions and group collaboration; to make sure students use them, consider requiring a minimum number of posts per week: the practice goads students into participating at a reasonable level, with surprisingly good results, IMHO. Also, consider employing project-based instruction: you can use rubrics to evaluate student projects and skirt the issue of cheating on exams, (unless, of course, you can make use of proctored testing facilities.) I have found that even seemingly simple questions submitted via email often require a great deal of time to address, so I tend to post students’ questions and answers as FAQs, or, in some cases, announcements, for all to review. Questioners’ names are not posted, of course. Regarding time: expect to spend an inordinate amount of it teaching your on-line course; you will quickly come to appreciate just how efficient face-to-face instruction really is.

    My experience with Second Life in a higher education setting indicates that it should be used sparingly and not for critical instruction. Downtime and lag time, along with the need for students to learn to navigate the system, constitute significant access barriers at this time. I expect the situation to improve, albeit gradually. For now, Second Life is worthy of experimentation and evaluation for those who have the time, inclination, and access to adequate in-world facilities.

  5. #5 Berci Mesko
    January 2, 2008

    Now I understand you and I must say you’re right.

    Anyway, if you need a place in Second Life anytime, just drop me a mail.

  6. #6 Barn Owl
    January 2, 2008

    My experiences with supplemental online education, in particular a university-internal system similar to Second Life (the software and original implementation actually preceded SL, in the context of science education for children), indicated that students preferred the asynchronous (message board) venue in my virtual office, over the synchronous (chatroom) venue. I primarily teach medical and dental students, so that might bias my interpretation (and their preferences). Professional school students often have children and/or spouses, and the more flexible asynchronous venue was probably more appealing and accessible. The message board venue worked very well; the students could download visual study aids and lecture notes at any time, and leave questions or comments in the thread for each topic. I could check my “office” from any internet-connected computer, using any of the many browsers I tried (I use Safari at home).

    It was important to me that the visual study aids would be copyright-free, cost the students nothing, and follow Edward Tufte’s information design principles, so I created all of them myself, and either scanned them (drawings) or photographed them (polymer clay models), and uploaded the jpgs to my site.

  7. #7 Sandra Porter
    January 2, 2008

    Berci: I may take you up on borrowing a place in Second Life, but first, I have to see how this all pans out.

    Cameron: Thanks for report on your experience. That’s good to know.

    AncienctTechie: I do plan to post lecture notes and use lots of projects. I just want the course to be as interactive as possible.

    Barn Owl: I’ve had students ask pacing and whether they could complete things more quickly. It’s good to hear that asynchronous conversations have worked well. I like Edward Tufte’s work, too, and I definitely plan to make my own podcasts.

  8. #8 The Science Goddess
    January 2, 2008

    I’m completing my EdD on-line. Here are some things that I have either seen done well by profs…or wish I’d never seen.

    *If you use a discussion board for student posts, participate in some way. Show your own intellectual curiosity, help steer the student toward a helpful resource, or toss in an interesting open-ended question. Whatever you do, don’t be invisible.
    * Beware of bullies in the on-line classroom. Yes, even among adults. Is there a Queen Bee who talks (posts) responses to every girl except for one in the class? Is there someone who has to be the first one to post on every board and way ahead of time. Etiquette is important for making everyone feel welcome. Just like some people don’t have nice manners in the real world, they don’t have them in the virtual one.
    * Let some personality show. Tell them various things about yourself and who you are so that there is some sort of connection. I actually took an on-line class where the prof never even told us if s/he was male or female…let alone anything else.

  9. #9 fusilier
    January 4, 2008

    We are required to use BlackBoard for all courses at a certain Indiana community college (see my email registration for details) whether online or face-to-face. This past semester, BlackBoard began randomly deleting grades.

    The export feature to an excel spreadsheet did not generate something which could be re-uploaded to BB. BB tech support would not assist me directly, since I was not the Official Purchaser. Our local tech support people could not solve the problem.

    If you have one single section, it will work, but if, like me, you have 30 lab sections to supervise, then you can not permit anyone to switch sections. BB permanently drops the student and deletes all grades. You must re-enter everything: quizzes, lab scores, major exams, whatever.

    OBTW, there are articulation issues to be dealt with for online science courses. the 4-year institutions in Indiana and surrounding states have been reluctant to accept the regular courses, as it is – turf and monetary issues. I have any number of letters in my folders where students tried to transfer and the on-line course was rejected.

    Let’s Just Say (tm from another list), I am no fan of on line courses in general, and BB in particular.

    James 2:24

  10. #10 Sandra Porter
    January 4, 2008

    Yikes! Thanks for the warning!

  11. #11 Luna_the_cat
    January 19, 2008

    Consider using Moodle rather than Blackboard in the future. I’ve experienced several systems as a student, and Moodle is the best.

    Integrate a forum or forums which have good threading options. Have an IRC channel available for those who want it. Give feedback and answer questions in the forums yourself, it lets students know you’re paying attention and is extremely helpful. For bioinformatics, consider setting up your own Linux server with appropriate Perl, SQL or MySQL, and Apache modules loaded, and get your IT people to allow VPN settings so that students can access this server and load and run software homework on it. Just thoughts….

  12. #12 B.S.nabi
    January 31, 2008

    i’m in teaching field since 4 years ,teaching graduate students ,biochemistry subject in india & i’m interested in online teaching.what should i do to start,how to prepare for online teaching.whats the basic requirements to start

  13. #13 mtwapa
    February 7, 2008

    You may consider Moodle http://moodle.org/ in place of Blackboard. It is a close call when it comes to features:

    but it is a free software.

  14. #14 Sandra Porter
    February 9, 2008

    Thanks Luna and mtwapa,

    I may check it out.

    I’ve heard good things about Moodle. I’m not the decision maker though, for this kind of system. The schools where I teach both use Blackboard.

    I only get to choose the bioinformatics tools.

  15. #15 Sandra Porter
    February 9, 2008

    B.S.nabi: sorry for the delayed reply. That probably deserves a blog post in itself. Hopefull, you’ll see one soon.

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