UniServe€ Science News: Newsletter of the Science Software Clearinghouse Vol 1, July 1995

Teaching Chemistry with Interactive Multimedia

or ...; How To Avoid Being An Information Superhighway Statistic!

Rob Capon is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne. He has been involved in the development of multimedia tools for teaching chemistry for a number of years


It is interesting to speculate whether the general populace in the 1800s were truly conscious of the impact that the industrial revolution would have on their futures. Did our forbears grasp the consequences of motor cars, telephones or electricity?

The last decade has seen some remarkable advances in information technology. Homes now have fax machines, computers, modems, and media moguls compete to add interactive television. Word-processing and computer literacy are no longer career skills, but life skills!

In teaching, it is dangerous to generalise in a dynamic field like Computer Aided Learning (CAL), but it is tempting to categorise CAL packages as either (a) tools used by academics to teach in lectures, or (b) software under control of the student for self-paced instruction.

CAL in the Lecture Theatre

Commercial packages such as Microsoft's PowerPoint provide a stable and well supported mechanism for presenting lecture material. With minimum effort, they allow fully integrated of text, an-imations, pictures, video clips and sounds. At the University of Melbourne numerous lecture venues have been equipped to support this style of teaching, and increasing numbers of academics are moving away from "talk and chalk" to interactive multimedia.

For those contemplating such a move, this can be a daunting process. Not only is it necessary to acquire and become familiar with computer technology per se, but also the techniques of obtaining and effectively integrating information in multiple media formats. Transferring text and graphics to an electronic format is relatively straight forward, but gaining access to other media resources can be more difficult, though in the long term these should be available on a commercial or collegiate basis. Most importantly, individual academics will retain control over the lecture content with computer technology serving as a device to manage the teaching process. My own experience with large group undergraduate chemistry lectures over several years permit some observations;

* Production of electronic lectures is time con-suming and only practical with fulltime access to a personal computer. However, as material and skill level grow, production becomes much easier.

* In principle, electronic lectures could be shared between staff in the same department, university or country. This lowers the burden on individuals in producing their lectures.

* The electronic presentation can be made available in printed or electronic form prior to the class to enable students to prepare for the lecture.

* Having prepared for the lecture students pay attention to and take notes from what is being said rather than behave as `biological photocopiers'.

* Errors in transcribing notes to or from the blackboard are a thing of the past.

* Lecture content can include more, and more complex, worked examples.

* Students overwhelmingly endorse this approach to lecture presentation.

From a recent tour of major Universities across Australia sponsored by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, it was clear that while the expertise required to "configure" lecture theatres for multimedia style presentations was commonplace, routine access to such teaching spaces was far from common. Individual departments need to recognise the potential of this technology and commit funds to support initiatives in this direction.

Self-Paced CAL

Teaching undergraduate chemistry can be expensive, particularly the laboratory. Confronted with the prospect of cut-backs in our 1st year undergraduate laboratory in 1993 we explored the CAL alternative. Although the initial cost was high in dollars and staff time, this option has proved very successful. Our first foray into this area was with the Molecular Models Workshop (MMW), which replaced an existing laboratory based exercise in which students con-structed molecular models with a small model kit and answer a series of questions based around these models. Use of MMW saw support personnel reduced from six demonstrators and three technical staff per eighty students to one demonstrator, while at the same time offering a superior return to students. The MMW software managed logon through prior uploading of class attendance lists, and then proceeded to present students with >180 interactive molecular animations fully integrated with questions, answers, marking, assessment, glossary and help features. The program allowed students to explore sets of questions most closely reflecting their ability. Final assessment for >1000 students/yr was uploaded automatically into the departmental assessment data-base. Following from this initial success, all our 1st year chemistry students are required to do 36 hrs of CAL instruction/yr, with CAL labs being a popular venue for private study during free access times. A variety of quality packages have been developed inhouse, downloaded free from the Internet, and purchased from commercial sources.


I trust in this short account I have caused the reader to view these new technologies as potentially valuable teaching tools. Such is the pace of development in this field that it is difficult to predict the future. What is clear is that successful discipline based CAL software will increasingly be distributed either on a commercial or shareware basis. Further-more, as more academics move to elec-tronic lecture presentation the scope for sharing resource material between in-dividuals and departments will increase. Both developments will facilitate the effective use of technology in education. Students will, no doubt, access course related material either from stand alone media or via online services, whether we personally provide this material or not. The concept of specific institutions as sites for distance education will almost certainly become obsolete as students explore course material from around the world. Indeed, it may even transpire that degrees are awarded for simultaneous completion of subjects originating from multiple institutions. What is clear, is that to minimise duplication of effort and maximise our impact on the development of this medium it is essential that both users and producers of CAL material be aware of existing resources in Australia and world-wide. A clearinghouse is but one means to achieve this objective.

Rob Capon

Dr Rob Capon

Chemistry Department

University of Melbourne Parkville Vic 3052


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