Fostering Science Education in an Online Environment: Are We There Yet?

Article excerpt

Science teachers continue to seek ways to improve their instruction and become credentialed as "highly qualified" in their field. However, the time required for campus-based programs and transportation costs can be obstacles for teachers who live a distance from campus or are busy with after-school schedules and jobs. So, our project team at the University of Massachusetts, consisting of science and science education faculty (including the first author) and veteran K-12 science teachers, began to think about what a graduate program would look like that fostered teacher learning of science and science teaching in the online environment.

Today, "[m]ore than one in four higher education students ... take at least one course online" (Allen & Seaman, 2010, p. 1). Yet online education continues to be rife with controversy, including questions about whether online courses (a) provide high-quality, meaningful, educational experiences; (b) are designed to meet the learners' needs; and (c) are designed to target the perceived opportunities for profit (Crow, 2005; Grundmann, Wielbo, & Tebbett, 2010; Kriger, 2001; Saltmarsh & Sutherland-Smith, 2010; Swail & Kampits, 2001). As it is, "[l]ess than one-third of chief academic officers believe that their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education" (Allen & Seaman, 2010, p. 3).

So what does an online program look like that consists of high-quality instruction and purposeful learning opportunities and facilitates teachers' acquisition of needed, advanced credentials?

Online science learning

Whether face-to-face (f2f) or online, learning should be framed in constructivist learning theory with students engaging in inquiry into interesting, significant problems or topics linked to everyday contexts that are posed by either the instructor or the learner. Here, students design investigations and determine methods of data collection and analysis (National Research Council [NRC], 1996). Students engage in discourse with others to make meaning of their explorations and extend their inquiries.

The online environment can stimulate learning (Saltmarsh & Sutherland-Smith, 2010). Though many educators value the f2f environment as the genuine setting in which learning takes place, others see that the "flexibility and interactivity of learning online enables students to learn in ways that suit personal circumstances, lifestyles and preferences" (p. 18). "An online course can invite immediate affinity that a traditional course cannot" (Beck, 2002, p. 81) and possibly encourage critical thinking and sharing both similar and contrary observations and beliefs. Furthermore, online learning has the potential to increase learners' communication within and beyond classrooms, states, and countries and thus expand learning communities beyond traditional educational boundaries (NRC, 2007).

Program design

Thus, we determined that a high-quality program required (a) inquiry-based activity; (b) interaction with faculty and peers; and (c) because we were working with teachers, links to classroom practice (Borko & Putnam, 1996).

With this in mind, and with funding from the National Science Foundation, our project team developed Science Education Online (SEO), a graduate-level program comprised of 12 courses (now 14) that would lead to a master's degree and professional licensure for in-state elementary and middle school science teachers (see Table 1). Two courses, which served as starting models, had been developed by science and science education faculty under earlier initiatives and taught online several times as part of an off-campus master of education program for teachers. Also, two courses had been previously taught f2f in this same program.

Project principal investigators participated in the course development and met regularly with instructional teams, each comprised of a science faculty member who was invested in teacher education and a K-12 educator, to review their progress and provide feedback. …