How I Created A Computerized, Self-Learning Science Course


This article tells of my experience developing my first computerized, self-learning science course. My trials and errors (what worked and what did not) are useful to those interested in learning how to create such a course as well as people seeking information about self-learning, homeschooling and similar topics in education.

How it started and lessons learned

In 1995 I decided to teach four fundamental ideas that are the foundations of Chemistry - atoms, molecules, the Periodic Table and chemical reactions. I also decided to present much of the course as a dialogue between a teacher and a student. This all came together as a dialogue between Merlin and Arthur and, with some literary license, the subjects fit neatly into the four Ancient Elements. So I launched my website with an introduction page that linked to the four lessons about atoms (Air), molecules (Water), the Periodic Table (Earth) and chemical reactions (Fire).

I discovered newsgroups and posted a few messages explaining what I had done and directed people to my website. I asked for feedback and gave my email address. I soon had plenty of new Internet friends - teachers complimenting me, and students with lots of questions, asking for more details or wanting a clearer explanation. So I put aside some time each week to answer them.

It occurred to me that I was "Merlin" answering the questions of dozens of "Arthurs" and, in the process, creating a better course! As I answered each letter I also posted my emailed replies on my website. Some questions asked that I explain a point more completely or give an example. So I did and then I copied my answer into the webpage in the appropriate section. Other students asked that I give more details or explain a subject that interested them but was not included in the course. So I replied and added the new information to the site. I learned where I was not being clear and rewrote those sections until I no longer received emails asking for clarification. Feedback from my students made the course better and better. The ability to "instantly" change my website meant that I could swiftly correct errors and explain myself.

The idea of a complete course taught over the Internet excited me so I started to give it some thought and planning. I drew up a proper syllabus and added a lot of extra material to a series of behind-the-scenes webpages that I would release when I was ready. I also learned about Internet Relay Chat (IRC), long before the days of Instant Messaging, and decided this would be a great way to present advanced ideas and encourage discussions.

The curiosity that students have about Chemistry is often overshadowed by anxiety over the math but only a small portion of Chemistry requires math. So, I made a bold decision - create a Chemistry course that was light on math! After all, I was not being held to anyone's standards but my own. I was not going to offer credit or a degree. In order to emphasize the difference I changed the name of my course from "Principles of Chemistry" to "Principles of Alchemy (Chemistry)". I also decided to find topics in my advanced Chemistry books that I could integrate into the course without math.

I posted my ideas in some newsgroups and recruited students. All of them were homeschoolers. I began by emailing my students the location of our first lessons and details about how the course would be run. Over the next few months I would send them lessons (or addresses to lessons), suggest some additional websites to read and experiments to try, and meet each week for IRC so we would discuss Chemistry. The class started. But it did not go smoothly or as planned.

Our first IRC meeting, scheduled for an hour, lasted three hours - at least it did for some of us. People were constantly being "dropped" during the IRCs as the Internet readjusted by bumping each of us off the net, randomly and without warning. My carefully designed class plan, with lots of prepared materials to paste into the IRC, fell apart. Within a couple weeks I had decided that real-time teaching over the Internet was just a shadow of what classroom teaching is all about. I learned that any attempt to make Internet teaching like classroom teaching was a farce. Lectures on the Internet, meant to simulate classroom lectures, are a calamity and the real-time nature of the attempt is a technological nightmare. Teaching via the Internet it is best done asynchronously.

As a matter of fact, the Internet's "timewarping" is both its weakness and its strength. The trick is to use it correctly. I started to send students my lessons in email. I would simply bundle up my pages (htm) and images (gifs) into a zipped file and send it as an attachment. For students who could not accept email attachments (because of size limits) I placed the zipped bundle at the end of a hyperlink so they could download it via my website. It worked great. Students could do all their reading off-line using their browser. HTML allows me to compose and rewrite the "hypertextbook" with most of the advantages of an on-line webpage. Through email my students could - carefully and without the time restrictions that hover over IRC - compose their questions off-line and read my replies off-line. I learned that email is a very effective way to tutor students, run asynchronous discussion groups and deliver lessons.

Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3

Throughout the course's development, the idea of exams kept coming up. It is very easy for a student to cheat via the Internet so the honor system is the only viable option. Of course, "Principles of Alchemy (Chemistry)" is non-accredited. Regardless of official recognition, tests can be a very useful part of a course when used correctly - with lots of feedback that turns the exam into a learning experience.

For several years I offered a series of exams that were included as part of the course. These exams, like the lessons, were sent to the student as a zipped package of webpages. The student answered each question by clicking on a hyperlink that opened an email box in which they would type the answer. This allowed me to ask very broad questions and encourage them to write long essays.

Writing exams is easy but grading them can be very hard if you (like me) believe that the student deserves more than a list of "right", and "wrong" as the feedback. I gave detailed replies to each student's answer and I saved all my emails so I could copy and paste my replies to different students who had the same answer. Correct answers were easy - I said, "you are right" and reiterated why it was correct. Wrong answers took more work because I explained not only why that was the wrong answer, but also explained the correct one.

As time went by the workload of grading and answering the exams got easier because I could draw upon my extensive history of previous emails. As any experienced teacher knows, students often make the same mistakes. After about a year of exams, I was simply pasting most of my replies. However, this still meant for a lot of work, especially as the number of students increased. I had to make choices; limit the number of questions, spend more time grading, or limit the number of students. Limiting the number of questions was not appealing because it made the sampling small and coverage uneven while placing more weight on the few remaining questions. I could not spend more time on this project or hire someone else to do it, without increasing the price of the course - and it seemed wrong to price the course out of reach of more students in order to maintain testing. Fortunately, for most of the questions I now had a stockpile of replies for the most "popular" wrong answers. Also, the history of wrong answers showed where students often were confused. I decided to use these as fodder for a series of multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and automate it! I discovered javascript.

I learned to use javascript to write, reply and grade the MCQ exams. When a student chooses an answer a javascript box pops up immediately. If the answer is right the javascript says so and reiterates why it is correct. If the student chooses one of the three wrong answers, the pop-up script explains that it is wrong and tells why it is wrong while sometimes providing a clue to the right answer. The student can change his/her answer immediately. Indeed, it is possible for a student to simply click around at random until a perfect exam is completed but that is not the point. The honor system is the foundation of any distance education and the tradeoff - instant response to each answer - is a useful learning tool. (Besides, any student knowledgeable about javascript would be able to "crack" the exam and get all the correct answers anyway!) Therefore, I decided that my exams would be an additional form of learning that can give an indication of a student's understanding of the subject but not intended to "pass" or "fail" people.

During the first few years I offered email tutoring along with the course but, as time went by, I realized that there was less of a need for it. My frequent and extensive updates, based upon emailed answers and tutoring, had allowed me to create a "perfect" course - tested against many students and now needing no additional assistance! So I gave people the option to not sign up for tutoring when they buy the book - they could buy the book and later, if they decided they wanted or needed the tutoring, they could buy that separately. The result? Nobody wanted tutoring so I have dropped it. I should feel bad that I am now "out of the loop" but the fact that a tutor is not needed indicates that I have successfully created a self-learning course!

The final version

"Principles of Alchemy (Chemistry)" has come a long way from its beginnings. I now offer the entire course as a "hypertextbook" - a series of webpages that are read from the hard drive. Students (parents) who order the book are sent a password and download instructions. Each home is considered a "site" and treated as a "site license" so the whole family can enjoy the course and use it with all the kids. It is a big hit among homeschoolers and I have also discovered that there are many adults who enjoy Chemistry when taught in a friendly way. The course has now matured into a complete self-learning program and it looks like this.

Each section, called an "Ancient Element", contains "lectures" presented in dialogue style. Like reading a script, the student "listens in" on the conversation between Merlin and his student, Arthur. The back and forth nature of dialogue means concepts can be explained in a natural manner. Merlin explains something and Arthur asks questions about it - often the questions that come immediately to mind. Arthur makes common mistakes and Merlin corrects him. Problem solving is easily demonstrated and common errors in thinking are identified. A dialogue unfolds in which Chemistry is learned. Dialogue is my substitute for lectures and the nature of this writing allows me to teach at a reading level of around 8th grade.

Dialogues conclude with "Arthur's Notes" - a compilation of the salient features discussed in the dialogue. I added this feature as a review. There is no new information in the Notes but the information is presented in a more condensed form. This also prepares the student for the next part, which I call "Questions and Answers" or "Q and A".

"Q and A" started as self-exams but I decided it would be better to leave the testing to the javascripts. Instead, "Q and A" became a place where we would do a little bit of review and then dive into more advanced subjects. This worked very well and was "field tested" with students when I was still actively creating the course. In "Q and A" I walk the student through more complicated topics by asking a series of leading questions. Like most of the course, some of this grew out of emailed correspondence with curious folks who wanted more information. In its current version, about half of the new material is presented in the "Q and A" - not as a series of facts but as a series of questions and answers that draw the student more deeply into the subject. I believe the "Q and A" sections make the student feel like Arthur! They challenge the student and Merlin's questions hyperlink to detailed answers.

Each Ancient Element has a "Do This!" - simple, optional, home experiments to try. Common household materials are used to illustrate some of the concepts learned. "Do This!" is not intended to be a substitute for real laboratory work. I cannot sincerely offer a true laboratory class without expecting a significant investment of the students' time and money. Instead, each "Do This!" is intended to be a "Chemistry lab lite".

After completing an Element, the student takes a computerized (javascript) exam. These multiple-choice questions provide immediate feedback, are graded by the computer and, once successfully completed, give the student a Certificate of Completion, which can be printed. After successfully completing the comprehensive Final Exam the student is given a “Diploma” and the title of "Apprentice Alchemist". The certificates, diploma and title are meant to encourage the student to continue with the course while providing incentive to achieve a perfect score. The five exams each have 20 questions so there are a total of 400 javascripted responses in the entire course.

I have learned from trial and error how to create a computerized, self-learning Chemistry course. And based upon this experience I have created other self-learning science courses (in Astronomy ang Genetics). If a course can be designed to be self-learning, it does not matter where or when a student learns. Students work at their own pace - where they want and when they want. They do not have to follow a schedule of events. They do not have to struggle to keep up with the rest of the class or wait for the rest of the class to catch up to them. However, those same qualities also make it too easy to put off the learning so it is important to keep the student interested and motivated. That is why I write the dialogues with "characters" - Merlin is a little bit stuffy and strict while Arthur has the curiosity and distractions of youth. I believe these characters and the "story" make the learning interesting and keep the reader coming back. The Certificates and Diploma motivate and encourage the student to achieve goals.

Please feel free to visit my website to learn more about this course and others.

Merlin Science offering self-paced, self-learning science courses specially created for distance (flexible) learners.

Principles of Alchemy (Chemistry) a self-paced, self-learning program specifically designed to teach Chemistry on your computer.

Dr Jamie earned his PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Louisiana State University Medical Center (New Orleans). Over the years Jamie has taught a wide variety of science subjects (from astronomy to zoology) to a wide variety of students (from thirteen-year-olds to thirty-somethings). Dr Love is a certified teacher and has authored three self-learning courses and coauthored six more.