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Tenured online science instructor shares his secrets of success

By Dr. James  Brown, Associate Professor of Science at Ocean County College

Dr. Jim Brown

Ocean County College (OCC) in Toms River, New Jersey has offered students online science courses since 2005. Jim Brown, Ph.D., teaches online human anatomy and physiology (A&P) and microbiology courses to OCC students. Why did he decide to move his courses online and has that changed the way he works with students? 

1. What was the need behind taking your courses online?

Our nursing program fueled our need to place science courses totally online. When I was the Dean of Science, Engineering, Health Sciences and Human Performance, we received a $458,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to create a one-day per week nursing program, which is now called the On-Site, Online Nursing Program. This program is structured to allow students to pursue Associates Degrees in nursing online and only requires them to attend a face-to-face instructional session one day per week to complete their clinical training. The rest of their didactic training is obtained online.

When this program launched, the science prerequisite courses were the immediate stumbling block and they needed to be offered completely online. What good is a one-day per week nursing program if students have to come to school three days a week to take a face-to-face human A&P or microbiology class?

We were also running out of space rapidly in our relatively new Hiering science building. The surge in the nursing program created a huge need for more A&P and microbiology courses. We were running labs all day long, starting at 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. five days a week and on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. We were even farming out A&P to local high school science labs in the evenings.

OCC’s President, Dr. Jon Larson, attended a conference in Albuquerque and learned about a “science lab in a box” (now known as LabPaqs) from Hands-On Labs, as a potential solution. I had my marching orders and quickly looked into the possibility of using LabPaqs in our science program. I discovered that the LabPaqs mirrored the experiments in our laboratories and were discipline specific in a wide array of subjects including biological and health sciences, chemistry, earth sciences, forensic science and physics. With very little effort, we attached LabPaqs to our online science courses and had a perfect solution.

The beauty of LabPaqs is that they allow us to provide a hands-on lab experience that engages students in rigorous and valid science experimentation online. We learned from our experience placing A&P totally online that other schools would not accept a virtual science experience transfer credits and wanted students to have a hands-on laboratory experience. LabPaqs did the trick for us and we began offering two semesters of human A&P online. We added information about these courses to our website and it ignited an explosive growth that we did not anticipate. Students from all over the US began registering for our classes year-round.

As a result of this success, deans from other nursing programs began requesting information about what our A&P courses contained. I sent them a complete syllabus and a copy of the LabPaq lab manual and that convinced them. We then placed microbiology online and it became an instant success. We were filling multiple sections almost overnight. In the summer of 2010, OCC filled seven sections of 25 students each in microbiology alone. Students on active duty in the military from around the world began requesting our courses. In two years, OCC created 14 online science courses and became one of the first community colleges to offer an Associate of Science in General Studies Degree with a Concentration in Science online.

2. How has this impacted the way you teach? 

Teaching online is a special challenge. The magic in a classroom must be recreated online. The first step is to create an online learning community right from the start. Typical of all online courses, students begin the class nervous and unsure about their ability to connect to the class site. An immediate ice-breaker is the use of a small, but highly effective introduction and photo area. The first assignment asks students to share something about themselves with the class and to provide photos if possible. My students will find pictures of me with my entire family having fun on vacation, at home or just goofing around. I ask them to share something about themselves through pictures and a paragraph or two about their interests, family, hobbies, pets, etc. It is amazing how this starts to bond the students together before the course really begins. They typically responded enthusiastically to this and post similar information about their lives. I try my very best to check in with my courses each week day and at least once on a weekend. If I am going to be away for a weekend, I let students know ahead of time. It’s amazing how easy it is to stay in touch.

My “mountain top” experience teaching online is when I went on vacation with my family to Culebra, an island off Puerto Rico. It is very laid back and pretty much undiscovered. My wife, Sally loved to sit on the beach under a palm tree and read a book. The kids built sand castles and I sat under a palm tree and taught three online microbiology courses. It doesn’t get better than this! In the summer, I sit on the back deck of our house and enjoy looking at the Shark River while teaching my online courses.

3. How do you address safety when students are performing experiments at home?

As a former Assistant Commissioner of Health for the State of New Jersey and a former President of the New Jersey Public Health Association, safety is always a major issue for me. Hands-On Labs does an outstanding job addressing safety issues. Students read and sign a safety information sheet including a complete set of material safety data sheets for all chemicals in the kits. For my microbiology course we utilize harmless biosafety level 1 organisms and the kit contains complete instructions on how to safely conduct experiments and provide safe disposal. The chemistry LabPaqs are performed using micro-scale chemistry technology, which utilize chemicals in very low molar concentrations and in very small quantities. I insist that students that keep chemicals and biologicals away from food and place them out of reach of children or pets. Hands-On Labs provides a brief video, which is very well done, and I include a direct link to it all of my online courses.

4. What benefits does the college see from the online science courses?

The online science courses have helped put OCC on the map with respect to being one of the first colleges in the US that’s been able to produce and deliver online science courses. OCC has become an east coast powerhouse and a leader in distance learning in science, attracting students from around the world. It really is the perfect example of clicks not bricks. It eliminated the pressure to build additions to campus buildings. Students, especially beyond the US, add richness to an online course and an international perspective. OCC seeks to heighten community, campus and student awareness of the interconnectedness of all aspects of today’s world. We know that instruction in global environments, shared resources, businesses, economies, technologies, research and the diversity of cultures, ethnicities and peoples are important to enable our students to succeed in a global economy, workforce and community. A student from Haiti in a microbiology class sharing firsthand knowledge about the outbreak of cholera following the devastating earthquake highlights this advantage.

5. How do you ensure academic integrity?

I ask students to take photographs of themselves performing the lab experiment with close up shots of the culture test tubes and plates, reagent tubes that turn colors after incubating, etc. Not only does this reassure me that the student is actually doing the laboratory work, but if they are having trouble, I can help them troubleshoot the problem. Some students will try to get away with not ordering a LabPaq because they want to save money or they feel they can cheat and use the information on the Internet to fudge a report. To combat that, we ask for a report from Hands-On Labs to make sure that the students have actually purchased the kit. Students may sometimes balk at the additional cost of buying a digital camera. In turn, I send them oneof the latest advertisements from Amazon, Best Buy or Sears showing a digital camera selling for$19.95. Photographs document their laboratory efforts and give me the peace of mind that my students are actually performing the lab.

6. Any technology tips or helpful resources you would care to share?

I encourage students to take pictures right through the microscope with the USB Digital Microscope Eyepiece Camera from Hands-On Labs. This digital camera is compatible with all Windows versions andit allows students to send digital photos of what they are seeing under the microscope along with their lab reports. It really helps me to give guidance and valuable feedback. Students have also become very adept at using their smart phones to take pictures right through themicroscope and email them back to themselves. They can hold any smart phone with a camera over theeyepiece and take the picture. This has really caught on both in my face-to-face labs and online labs. Students see it as an easy way to include photos of what they were observing right under their microscope and send it along with their lab report.

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