Issues with Online Homework in Chemistry Courses
To start, let’s explore some instructional issues around online chemistry homework and how they impact the student experience. Firstly, the outset of the coronavirus pandemic pushed instruction online — for instructors not already teaching online or hybrid courses, they were faced with rapidly adapting their syllabus and assignments to online-only. Since many instructors scrambled to adapt assignments on short notice, many resorted to have students complete assignments on paper and then scan them for grading. Besides the extra hassle for both instructors and students, this approach forgoes some of the major benefits of online homework such as instant feedback, multiple attempts, and other scaffolded learning experiences.
The use of online homework for chemistry isn’t entirely new; many publishers have developed online homework platforms that pair with their textbook offerings. This, of course, requires that the corresponding textbook is in use and doesn’t allow instructors to customize their course or teach from other materials. And while these systems are developed with the textbook in mind, students and the specific challenges of courses like chemistry, aren’t necessarily the main focus. These textbook and online homework bundles can often be quite expensive, creating significant financial burdens for students who may already be struggling to pay for tuition.
Common Student Frustrations
A significant barrier for students in online homework occurs when complicated software platforms take their focus away from learning chemistry. Students will commonly run into issues and steep learning curves with drawing chemical structures, working with subscripts and superscripts in chemical equations, grading of significant figures, and other chemistry-specific items. When they’re too concerned with understanding how the software works, they are less engaged in learning the concepts.
Beyond the user interface challenges, technical problems are a major frustration for students. When the software crashes or they are unable to interact with the software in the ways expected, they are pulled away from learning to focus on resolving the technical issue. This often means a flood of student emails to the instructor, who is on the hook to support their students. In this case, both the students and the instructor are now overly focused on tech issues instead of chemistry mastery.
Device accessibility can also be a make-or-break situation for many chemistry students. Unfortunately, many online homework platforms are not operable on student smartphones, and the few that do have not thought out the mobile experience. This misses opportunities to reach and engage students on the go while they’re riding the bus or train, or simply on campus with some downtime.