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In 1995 I decided to teach four fundamental ideas that are the foundations of Chemistry - atoms, molecules, the Periodic Table and chemical reactions. I also decided to present much of the course as a dialogue between a teacher and a student. This all came together as a dialogue between Merlin and Arthur and, with some literary license, the subjects fit neatly into the four Ancient Elements. So I launched my website with an introduction page that linked to the four lessons about atoms (Air), molecules (Water), the Periodic Table (Earth) and chemical reactions (Fire).
I discovered newsgroups and posted a few messages explaining what I had done and directed people to my website. I asked for feedback and gave my email address. I soon had plenty of new Internet friends - teachers complimenting me, and students with lots of questions, asking for more details or wanting a clearer explanation. So I put aside some time each week to answer them.
It occurred to me that I was "Merlin" answering the questions of dozens of "Arthurs" and, in the process, creating a better course! As I answered each letter I also posted my emailed replies on my website. Some questions asked that I explain a point more completely or give an example. So I did and then I copied my answer into the webpage in the appropriate section. Other students asked that I give more details or explain a subject that interested them but was not included in the course. So I replied and added the new information to the site. I learned where I was not being clear and rewrote those sections until I no longer received emails asking for clarification. Feedback from my students made the course better and better. The ability to "instantly" change my website meant that I could swiftly correct errors and explain myself.
The idea of a complete course taught over the Internet excited me so I started to give it some thought and planning. I drew up a proper syllabus and added a lot of extra material to a series of "behind the scenes" webpages that I would release when I was ready. I also learned about Internet Relay Chat (IRC), long before the days of Instant Messaging, and decided this would be a great way to present advanced ideas and encourage discussions.
The curiosity that students have about Chemistry is often overshadowed by anxiety over the math but only a small portion of Chemistry requires math. So, I made a bold decision - create a Chemistry course that was light on math! After all, I was not being held to anyone's standards but my own. I was not going to offer credit or a degree. In order to emphasize the difference I changed the name of my course from "Principles of Chemistry" to "Principles of Alchemy (Chemistry)." I also decided to find topics in my advanced Chemistry books that I could integrate into the course without math.
I posted my ideas in some newsgroups and recruited students. All of them were homeschoolers. I began by emailing my students the location of our first lessons and details about how the course would be run. Over the next few months I would send them lessons (or addresses to lessons), suggest some additional websites to read and experiments to try, and meet each week for IRC so we would discuss Chemistry. The class started. But it did not go smoothly or as planned.
Our first IRC meeting, scheduled for an hour, lasted three hours - at least it did for some of us. People were constantly being "dropped" during the IRCs as the Internet readjusted by bumping each of us off the net - randomly and without warning. My carefully designed class plan, with lots of prepared materials to paste into the IRC, fell apart. Within a couple weeks I had decided that real-time teaching over the Internet was just a shadow of what classroom teaching is all about. I learned that any attempt to make Internet teaching like classroom teaching was a farce. Lectures on the Internet, meant to simulate classroom lectures, are a calamity and the real-time nature of the attempt is a technological nightmare. Teaching via the Internet it is best done asynchronously.
As a matter of fact, the Internet's "timewarping" is both its weakness and its strength. The trick is to use it correctly. I started to send students my lessons in email. I would simply bundle up my pages (htm) and images (gifs) into a zipped file and send it as an attachment. For students who could not accept email attachments (because of size limits) I placed the zipped bundle at the end of a hyperlink so they could download it via my website. It worked great. Students could do all their reading off-line using their browser. HTML allows me to compose and rewrite the "hypertextbook" with most of the advantages of an on-line webpage. Through email my students could - carefully and without the time restrictions that hover over IRC - compose their questions off-line and read my replies off-line. I learned that email is a very effective way to tutor students, run asynchronous discussion groups and deliver lessons.
Throughout the course's development, the idea of exams kept coming up. It is very easy for a student to cheat via the Internet so the honor system is the only viable option. Of course, "Principles of Alchemy" is non-accredited. Regardless of official recognition, tests can be a very useful part of a course when used correctly - with lots of feedback that turns the exam into a learning experience.
For several years I offered a series of exams that were included as part of the course. These exams, like the lessons, were sent to the student as a zipped package of webpages. The student answered each question by clicking on a hyperlink that opened an email box in which they would type the answer. This allowed me to ask very broad questions and encourage them to write long essays.
Writing exams is easy but grading them can be very hard if you (like me) believe that the student deserves more than a list of "right", and "wrong" as the feedback. I gave detailed replies to each student's answer and I saved all my emails so I could copy and paste my replies to different students who had the same answer. Correct answers were easy - I said, "you are right" and reiterated why it was correct. Wrong answers took more work because I explained not only why that was the wrong answer, but also explained the correct one.
During the first few years I offered email tutoring along with the course but, as time went by, I realized that there was less of a need for it. My frequent and extensive updates, based upon emailed answers and tutoring, had allowed me to create a "perfect" course - tested against many students and now needing no additional assistance! So I gave people the option to not sign up for tutoring when they buy the book - they could buy the book and later, if they decided they wanted or needed the tutoring, they could buy that separately. The result? Nobody wanted tutoring so I have dropped it. I should feel bad that I am now "out of the loop" but the fact that a tutor is not needed indicates that I have successfully created a self-learning course!
"Principles of Alchemy (Chemistry)� has come a long way from its beginnings. I now offer the entire course as a "hypertextbook" - a series of webpages that are read from the hard drive. Students (parents) who order the book are sent a password and download instructions. Each home is considered a "site" and treated as a "site license" so the whole family can enjoy the course and use it with all the kids. It is a big hit among homeschoolers and I have also discovered that there are many adults who enjoy Chemistry when taught in a friendly way. The course has now matured into a complete self-learning program and it looks like this.
Each section, called an "Ancient Element", contains "lectures" presented in dialogue style. Like reading a script, the student "listens in" on the conversation between Merlin and his student, Arthur. The back and forth nature of dialogue means concepts can be explained in a natural manner. Merlin explains something and Arthur asks questions about it - often the questions that come immediately to mind. Arthur makes common mistakes and Merlin corrects him. Problem solving is easily demonstrated and common errors in thinking are identified. A dialogue unfolds in which Chemistry is learned. Dialogue is my substitute for lectures and the nature of this writing allows me to teach at a reading level of around 8th grade.
Dialogues conclude with "Arthur's Notes" - a compilation of the salient features discussed in the dialogue. I added this feature as a review. There is no new information in the Notes but the information is presented in a more condensed form. This also prepares the student for the next part, which I call "Questions and Answers" or "Q and A".
Each Ancient Element has a "Do This!" - simple, optional home experiments to try. Common household materials are used to illustrate some of the concepts learned. "Do This!" is not intended to be a substitute for real laboratory work. I cannot sincerely offer a true laboratory class without expecting a significant investment of the students' time and money. Instead, each "Do This!" is intended to be a "Chemistry lab lite."
Merlin Science (http://www.synapses.co.uk/merlin/)
offering self-paced, self-learning science courses specially created for distance (flexible) learners.