Facing the unprecedented
This past March, as news of the COVID-19 pandemic sparked closures of businesses worldwide, educational institutions were faced with difficult decisions. With student safety being the priority, most schools shut their doors – some briefly, others indefinitely. Still expected to provide a quality education for students, instructors were thrown, with little to no warning, into the new world of “distance learning”. While some colleges and universities had systems in place to ensure a smooth transition, others were faced with an unprecedented situation. Stephanie Dillon, a chemistry professor and lab coordinator at Florida State University, had to abruptly switch to a digital classroom, but her experience was far from rocky. “I felt kind of guilty because everybody else was scrambling like crazy. We already had all the materials students needed online…so it was no different than what they were used to!” The difference for Stephanie? She uses Chem101 for her chemistry courses.
Chem101 is an active learning platform for first-year chemistry courses that enables instructors to engage students in the classroom, assign homework and quizzes, and provide on-the-go reinforcement. Able to adapt to a large variety of teaching formats, faculty and instructors have been utilizing its vast functionality for years in traditional lecture courses, flipped classrooms, as well as hybrid/online formats. With instructors having to adjust to teaching online, Chem101 is proving itself more valuable than ever. Mallory Mentele, a chemistry professor from Colorado State University, was able to continue using Chem101 exactly as she had traditionally used it pre-pandemic. With over 500 students per semester, Mallory is grateful that her students are able to benefit from consistency in their learning, still remotely logging in to Chem101 to complete in-class and homework assignments based on her lectures. “Chem101 was instrumental in switching to online. What was nice is that, for my students, there was nothing new for them. It was a seamless transition.”
Smartphones to the rescue
Part of making that transition seamless was Chem101’s mobile-first and device-agnostic platform. Chem101 can be accessed on smartphones, laptops, and tablets. Traditionally, this was an asset because students had access to their homework, quizzes, and in-class assignments regardless of the device that was in their hands. However, as students were rushed out of their dorms and sent back home because of the pandemic, Chem101’s mobile apps ended up saving the day for Stephanie Dillon’s students. “A lot of students left everything they had at their dorms, so they didn’t take their laptops home with them…With a lot of other programs, this would have been a tragedy because they wouldn’t have been able to have any access. But because Chem101 is accessible on their cell phone they could go right back to work without any issues. That device accessibility is huge for the students.” Student device limitations don’t have to hinder their education.
Adjusting to asychronous modalities
Whether it is a preference or not, asynchronous learning has proven beneficial for staff and students alike during this adjustment period. Mark Blaser from Shasta College understands the need for an asynchronous approach to education during these times. “I ended up making most of my instruction asynchronous. We were encouraged to do that. I had students who couldn’t make the normal class times because they were the only person in their family who was making money and they got new shifts that were during class times.”
Students from universities were being sent back to their homes in many different time zones, requiring Carnegie Mellon’s Lenny Vuocolo to use Chem101 asynchronously to keep his students engaged all across the country. “I recorded lectures – I didn’t record them live largely because I had already gotten the sense, from student concern, of how many students we had in so many different time zones. I decided to level the playing field but still try to make my lecture as regular as possible. During a pre-recorded lecture I would stop, try to not go more than 15 minutes, and have the normal Chem101 in-class exercise. They still had the availability to do the same exercises as they had been doing in-class. I tried to stimulate them as much as possible without being there synchronously.”
Chem101 helps spark student engagement outside of the classroom. While this is a huge help to instructors under normal circumstances, it makes Chem101 invaluable for distance learning. For Krysta Maas at the College of St. Scholastica, Chem101 has allowed her to keep track of her students’ progress from afar. “Instead of a face-to-face meeting, I have [students] go through a guided lecture where I’ve recorded it and they have the slides. Then, I have a check for understanding. That’s where Chem101 has been incredible. After they’ve completed the learning module, and they feel confident, they go into Chem101 and have a chance to show themselves, and me, that they understand the material before moving on to the next module. It’s important that they understand the material before moving on because they are self-pacing. Chem101 has been really wonderful in helping them assess where they are in the learning of new material.”
Keeping it synchronous
While many are going the asynchronous route with their classes, some instructors are continuing on synchronously with scheduled classes held live via video conference software. Stephanie Dillon from Florida State University is using the Chem101 platform and tailoring her interactions with students via video in order to closely replicate the experience of her flipped classroom. “In-class, we still had the [Chem101] homework and we did it exactly the same way we would before. We’re in Zoom and they’re all working on their homework from wherever they are. If they get stuck on a problem, much the way they would raise their hand before and we would go to them, now they simply private chat.” Stephanie and her teaching assistants are still able to provide one-on-one feedback and the students are able to use Chem101 to continue their chemistry education from home.
The jobs of educators are getting more difficult due to the pandemic, and Chem101 is taking some of the hassles off of instructors’ plates. For courses that had already been using Chem101 pre-pandemic, the seamless transition helped put students at ease. According to Stephanie, “My class was so easy to switch to this online system. The students really didn’t feel the impact like they would have without this online learning platform.” For those not already using Chem101, adopting the platform is quick, painless, and, most importantly during these trying economic times, affordable. For asynchronous or synchronous online classes, Chem101 adds ease and enjoyment to the transition from traditional, in-class learning to an online format.