Helping Students Shine in the Online Classroom

Take a bunch of dirty old pennies and put them in a dish. Add vinegar and a pinch of salt. The pennies will start to turn bright and clean. Then throw in a nail and leave it overnight.  In the morning, the copper will have deposited on the nail. Not only is this a simple and inexpensive way to clean your pennies and copper plate your nails, this is an experiment that students in Dr. Peggy Minnis’s online consumer chemistry class conduct at home, in their very own kitchens.

A decade or so ago it would have been hard to imagine chemistry as a viable online course. With its lab work and its focus on atoms and chemical bonds, how could chemistry be taught outside of a classroom, much less in a virtual classroom?  Today, Dyson faculty to teach not only chemistry but a range of online classes, from literature to political science to psychology and mathematics, and for some faculty and students, that online forum can bring out the best in them.

When Dr. Minnis, lecturer of chemistry and physical sciences, Pleasantville campus, first started teaching online in 2002, the use of video was impractical and time consuming because most students were using dial-up to connect to the internet. Now that’s all changed. “Every week I make and post a video of me setting up the lab experiment in my kitchen. The students have the written lab instructions plus the video they can refer to should they be confused about the set up,” said Dr. Minnis.

To ensure that students are actually conducting the experiments themselves, each student must upload a photo of him or herself conducting the experiment. Here they are making a cross link polymer, or flubber. Dr. Minnis said, “Students say this is nothing like the chemistry they learned in high school, which they hated. They tell me this is actually fun and that they learned something. I think people learn better if the experience is enjoyable.”

Students as far away as China, Japan and Switzerland have successfully completed Dr. Minnis’ science classes and this, of course, is one of the most important characteristics of online learning: accessibility. The virtual classroom is like a fourth dimension where barriers of time, space and distance are removed, making higher education possible for busy people.

Online environments help students shine

“I feel in many ways I get to know students better in an online class than I do in the classroom.” said Dr. Rebecca Martin, professor of English and modern language studies.

Dr. Martin was an early adapter of online teaching and has taught Beowulf , Dante, American Detective Fiction and Literature of Crime and Criminality online since 1999. This fall, students of her online Literature of the Supernatural course will read and discuss works including Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Stephen King’s The Shining.  While these novels and genres are “good reads,” they are built around characterization, well-woven themes, and carefully crafted structures, all characteristic of “literary” fiction.  Students discuss these literary themes on the discussion board, a central feature of Dr. Martin’s courses. The discussion board is where students show their grasp of the material and demonstrate their serious engagement with it and with fellow students. They are expected to contribute and grow the conversation, and participation counts for up to 50 percent of the entire grade.

“In my undergraduate and graduate careers, I was painfully shy.  I did well, but I never opened my mouth. I had a student in a classroom literature class, and she, like me, was very, very quiet, never participated in classroom discussions. I didn’t have much of an opinion of her until she started turning in her written work and I discovered she was one of the best students I’ve ever had. Later on, she enrolled in an online class and was a leader in that class. She took part in the discussion, had great things to say and was a role model for other students. I like to think that if online were available to me, I would have participated instead of sitting mute throughout my educational career. There are benefits that go beyond the issue of convenience.”