Effective Science Tools Supporting Best Practice Methodologies in Distance Education

Article excerpt

Best practice pedagogy is becoming more of an important issue as initial implementation technological problems and challenges are solved, and online education becomes a more prevalent method of instruction. Electronic courses have saturated the education markets. The continuum of material contained in these electronic courses varies greatly from well planned, designed, and delivered products to a text-based list of information. As a result, a plethora of best practice recommendations in distance education have been developed by a number of organizations to improve quality of distance courses. The Concord Consortium, a research-based group that investigates online technologies, states the following in their learning model for online teaching: "Asynchronous collaboration, explicit schedules, expert facilitation, inquiry pedagogy, community building, limited enrollment, high quality materials, purposeful virtual spaces and ongoing assessment" (http://www.concord.org/publications/ newsletter/2002winter/e-learning_ model.html, 2002). A large part of the research conducted within the Concord Consortium focuses on the instructional design to promote inquiry and deeper thinking. The techniques utilized to promote the dual goals of inquiry and deeper thinking are visual models, peer collaboration, multiple revisions, scaffolding and ongoing assessment. Other organizations have developed similar best practice lists that mirror the Concord model (Chickering & Gamson, 1999; Palloff & Pratt, 2003).

The design of high quality elements that promote higher level thinking in science are where this article will focus. There are, therefore, many questions that face schools when deciding on appropriate and powerful methods to design distance education courses. Is distance education being taught in a manner that allows for students to learn and understand material, or is it presented in a largely text-based format? Does the present format of lesson presentation increase student achievement or are there better methods? Does the presentation of material affect student achievement or dropout rates? Can students understand complex materials via a text-only format? Are there methods for addressing and reducing the incidence of online cheating and plagiarism? So, what do schools look for when deciding to improve or initiate online instruction? The answer focuses in four areas of concern: higher level thinking, assessment, plagiarism or cheating, and a best practice measure that, if implemented, will make a huge positive difference.

Deeper thinking and promotion of student inquiry have been an educational concern for many years. In online courses, it becomes a larger concern since many instructors, struggling with the technology, and simply input large volumes of textual material into their online courses. Further, the level of thinking required from students is often limited. Most online courses according to Jonassen (2002) support "knowledge acquisition and reproductive learning." He expounds on the problem: "First, acquiring knowledge does not lead to or facilitate complex skill or problem solving development. Second and more insidiously, knowledge acquisition assumes an absolutist epistemology in which content is believed to be the truth." Peirce (2003) reiterates this view when he cautions against seeing students as containers to fill with knowledge. Additionally, he promotes the use of higher order thinking skills in online environments. Meyer (2002) concurs and goes on to cite the profusion of text-based instruction in distance environments that do not promote higher level thinking or problem-solving.

Watts (2003) calls for the application of quality face-to-face good practice measures in distance education courses. She promotes the expanded use of critical thinking skills and renewed appreciation for diversity and relationships, a backbone standard in science. Watts believes that technology can be the vehicle to bring people and cultures an increased sensitivity toward others. …