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The term e-learning covers a wide range of approaches and can be considered to include any learning process that involves the use of ITC technologies. In the simplest case, it may involve little more than a traditional method of study based on a textbook, except that the course content is delivered in some electronic form, such as via a disk or a file that is accessible on a network. The learning material can be read by the student on a computer or a similar device, or printed out and used like a traditional book. Such an approach provides easier availability of text and potential saving of money and paper, but otherwise offers little advantage over printed textbooks. The challenge facing a teacher, when introducing e-learning, is how best to exploit the potential of ICT to improve the learning process by providing students with new tools to expand their capabilities and have an impact on the way subject matter is handled. The capabilities of ICT that can be exploited in the learning process are of three main types: accessibility of information, power of calculation, and multimediality.
The vastly increased ease of accessing information surely represents the major impact of ICT on modern society. This is particularly pronounced in education, where an over-abundance of information now means that it is important to distinguish between information that has been designed, or adapted, to be included in the learning material, and data that exist independently on the Internet. The former may include, for instance, electronic editions of the Periodic Table, containing a wealth of information; tables of physicochemical properties, replacing old-fashioned handbooks, and possibly sophisticated databases, such as Protein Data Banks. It is, of course, very stimulating for students to search the internet for information of interest. This is, however, fraught with danger, because of problems with the validity of the information obtained. Students must therefore learn that while data can be easily obtained using general purpose search engines, it is often preferable to access trusted sources, such as university libraries or material issued by professional bodies, to obtain reliable chemical information. The internet does facilitate high levels of socialization with student-student or student-teacher forums able to introduce a social component where experiences can be shared, opinions confronted, help requested, explanations given and ideas developed.
The power of calculation afforded by a computer is especially useful for offering practice with chemical calculations. The computer can be used as a calculator, performing series of calculations, conserving intermediate data at the required level of precision, recalling input data such as atomic masses and calculating more sophisticated functions, such as a Fourier transform or a non-linear regression, than is possible with a hand-held calculator. For example, a program for dealing with stoichiometric problems can repeatedly solve the same problem using different data, thus avoiding the need for a student to repeat exactly the same calculation over and over again; it can also analyse student's intermediate answers and provide feedback and hints, or score the results according to various parameters. More sophisticated applications may even allow a student to program calculations, for instance by using a spreadsheet to build a mathematical model for a chemical process.
Whereas multimedia in books tends to be limited to figures¬ and diagrams, electronic delivery enables videos as well as sounds and music to be easily included, where appropriate, to improve the attractiveness of a presentation. In the electronic form diagrams no longer need to be static but can be interactive, for example, showing the evolution of a process with time, or the effect of parameters changed by the student.
Advantages associated with replacing traditional practical work with virtual labs have been widely publicized in recent years; however replacing laboratory work with virtual labs remains a controversial issue. Most educators would surely agree that practical work is an essential component of science education. However, virtual labs can undoubtedly enhance chemistry education and should be used in addition to, rather than instead of, hands-on practical work. If performed before a real lab, a virtual lab can help students to appreciate exactly what to do and what to look for when subsequently carrying out an experiment. Alternatively when carried out after a real lab, a virtual lab can allow experiments to be repeated with variations in parameters in much shorter times, and provide an integrated environment for data processing.
It is important to accept that e-learning is not without its risks. For example, the system being used is often so complex and appealing that the attention of the student is concentrated on the learning tool, rather than on the subject matter to be learned. Also, it should be realized that there are aspects of face-to-face teaching that cannot be recreated with a computer. For example, in a traditional lecture or tutorial the lecturer may be able to transmit attitudes and empathy as well as knowledge.