Why Should On-line Experiments Form Part of University Science Courses?

Hugh Cartwright

Abstract


Just as in government, it seems that there are always "buzz words" in teaching. In many Western countries the present favourites include "Lifelong Learning" and "Distance Education", reflecting the view that education should be universally available to students, irrespective of age and location. The importance of Lifelong Learning and Distance Education is apparent in an increasing number of articles published on these issues, and a bias in European Union funding devoted to research into them. Much progress has been made in recent years; one might (perhaps cynically) suggest that an increase in the number of published papers is an inevitable consequence of increased funding, but the growing interest in these areas is also a consequence of a widespread recognition that they are areas of genuine importance.

The principle catalyst for the expansion of distance learning has been the evolution of the Internet. Internet-based learning can take place anywhere, provided that access is provided to a computer, telephone and modem, and such access is, of course, now common in the Western World. If learning is to be effective, there must be suitable teaching material available on-line, but most scientists are computer-literate, and many have been quick to develop web-based material. As a result, the quantity of on-line science tutorials, databases and auxiliary materials, such as interactive periodic tables, is now very considerable. Because of the ease with which subject matter can be "published" on the Web and the general lack of peer review, on-line material is not always of the highest quality. However, there is much which is accessible, authoritative and well-constructed, and the quantity of this in scientific areas is now such that one could study substantial portions of a chemistry degree course entirely on-line.

It is inevitable that distance learning will continue to grow in importance as access to the Web broadens. Web-based material offers advantages in speed of delivery, flexibility and cost, and schools and universities will increase their use of electronic information because of this. However, a crucial ingredient is missing from on-line science: there is almost no opportunity for students to carry out experiments - as opposed to interact with simulations - through the Internet. In subjects such as physics and chemistry, which are inherently experimental, this is a serious
limitation.

To develop the broadest possible understanding of science, it is important that students can experience the practical side of the subject, even if they have no direct access to a laboratory. The Internet offers the chance for remote learners to study the principles of science on-line, but it can also provide the means by which they can carry out practical work. Similarly, the Internet will allow practical courses for those students who are taught in more traditional surroundings to be enhanced. The potential and practicalities of experiments conducted over the Internet form the topic of this article.

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