Initial Publication Date: May 25, 2017

Ozeas Costa Jr, The Ohio State University

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

Excellent online teaching (for all disciplines, not only Earth Sciences) is one that uses active learning as a centerpiece of the course. An online course that does not engage learners in their own learning is doomed to become just a chore.

A successful online course also need to establish (from the outset) clear rules of engagement (teacher-student and student-student) and offer structured opportunities for such interaction. "Interactivity is the heart and soul of effective asynchronous learning" (Bill Pelz).

For Earth Science courses, more specifically, the hands-on/experimental/lab component should also have a central role. Well-designed exercises should stimulate student's curiosity, and promote the use of the scientific method.

One last characteristic that (IMHO) makes for an excellent online Earth Science learning is its relevance/connection to the real world. Students will be more willing to engage in the course (and outside as well) if they can see the relevance of the content. Earth Science is rich on this type of content: what could be more relevant than energy, natural resources, natural hazards, global change?

How do you utilize technological tools (Google Earth, topical databases, blogging, etc.) in your online courses?

There are so many instructional technologies out there that I often find myself overwhelmed. Over the years, the most important lesson I've learned is to avoid making it about the "tool" but rather focus on the learning outcome. Also, trying to replace traditional tools just for the sake of using technology usually leads to frustration for both the teacher and the students.

Having said that, one still very helpful use of technology for me is the ability to collect information/insights about individual students and their learning outcomes. Data analytics (which is a basic tool on any LMS) can help identify struggling students early in the process, and bring them into the fold before it is too late.

In regards to tools that are specific to Earth Sciences, Google Earth is an indisputable favorite. I use it often to identify geologic structures, to explore tectonic features, to understand land use patterns around the globe, and to evaluate impacts and vulnerabilities to natural hazards and climate change.

I am also a big fan of using real datasets in active learning and one of my favorite sources of geoscience data is ArcGIS Online. ESRI's GeoInquiries website provide a list of activities for elementary to high schools that can be modified and expanded for use with college students. NASA, USGS and USEPA also contain rich archives of long-term and spatially distributed datasets which can be used in inquiry-based activities that allow students to generate their own conclusions about critical issues of our time, from the use and availability of natural resources to the causes and consequences of climate change.

How do you manage student engagement and assessment in your online courses?

As I already mentioned above, two important ways for improving student engagement are (1) to establish clear rules of engagement from the outset and model these as a teacher; and (2) emphasize the relevance of the content, and the many connections between course topics and real-world issues.

Another way to foster a higher level of engagement (which I also mentioned previously) is to make yourself present and prevent students from falling through the cracks. Online learning has tools that allow a close monitoring of student performance and level of engagement with the course material, but it also permits the development of individualized responses to issues. In my experience, students usually respond well when the instructors show they care.

Another technique that has been proven successful for keeping students engaged and motivated is to break the content into smaller chunks. Students can further benefit if these chunks are logically connected (conceptually related) and follow a linear, intuitive progression.

As for assessment, it is important that: (1) assessments are aligned to learning outcomes (avoid measuring just the ability of students to absorb/memorize facts and figures) - for example, use assignments that measure higher thinking skills (Bloom's taxonomy), such as creating their own model of the solar system or producing their own KMZ files on Google Earth; (2) use a variety of assessments (formative and summative) and offer them frequently (once a week), including self-reflection opportunities and peer-review.