Future Tech: Advancing the use of technology in chemistry distance learning

Students in ZOOM classroom

By Mark Kubinec (Ph.D. ’94, Chem)

Every fall semester, the 534-seat auditorium in Pimentel Hall swells to capacity three times daily to welcome the nearly 1,500 freshmen enrolled in Chemistry 1A.  Multiple large video screens, one towering 20 feet above the main stage, help make every seat feel like the front row and enhance the learning experience.  Nevertheless, college lectures are often described as the process of passing information from an instructor’s notes to the students’ notes without passing through the heads of either. My colleagues and I deliver chemistry lectures in in this larger than life, potentially intimidating environment in a high production value and interactive experience to keep students thoroughly engaged.  Demonstrations are flashy.  Explosions are loud.

A vital part of our teaching strategy is peer-based, employing flipped-classroom learning techniques adapted to the large lecture hall setting.  Students spend almost half their class time discussing and answering ‘clicker quizzes’ meticulously designed to prompt reflection and discussion with nearby students and graduate student instructors (GSIs).  The combination of a few theatrical elements and this interpersonal approach makes Chem 1A a remarkably popular introduction to general chemistry.

Then came the pandemic. Berkeley, like so many other institutions, was compelled to transition to 100 percent remote learning on very short notice. We faced the prospect of delivering the same high level of interactive, engaging learning entirely online for the 2020 summer session. A simple Zoom meeting wasn’t going to suffice.  Instead, we employed a blend of online, interactive technologies simultaneously. First, a YouTube live stream for the real-time lecture was combined with a live chat stream monitored by GSIs for questions and comments. Second, students watched the live stream in small-group Zoom breakout rooms where they used an iClicker system to respond to quizzes together. Finally, a custom and immediately available video review suite afforded an opportunity for asynchronous learning.

Students felt safe and welcome in small Zoom-bomb-proof breakout rooms – just like sitting with friends in lecture.  The breakout rooms created the flipped classroom – guided by GSIs and myself, who used Zoom technology to randomly pop into individual rooms – as the full class watched and chatted on the live streams.

It may sound complicated. It was, especially at first.  But students quickly adapted to having the Zoom, Livestreams and iClicker applications all running simultaneously.  We also settled on an 86”, large-format touch screen as the focal point and command center for Livestream and interactive components.  The panel is nearly the size of a Pimentel Hall chalkboard and the company (Promethean) and distributors worked closely with us to meet the aggressive timeline for launching the course.  Because it’s essentially a giant tablet, with the swipe of a finger, we could run and annotate the PowerPoint presentation, play video chemistry demonstrations, run full-screen interactive chemistry apps and manage the interactive concept tests and zoom rooms all from a single platform.

Dr. Kubrick stands in front of the
Dr. Kubinec stands in front of an 86″ screen used for live demonstrations.

With the help of the GSIs, we converted a spare bedroom in my home to a make-shift studio to broadcast in real-time to students from a dozen different time zones starting  8:00 a.m. Pacific Daylight time!  The Livestream and asynchronous video were (and still are) openly available, and we soon discovered viewership far exceeded enrollment, often exceeding 6000 views a week.

We pushed the boundaries of the technology and pedagogy in a fast-paced, eight-week course.   In evaluations, students commented on how helpful (and cool) it was to really explain what was going on by pausing a video demonstration, zooming in, and adding annotations right on the screen. The overall learning experience felt similar to our live classroom. We commonly heard feedback that the online learning didn’t feel like isolated learning and the course made up for some of the disappointment students initially felt over not being able to come to campus for their first semester at Berkeley.

At Berkeley and beyond, the number of instructors employing interactive educational applications and flipped classrooms is skyrocketing.  Our summer course demonstrated that students could readily adapt and respond to a blend of technologies. Use of an interactive flat panel screen can amplify and enhance these and many other educational experiences in the classroom and online; they are a near-perfect marriage of pedagogy and technology.