As Londino notes, a 100-level class for non-science majors should be basic and fun—students should be learning something new, without the stress of figuring out how to make the timing work. Many of these lab classes are just shy of three hours long and meet once a week, which can lead to scheduling conflicts. Having an asynchronous, online version means students can pick up a two-credit class for the general education requirement, and complete the work whenever it fits with their schedules.
Senior Lecturer, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program, IUPUI
Gina Londino's biggest advice for teaching online: Communicate the amount of time you're expecting students to spend on the material. Be very clear and upfront that you're expecting them to spend an hour watching a video, and another hour reading material and answering questions. This is very helpful for students, so they can manage their time effectively and know what they should be working on.
I really wanted to do an online version of my forensic science lab course. The biggest thing about it was I wanted to have the same experiments and learning outcomes as the face-to-face course. It's not a new class; it's just a different version of the same class.
With that in mind, Londino's online forensics course is set up as a series of modules. Students start with the basics of how forensic science defines evidence (e.g., different kinds of crime scene evidence). They move on to impression evidence like fingerprints, tracks, and footwear. Then comes biological, chemistry-related, and trace evidence. Everything sits in Canvas, so they can work through recordings and course content at their own pace.
Students complete both virtual and hands-on experiments as part of each module. Some are physical labs they do using kits at home, some are experiments Londino records herself doing for students to comment on, and others revolve around virtual walk-throughs or images they evaluate. With the help of Instructional Technologist Maggie Ricci, she took 360-degree pictures of the Indiana State Police Crime Lab and Department of Toxicology Lab, which she used along with still pictures (close-ups of instrumentation) to develop tours in Google Tour Creator. Londino even went so far as taking the 360-degree camera home to capture a fictitious crime scene in her family room.
Embedded Quick Checks and H5P activities encourage students to engage with course materials like the tours, asking them to consider different scenarios and determine the best methods to use in each one. Londino says Quick Check is one of her favorite tools in Canvas. She uses quick checks a lot because they get students to read the material or watch the videos she posts, and then answer questions right there. She can be sure they're doing the work, and they can review as often as needed. H5P, a way to create and share HTML5 content, adds interactive elements that draw students' attention, and highlight key concepts.
In the face-to-face version of the course, students often work in groups or in pairs. In the online version, Londino relies on Canvas discussions for social interaction. For example, she'll post a news clip about 23 and Me genetic testing being used to solve crimes, then ask students to share their opinions about whether it should be used that way. She also plans to add Canvas chat or another discussion forum for questions, as a way of encouraging and sharing those kinds of exchanges.
Reflecting on her first experience teaching a lab course online, Londino has a few pieces of advice for those who are new to teaching online (and particularly those who want to include a lab):
- If you have to move online quickly, start by creating some recordings and identifying freely-available virtual resources (e.g., free web content). You can always add hands-on activities later. At the outset, focus on good communication, be flexible, and encourage students to reach out if they need help.
- When using something like a lab kit, make sure you and your students get the same kit, so you all have the same materials (and you can record demos). Also, take advantage of the supporting materials that come with the kit—eScience Labs, the company Londino uses, has a lot of content that they're willing to let you repurpose if you give appropriate credit.
- If you have time for extended planning, use regular teaching center consultations to stay on track and determine the best course design. The consultants know the right questions to get you thinking about what's possible and how to achieve it. Don't hesitate to call and ask for help.
Londino is finding that her online approaches make sense face-to-face too. Accessibility, in the broadest sense, is key. Some students may need alternative formats like tactile versions of evidence that tends to be visual. Many students struggle with text-heavy manuals and get more out of video explanations. And most students prefer to have everything at hand in a digital format like an eText or Pressbook. Ultimately, teaching online brings out issues that are less pronounced in person, so thinking through accessibility for online teaching can actually make face-to-face classes better and fairer, too.