The Stevens Institute of Technology has designed a new course, “Internet Applications in Science Education,” for a graduate-level certificate program for experienced middle school and high school teachers. The goal of the course is to enhance teachers’ abilities to use the “unique and compelling” features of the internet in science education—for example, conducting science research online, tapping into real-time physical data from geophysical web sites, and collaborating with students around the world.

In developing and implementing the course, staff at Stevens Institute learned a great deal about designing online courses for maximum benefit for educators. Below are some of the lessons learned, based on their experiences and feedback from course graduates:

  • Design issues.
    To ensure that teachers learn how to use the internet, courses should be designed to provide hands-on practice and immediate feedback. Some of the features of the Stevens Institute course were:

    1. Collaborative learning with peers through twice-weekly sessions;

    2. Prompt feedback from instructor and graders;

    3. Student-centered learning; and

    4. Real-world examples and projects.

  • Course format.
    The course included lectures and projects, and all course notes were available in HTML format over the web. Course notes were written at both “advanced” and “remedial” levels, in order to accommodate teachers who had different levels of computer skills and experience. An effort was made to encourage online discussions to help address problems quickly.

  • Activities.
    In addition to readings, the class participated in numerous exercises designed to simulate experiences they would encounter in the classroom. Among these activities were:

    1. Role-playing as if they were students trying to complete assignments;

    2. Writing research reports based on their internet research;

    3. Critiques of those research projects; and

    4. Creation of individual plans for implementing web-based learning.

In a post-course survey, teachers responded positively to their experience and said it was comparable to in-person graduate courses they had completed. They estimated that they spent nine to 12 hours per week on assignments and online discussions. They praised the flexibility of the course, both in content and optional levels of sophistication.

The program was not perfect. Some teachers said they felt the online discussions were not as valuable as in-person discussions, because people were timid about posting comments. Others had difficulty in the first few weeks in learning how to participate electronically.

The course developers have decided to simplify the user interface for the course, which was cumbersome and visually confusing. The developers are wrestling with strategies to encourage more discussion, but they have found that teachers tend to put off their participation in discussion groups until the last minute (like all students everywhere!), so it is difficult to develop an even flow during the week.