Byline: Juliana Texley and David Adelstein
One of the most powerful technology tools available to science teachers is often the least used. A course management system (CMS) is a web-based application that provides an online distance learning platform for teachers and students. CMS platforms such as Blackboard, WebCT, Jenzabar, and Desire-2-Learn provide many opportunities for good science instruction. This article touches on just some of the online CMS tools available for the science classroom. [Editor's note: "Moodle" offers a free, open-source software alternative. For more details about using an online course management program, read "Using a Course Management System to Improve Classroom Communication, " another article from The Science Teacher on this topic.]
The gradebook on a CMS is often the most-used function by teachers. The online gradebook is handy and convenient, and there are some solid educational advantages to an open gradebook for students and parents that teachers seldom consider.
Many students find it difficult to plan ahead to achieve results that will not be evident for four or six weeks. This can be especially true for students who have attention or organization difficulties. Therefore, a system that allows students to log in every day and see their grades and missing assignments (with or without their parents) is beneficial. Entering grades punctually can sometimes seem overwhelming to teachers who tend to procrastinate, but those who use platforms as gradebooks often see immediate and significant results in classroom management and achievement.
The second most-used function on CMS platforms is the threaded (asynchronous) discussion or forum. (This is different from a real-time chat because comments can be entered at any time.) Teachers know that today's students want to constantly communicate with their peers-it's sometimes a challenge to pry personal digital assistants (PDAs) or cell phones from students long enough to hold class. Smart teachers know that what you cannot fight you can use.
One way to use an online discussion or forum in the classroom is to ask students to respond through a discussion thread to a mystery picture, an observational challenge in the community, or a demonstration of a discrepant event. Students will need help to structure their conversations in a constructivist way. Students should be reminded that they are having a "discussion"-they are talking to others on a forum, not just putting words in a post. This is to discourage students from "googling" the topic and pasting something unrelated to the discussion. Students should acknowledge the post to which they are responding and add something of their own, or start a new thread with clear information to invite others to join.
Some tips for good asynchronous discussions in online science classrooms include:
Limiting the length of responses. This is a conversation, not a series of monologues.
Cutting the discussion off after a reasonable period of time to stop students from posting after the class has abandoned the thread.
Not allowing students to go back and delete their posts (because the replies after that will not make sense), but allowing them to edit slightly.
Reminding students to acknowledge, complement, and question one another politely and respectfully.
Encouraging students to use science vocabulary but define terms that may be unfamiliar to their peers.
For the mystery picture activity, a picture can be posted as an attachment to the discussion thread introduction, or right at the "door" of the online classroom. Great photos are available in the image libraries from NASA (www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/index.html), the U.S. Geological Survey's Earthshots (http://earthshots.usgs.gov), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (http://images.fws. …