In a nationwide graduate paleontology class of teachers taught entirely online, students (N=36) were required to apply their content knowledge in a self-selected local field area through collection and identification of a small number of fossil specimens. As a secondary requirement, teachers were required to develop an educational activity for their own middle or secondary students using the specimens they procured. This informal field research replaced a traditional laboratory assignment and provided students with opportunities for local field work. Although modification of online interactions was required, students were able to successfully identify local field collection sites with instructor guidance and individualized communication. Students also successfully applied their knowledge through the development of activities for their own classrooms. Approximately 86% of students scored higher in the hands-on fieldwork activity than in previous traditional laboratory assignments. In an anonymous survey, students stated that the application exercise was not more difficult when assigned in an online format. Our exploratory study results indicate that autonomous geoscience fieldwork activities are possible in an online graduate course setting.
Application of geological content knowledge within any graduate course can present challenges, but application within a national online setting encounters the additional problems of a geographically widespread student population with multidimensional and diverse learners. While geologists often rally around the slogan that "geology is best taught in the field," even traditional classrooms encounter logistical and monetary difficulties that make field excursions rare, and out of necessity, selective. These issues exist for online courses as well, and are compounded by the obvious constraints that students are not concentrated in one location, and the instructor cannot be in multiple locations at the same time. In an attempt to provide our online students with hands-on activities and field experiences, we designed an autonomous fieldwork assignment for our online paleontology class, which was composed of practicing educators.
Online Learning Environments - Online learning continues its expansion of the higher education market. In spite of projections that enrollment in online courses would taper, the Sloan Consortium's report estimated that online course enrollment increased in 2006 by nearly 40% (Allen and Seaman, 2006), and many students reported that they preferred the convenience of online courses, even when they are able to register for traditional classes at their universities (Pope, 2006). A review of online research concurred that students welcomed online classes because of convenience and autonomy, and that the online environment provides effective learning that is affected by the quality of instruction (Tallent-Runnels et al., 2006). Online delivery of course material may be even more effective than traditional classroom delivery (Maki et al, 2000), especially when measured by conceptual assessment items (Parker and Gemino, 2001). Research that focused specifically on science learning also supported the effectiveness of online instruction (King and Hildreth, 2001; Johnson, 2002). However, most online studies concerned the delivery of course content that did not incorporate traditional laboratory exercises. Gilman's (2006) investigation into online laboratory experiences indicated that students assigned an online version of a laboratory exercise performed as well as students who completed the laboratory exercise in traditional classrooms, but student reactions to the online experience were varied. However, Gilman's study did not involve manipulation of specimens or investigation beyond the computer environment.
Active Learning and Informal Education Environments - Previous research studies affirmed the benefits of active and student-centered learning (McConnell et. …