High school physics and chemistry teacher David Byrum has always been an innovator, so when online courses came to his attention, he took advantage of this new learning format. Winner of the Arizona Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Education (1988) and a National Science Teacher’s Association National Exemplar award for his chemistry course (1984), Byrum takes his work seriously. For Byrum, distance leaning was the only way to take special-interest graduate-level courses that helped him stay on top of his subject area. These courses were either not offered by the local university or were offered during times that conflicted with Byrum’s busy teaching schedule. Fortunately, Montana State University’s National Teachers Enhancement Network offered Internet-based courses for teachers and Byrum was able to take 400-level courses in Special Relativity, Physics of Energy, and Physics.
According to Byrum, “The courses I wanted were either not offered at The University of Arizona or were at times that I could not attend since I teach all day. The online courses were of interest to me and allowed me to improve my knowledge and teaching skills.”
Though Byrum obtained his MA in secondary education via traditional courses, attending summer and evening classes was a challenge. “Just getting away from school in time for evening classes was a challenge,” said Byrum. “Online courses allowed me to work on the course in the bits of time as they became available each week. This allowed me to complete the weekly assignments by spreading out the time commitment.”
Each course was taught entirely via computer with no face-to-face meetings. The courses were structured around weekly readings, at-home activities, weekly required e-mail, and on-going question/response/feedback with the other students. Each student was assigned a reading partner with whom summaries were exchanged. The basic structure of each course was based on the format used by Professor Edwin F. Taylor of Boston University, instructor of the Special Relativity course. (For Taylor’s perspective, see “Teaching Physics On Line” by Richard C. Smith and Taylor.) Learning activities included problem sets and lab activities using a kit of materials or computer software mailed to the student.
Quality of Learning
In Byrum’s experience, “the quality of learning in any environment depends on the time and effort that each student is willing to commit to the course.” Interaction is also important for learning, and Byrum noticed a high quality and quantity of interaction among students and instructors: “In these courses, I believe that there is more interaction between the students and with the instructor than would normally occur in a face-to-face course and an overall higher quality to the discussions that occur.” Byrum’s advises new distance students, “Be prepared to interact. You can’t hang back the way you might in a lecture-based class.”
Obviously, everyone had a computer and Internet connection, and the brand (IBM or Mac) did not seem to matter. The quality of the telecommunications software dramatically improved over time. In the first two courses, students used ZTERM and the host site used CONFER as the organizing/management software. According to Byrum, communication was difficult with CONFER: “Editing was a challenge, pasting from word processing documents was not fully supported, and some keyboard characters were not allowed. It was difficult to communicate and to participate in the courses, but it was still doable.”
The last course used a software package called First Class to organize and manage the communications between participants. First Class supports folders and easy access between topics. “It was extremely easy to use and greatly facilitated communications among students and between student and instructor,” remarked Byrum.
Overall, the technology in courses ran smoothly. Byrum noted, “The only real glitches were the few occasions when assignments were due on a Sunday and either the host computer was not up or the local Internet connections were not doing well. In all cases the instructors were very understanding and willing to be flexible.”
Will Byrum continue to take online courses? You bet! In his own words, “they are a great benefit to working students as well as students who live in an area where the local colleges/universities do not offer similar courses.” Byrum, who has helped design and teach many university-level education and chemistry courses, would even consider teaching an online chemistry course. Don’t be surprised if we profile his teaching experience some day.