Advantages to an Online Course on Climate Change

The percentage of undergraduates who enter a college or university in the United State with the intention of majoring in a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) discipline has remained constant over the last forty years at around 31% (HERI 2010). Unfortunately, less than 25% of these students complete a STEM degree within four years and less than 35% complete a STEM degree within five years (HERI 2010). This contrasts with the completion rates for students in non-STEM majors of 61% within four years and 74% within five years (HERI 2010). There are many reasons for the relatively low completion rates for students in STEM majors, but at many colleges and universities in the United States, STEM majors require more courses than other majors, and difficulties in successfully completing these courses is a factor that many students cite as impeding their attainment of a degree in four years (Seymour & Hewitt 1997; Lehman 2002). Indeed, a recent National Research Council study recommended that improved availability of required courses is critical for reducing STEM dropout rate in the United States, particularly, among groups underrepresented in STEM disciplines (National Research Council 2011a).

Online classes can improve course availability, consistency, and quality. They generally minimize the need for students to attend lectures from a particular instructor at a specified time and place and, thus, increase flexibility in scheduling, enhance access to expert instructors, and enable expansion of course enrollments.

·       Flexibility in scheduling the time and place of instruction is critical for many students. For, example, providing course access to dispersed learners is beneficial for many minority-serving institutions whose students tend to be older, have significant family and work obligations, and live further from campus (Li 2008). Moreover, students can focus on course materials in blocks of time shorter than in the traditional hour-long lecture course and can review these materials at will.

·       Instructors need not be physically present in the classroom and can conduct many course activities asynchronously. Teaching assistants can often supervise parts of a course that are conducted synchronously, particularly in introductory or general education courses for undergraduates. This permits an instructor with extensive experience in the subject area to increase class size and to offer a course multiple times throughout the year.

Another potential advantage of online education, especially for courses that are designed for an online environment, relates to the potential for improving course effectiveness, especially compared with the traditional "stand and deliver" lecture. Certain types of learners may perform better in online environments than in traditional classrooms. Some of today’s students are “digital natives” (Jones & Shao 2011) who are comfortable with online learning. For these students, instructors can introduce diverse and pedagogically appropriate multi-media into their classes, allowing students to probe topics deeply through simulations, videos, podcasts, or additional text.

What about the great number of students who are not “digital natives”, including many under-represented minority students (Margaryan et al. 2011)? Online courses can assist these students with different entry points to the material including explicit training for how to engage with the technological framework of an online course. Indeed, the framework of an online course practices skills that are central to most STEM disciplines.

Online courses can provide a flexible curriculum that is consistent with the Universal Design for Learning approach (Center for Applied Special Technology 2011). Students in online courses activate their own learning, and so are able to learn more completely and at their own pace. They can access supplemental materials at the click of a button or by a simple voice command. Web forums, blogs, interactive media, and digital communications provide expanded opportunities for interaction between student and faculty and may diminish the intimidation factor associated with approaching a professor in their office.

Enrollment in online postsecondary courses in the United States is growing at an annual rate of 21% in comparison to 2% for higher education overall (Sloan Consortium 2011), and massive open online courses (MOOCs) attract thousands of participants (Pérez-Peña 2012). Nonetheless, online courses face several obstacles. Many of the current online offerings are composed of an electronic workbook or a series of recorded classroom lectures and seldom incorporate research-based instructional practices (Bacow et al. 2012). About 70% of college faculty consider online courses inferior to face-to-face courses (Seaman 2009), and recent National Research Council studies on improving undergraduate STEM education fail to mention online courses (National Research Council 2011b, 2012). This skepticism about online education persists despite extensive research showing that online courses can be as effective as, or even more effective than, face-to-face courses on the same subject (Bernard et al. 2004; Means et al. 2010; Bowen et al. 2012). Moreover, faculty members often prove unwilling to convert face-to-face courses to online ones or to incorporate research-based instructional practices because the developmental time for such efforts far exceeds that required for traditional classroom lectures (Fairweather 2008; Seaman 2009; Bacow et al. 2012).

Online courses have several advantages for expanding learning about the topic of global climate change. 1) Nearly 700 American College and University Presidents have made a commitment “to make climate neutrality and sustainability a part of the curriculum and other educational experience for all students” (Presidents’ Climate Commitment 2012), yet many institutions lack sufficient faculty with appropriate expertise to fulfill this commitment. 2) Less than half of Americans believe that global warming is happening due mostly to human activities, yet more than one-half of Americans are willing to learn more about the issue (Leiserowitz et al. 2012). Massive open online courses (MOOC) on global climate change may serve both purposes (Presents’ Commitment and public learning) and may do so with a much smaller carbon footprint than traditional courses.


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