In the final weeks of Terry Morocco’s chemistry class at the University of Maine at Farmington, his classroom is as pristine as it was the first day of class.
That’s because Morocco’s students are learning at home, wherever that may be, through a new online course called Caveman Chemistry. It’s one of the first seven online classes offered to undergraduate students at the university during the semester.
In the beginners chemistry course, students learn the principals behind early inventions such as fire and work their way up to more modern innovations such as paper and batteries. Students then attempt to reproduce the process and document it with video.
The online course is a first for Morocco, who has taught chemistry at the school for 22 years. He said with creativity there are ways for even subjects like chemistry to be learned long distance.
“I’m all about the chalkboard and I love to lecture, but for the motivated student, online classes have a lot they can potentially offer,” he said. “This is one of the ways education is changing.”
UMF officials say as they continue to widen offerings of online classes, they hope they will better serve students in need of a flexible schedule or who would be unable to commute to the campus.
The effort, however, is a challenging one that involves learning new technology, rousing up professor interest and keeping students on track in a less structured classroom.
In Maine, colleges with higher populations of nontraditional students, such as Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield, were quick to dabble in the field while colleges with mostly traditional students living on campus or nearby, such as Colby College in Waterville, have yet to offer an online class.
Ashley Montgomery, UMF director of the Teaching and Learning Collaborative, which supports faculty in adopting online classes, said this fall they won’t be offering online classes, so the faculty and support staff can regroup.
“This spring was an experiment. We’ll be using the fall to reassess and reflect on what we’ve learned,” she said.
Online classes have been available for a decade for UMF graduate students and about six years for undergraduates during break periods like winter vacation or in May. The school, however, wanted to expand into offering online classes during the full semester.
Montgomery said the school needs to find more professors who are interested in teaching online classes.
“Teaching online is very different than teaching face to face,” Montgomery said. “We need to find who really wants to make this leap.”
At Kennebec Valley Community College, online classes have been offered since the fall of 1998, said college spokesman John Humphrey.
One in four KVCC students this semester took an online class and 16 percent took only online classes. About 28 percent of the schools classes are offered all or in part online.
“We are offering more now than when we started, but the quantity of online courses we offer has been pretty steady over the past few years,” Humphrey said.
Montgomery said online classes nationally have a higher attrition rate than face-to-face classes, so teaching in this environment can be a hard transition for faculty.
“It also isn’t necessarily a good fit for all learners or subjects,” she said, “so we do everything we can to support the faculty teaching in this medium with planning their class, thinking about what they need to do to support students in the online environment and choosing the right technology tools to address their educational goals.”
Montgomery said the collaborative works with professors to get them connected to the right tools for their subject. Morocco, for example, created his own slideshows on Youtube for each lecture and uses different Google tools.
She said professors are encouraged to get support for teaching online from the University of Maine System, because it gives them the user experience of getting help from someone long distance online.
Morocco said with online classes, students who were unmotivated attending class in person tend not to have the discipline to take an online class, which has less structure. However, he said that students that tend to demonstrate discipline in class have a great time with the advantages of the new technology.
“It’s very similar to other classes where some of the students are motivated and do great and others just don’t put the effort in,” he said.
He said his students ranged from a few in the dorms on campus, a woman living off the coast of Maine and a man in New Mexico interested in learning about chemistry.
Even though some students could walk down to his office, Morocco said he designed the class to avoid needing face-to-face help, so the class was as accessible to local students as it would be to students taking it too far to commute.
Online classes, he said, still have their limits in his field. A more advanced chemistry course, for example, wouldn’t work online because of all the technical equipment needed and for safety reasons.
However, this class worked well as an online class because it was about the chemistry principals behind everyday activities and household items, said Morocco.
Students tried to spark a fire from rubbing two sticks together, made soap and paper, and built a battery.
“I really tried to tap into the interest in end of the world type movies and shows,” he said. “They had to answer the question, â€˜If you had to do this on your own, could you?’”
Morocco learned his slides needed to have very specific instructions, in anticipation of any questions students might have while listening to the lesson.
The slides might have sufficed face to face, where students can raise a hand and ask questions through the lecture, but online they might be stuck at home, unable to move forward if they stumble on an unclear sentence.
“I quickly learned you need to be very explicit,” he said.
Marlie Mochamer, a junior biology major at UMF, said the class worked well for her because she was also working a part-time job.
“It fit into my schedule, which was a factor when I was looking into classes,” she said.
She took online courses previously from the University of Maine at Orono and University of Maine at Augusta and was glad to see the University of Maine at Farmington start to offer online classes as well.
Mochamer said she enjoyed rummaging in her Farmington home for the ingredients for the experiments. She said the class required discipline.
“Like when we made soap, it needed to sit for a week. You need to make sure you give yourself enough time to actually finish,” she said.
Along with learning about chemistry, she said she unexpectedly adopted more computer skills.
“I’m better with computers now,” she said. “One of the perks of online classes is they familiarize you with technology.”
Kaitlin Schroeder — firstname.lastname@example.org