Initial Publication Date: May 25, 2017

Rachel Walters, University of Florida

From your experience, what practices make for excellent online Earth Science learning?

One of the biggest challenges associated with online Earth Science education is creating a laboratory experience where students can develop the practical skills they need to become a competent geologist. A major problem associated with this task is the absence of a teaching assistant or instructor to physically show a student what features of a mineral, rock or thin section they are supposed to be observing and how to interpret them. Several practices have helped in the quest overcome this challenge.

1. Informal "How-to" Videos
We have created "How-to" practical instructional videos covering different aspects of mineral identification. Each video covers a different type of observation: color, luster, cleavage, fracture, hardness, streak, and so on. Additionally we have one video that exhibits extremely good type-examples of the key Bowen's Reaction Series minerals and one video addresses some of the nuances of the more challenging samples in their kit. We have found this is much more useful for getting students started with mineral identification than reading a book or watching standard theory lecture videos. The "How-to" videos also provide practical tips and rules of thumb that may not be included in a more formal text or lecture format.

2. Low-stakes Practice Examples and Immediate Multi-stage Feedback
In the absence of in-person corrective instruction from a teaching assistant or instructor the importance of examples and intermediate stages of feedback grows significantly. We incorporated the UK Virtual Microscope to provide a more realistic experience of a microscope and excellent examples at the start of each optical microscopy lab.
We designed low-stakes interactive practice multiple-choice examples. Each question provides extensive individualized feedback for each answer choice that either explains what the correct answer is and why or attempts to highlight potential misconceptions that may have led to an incorrect answer. In the absence of in-person feedback, this has helped students correct their observations and identification skills before they embark on high-stakes practical skill assignments. Many of the high-stakes practical assignments are also structured in stages and set up as multiple-choice with extensive feedback so that students can learn from their mistakes while completing a singe lab. Immediate feedback decreases the overall frustration felt by students and significantly enhances the value of the learning experience of practical skills labs.

3. Peer-to-Peer Feedback Discussions
For each practical lab we set up peer group discussions monitored daily by the instructor. Each discussion is a forum for sharing challenges in the development of practical skills and their solutions. This context provides three useful extensions beyond the how-to videos. Firstly, students who have just learned how to make a certain observation or interpret a certain feature can provide useful feedback to other students. Their advantage over the instructor is that they likely just solved, or overcame, the challenge that others are sill struggling with. Secondly, the instructor can track common issues that are being raised, share tips between different groups, and guide students toward answers to questions that are not being resolved (or are being resolved inaccurately) by other members of their group. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, students often find their groups member's experiences very validating when they discover that they are not alone in the challenges they are facing.