I have been teaching Principles of Genetics (BIOL F260) face-to-face at UAF for the past 15 years. It’s a required course for biology majors and a prerequisite for medical school. In 2019, my department chair asked if I would consider developing the course for online delivery in an effort to make an entirely online pathway for the biology degree. I was initially quite skeptical, considering online courses to be inferior to face-to-face classes. I was even more skeptical of converting lab classes online because they typically require expensive equipment, lots of student interaction and close supervision by a teaching assistant. However, I was won over by the offer of a one-semester teaching release to develop the course.
Preparing to Teach Online
To learn about online teaching, I enrolled in iTeach Online. This six-week course taught me how to organize an online course and introduced me to some of the tools that I would be able to use in my course, such as Blackboard Collaborate for discussions, PlayPosit for adding quiz questions to lecture videos, and Gradescope, which is a great tool for grading essay-type exams and homework.
UAF eCampus now offers a self-paced version of iTeach Online.
I was also privileged to become a member of the Chancellor’s Innovation in Technology and E-learning (CITE) Fellows program, which provided close collaboration with and mentorship from two UAF eCampus instructional designers. Our weekly meetings were enormously helpful in allowing me to figure out how to convert labs for online delivery, and every other problem that I needed to solve while developing the course.
How PlayPosit affected student success
A tool that I found especially useful was PlayPosit, which allows you to insert questions into videos. As I was preparing to deliver the first exam, I realized that less than half of the students had been watching the lecture videos. Instead of working through videos and assignments in the order that I intended, they were going to the Gradebook and clicking on assignments that hadn’t yet been submitted. This meant that they were missing the bulk of the course content and were doing assignments out of order. Not too surprisingly, students did quite a bit worse on the first exam than they typically do in my face-to-face class. To encourage students to watch the lecture videos, I began adding multiple-choice questions to the videos using PlayPosit, and giving them homework points for completing the questions. This is similar to using clicker questions in face-to-face lectures. I also reminded them that they needed to go to the weekly folder and work through videos and assignments in the order in which they were presented. After this, nearly all of the students began watching the videos and working through the assignments in the correct order, and students told me that they really liked having questions embedded in the video. On exam 2, students performed just as well as in my face-to-face class.
Developing an Online Lab
Principles of Genetics has a laboratory component where students prepare herbal supplements for next-generation DNA sequencing to determine if the ingredients in the supplement actually match the ingredients on the label. Students unanimously think this project is cool, and it helps to increase student engagement. I didn’t want to drop this project if I converted the class to an online offering. However, I thought it would be impossible for students to carry out the precise and intricate molecular genetics protocols for this project at home. Further, the equipment for this project is quite expensive.
All of the online genetics courses that I could find on the internet either had no lab component at all or used virtual labs, where students simulate lab activities on the computer. Virtual labs are unlikely to generate the same sense of excitement you get when collecting and analyzing your own DNA sequencing data.
Owen Guthrie, director of UAF eCampus, encouraged me to find a way to allow my online students to carry out real molecular genetics labs at home. I hesitantly agreed. I was able to find small, portable and relatively cheap molecular genetics equipment from a company called miniPCR. From this company, the setup my students needed was $1,200 per student, compared to standard lab equipment that would cost around $20,000. I obtained funds from an Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activity (URSA) Innovative Technology and Education grant to purchase a sample kit and test it. It worked nearly as well as the expensive equipment in my lab. With funds from URSA and IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE), I purchased enough kits for 16 students to carry out molecular genetics in their homes. The total enrollment for the course is 40 to 60 students per semester so I also offered face-to-face lab sections where all of the lecture material and most of the labs were online but the students could come to campus for their molecular genetics labs.
Before running the course, I was worried that students wouldn’t be successful in the labs and would become discouraged. Molecular genetics requires students to precisely pipette very tiny amounts of liquid, follow a long list of instructions exactly, and they have to do everything quickly or the reactions will simply fail. It is difficult to train students face-to-face let alone at a distance. I modified all of my protocols to be sure that everything students would need would be explicitly spelled out. I emphasized the need to read and understand the protocol, and to set out all equipment and reagents before beginning. I recorded lecture and lab videos in the eCampus Media Production Studio with my teaching assistant, Iris Cato, where we walked through every step in the protocol and gave tips and tricks as we went, as if we were mentoring a student face-to-face.
Watch a course video from Principles of Genetics.
To ensure that students had good pipetting technique, an essential skill when measuring minuscule volumes for a polymerase chain reaction, I had students send me a video of themselves pipetting and I provided feedback. To make sure students understood the chemistry underlying each lab technique and read the protocol, I required them to take a quiz before starting the lab. To my delight, about 50% of the online lab students successfully obtained DNA sequences from samples that they prepared at home. This is comparable to the success rate in the face-to-face lab. Further, 100% of the online lab students said that the project was cool and exciting. For a first-time online offering, I consider this to be a success.
Teaching My First Online Course
Putting my class online, and trying to do it well, was an enormous amount of work. It was not as much work as putting the class together from scratch, but far more work than teaching my class as usual.
The first few weeks were fairly frantic as I began posting the videos and assignments on Blackboard while also figuring out how to effectively organize content and use new online tools. My teaching assistant was busy shipping the lab kits to students who needed them and running the face-to-face labs.
Although I thought that the online lab would be the most challenging part of this course, it was not. The lab went quite smoothly thanks to my TA. The biggest challenges were the same ones that anyone creating a new online course would face: organizing content so students know how and when to work through the content, making sure that all instructions are very clear, learning new computer technologies, and teaching new computer technologies to students. Another challenge that I probably didn’t address sufficiently is fostering interaction among students. I plan to increase these opportunities next year. However, interestingly, most students said that it was not important to them. One student even said “I found that the online course was much more one-on-one feeling.”
“The online component did not take away from my learning experience, it enhanced it…”
Overall, developing Principles of Genetics into an online course was highly rewarding. It showed me that my original skepticism toward online courses was unfounded.
At least six of my students would not have been able to take it had it not been fully online because they live outside of Fairbanks. Other students lived closer to campus but work full-time and would have had a hard time taking the face-to-face version. While many students do still prefer the structure offered by face-to-face classes, offering this course online opened it up to a new demographic of students.
“I really liked taking Genetics online,’ said Amber Smolnik, who wrote to the Biology and Wildlife Department about how much she appreciated the lecture being broken up into short videos. “I worked 30 hours a week the entire semester while taking 12 credits, so I had to utilize every minute to ensure that I could still learn all of my course material while being a functioning human.’
If faculty are given sufficient time and guidance to develop quality online courses, learning can be just as good or better than in face-to-face courses.
UAF now offers a fully online pathway for the Bachelor of Arts in Biological Sciences.
Diana Wolf is an associate professor in UAF’s Department of Biology and Wildlife and Institute of Arctic Biology.