Chemistry Online- Why not? Or why bother?

chemistry online worth it

Back when I started teaching college courses (late 2000s/early 2010s) I was pretty involved in the development of biology and chemistry content for introductory sciences courses that could be used in online, hybrid, and in-person modalities. I felt at that time that the trend and technologies involved was moving towards online as a great modality, including even labs. Since then I don't feel as enthusiastic for the online modality- it seems wanting to say the least. Content for the lecture portion of courses, I feel, can be decently made but in practice many utilize the "busy work" model that mainly just emphasizes keeping students busy each week doing simple time consuming assignments that don't necessarily get them to embody the skills needed to retain knowledge, become self-learners, and critical thinkers.

With that being said, however, I am unsure that the online portion is capable of replicating key aspects of the in-person experience (yet). I think many online programs can simulate some laboratory skills conceptually but not the actual required tactile responses, spatial awareness, and judgement calls that are often made. I have no doubt that someone who successfully completes an in-person lab can subsequently complete an online lab equivalent with minimal instruction, because that person is mainly going to rely on the tactile responses, spatial awareness, and judgement calls associated with a computer interface (clicking, waiting on that hour class or rainbow circle, saving, restarting a browser, check your internet or wifi connection). On the contrary I have very little confidence in someone who can successfully complete an online lab being able to complete an in-person lab with minimal instruction.

It really is no different than playing today's most advanced video games (e.g. first person shooters) and expecting that person actually (and safely) handle a firearm and at that under a realistic live fire situation. Coming back to the lab experience, are we actually formally assessing this? And if so, how? I know from my experience I like to watch students attempt various techniques to see how they do it- from there I gauge if they need any correction (tactile response), are doing it safely (situational awareness), and/or having trouble determining a measurement that is between the lines (judgement calls). Lab sections also can have various in-person dynamics because it also gives students to real time opportunity to learn from each other by observation or instruction such as when a few students "get it" and that helps everyone else to mimic their technique and get peer feedback. Then there are sections where it feels like you have to start from scratch several times on performing certain techniques.

Overall, I am just not seeing online as being an equal substitute with respect to the lab. Yes, administrators may see it as a cheap replacement but quality is sacrificed for quantity. But it also gives students a false sense of actually having a tangible skill set in the laboratory. I have a feeling many folks would be hesitant to rely on someone doing a physical skill (such as a medical procedure or mechanic work on your car) where the person performing that work only has online experience. Same in science- it will hurt our institution in the long run to send graduates off to hands-on industry or academia with only online training.

I would really like to see that online lab replacement but it just isn't there yet at all. I imagine some may argue they are quite satisfied with online labs but then it makes me wonder what exactly their in-person lab experience really had the student do.