Lab science at a distance

Sep 04, 2002, vol. 25, no. 1
By Diane Luckow

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Joan Collinge, director of the centre for distance education, with items from the biology 100 science kit mailed to students enrolled in the centre's first online science lab class.

It's back-to-school for an expected 17,000 SFU students this semester, but they won't all be streaming through the door to attend every class.

Many will opt to complement their on-campus learning with distance education courses through SFU's centre for distance education (CDE). Others will choose to study entirely from a distance.

Each semester, SFU enrolls about 4,000 registrants in distance courses. Most of these students are working toward a SFU degree or certificate. Some choose these courses for their flexibility, which allows them to continue with work or family care; others find that a required course is filled on-campus but available by distance. “Typically, 50 per cent of our students are doing a combined approach with on-campus courses,” says CDE director Joan Collinge.

Initiated in 1975 with just five courses, today the centre offers more than 120 courses. Increasingly, they're being offered on-line as well as by mail.

Incorporating online technology, says Collinge, is dependent on both course goals and instructors' preferences. “We look for the technology that best meets the pedagogical goal,” she says. “We want to ensure we offer the best learning opportunities for students who aren't able or don't choose to come to campus.” Many courses incorporate a mix of online technology, email, and more traditional options such as mail, phone and fax.

This semester marks the first time that a lab science is offered via distance. The newly designed biology 100 course incorporates online technology but also requires mailing each student a lab kit which includes specially-treated freeze-dried leaves, dry enzymes, test tubes, petri dishes, and pipettes.

“One of the challenges in delivering a biology course by distance is what to do with the labs,” says Collinge. “The instructors had to look to labs found in the home environment - such as the backyard and the kitchen.”

An experiment examining the effect of light on photosynthesis, for example, requires students to boil two freeze-dried leaves from the science kit, extract the chlorophyll from them with rubbing alcohol and then test the bleached leaves using differently colored light in order to determine their starch content.

Students then go online to combine their data with that of other students to discover the best light wavelengths for each plant's ability to produce and store starch.

Senior biology lecturer Joan Sharp, who helped fellow colleague Nora McGregor and course supervisor Bernie Roitberg with the course design, says experiments which couldn't be replicated at home can be found online in animated demonstrations. She points out however, that the course is not entirely online. Students must still send in some work by regular mail. “We haven't figured out a way to hand in graphs on-line.”

The majority of student assignments - approximately 16,000 each semester - continue to arrive by mail at the CDE on the Burnaby campus where three clerks record each assignment's arrival and then its departure after grading.

In a large materials room, staff coordinate the mailing of course materials such as textbooks, specialized course kits, videos, audiotapes, and cd-roms while those components that are web-based are delivered online.

This semester, new courses with online components, including biology 100, math 190 and kinesiology 342, filled up fast, according to Collinge.
“These are courses whose instructional goals are more easily met with technology,” says Collinge. “Students enrolling in these courses should find their learning experience to be very dynamic.”

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