|Students throughout UC and beyond can access UC Irvine's undergraduate chemistry lectures online.
By Nicole Freeling
The day that professor James Nowick's YouTube video topped 10,000 views, the UC Irvine faculty member knew he was "on to something pretty cool."
After all, it wasn't a pop culture parody or funny cat video. It was a lecture in graduate-level organic spectroscopy, an advanced class so rarified that only about 1,000 Ph.D. students across the country encounter it during their academic career.
Before long, Nowick was getting what he refers to as "fan mail" — not only for his graduate-level lectures, but also for videos he'd posted of introductory classes in organic chemistry, a notoriously challenging subject that many undergraduates fail or drop.
"I was struggling to stay afloat," one student from a Texas university wrote to say. "I now walk into class feeling confident."
Emails came from the East Coast, from China and Ethiopia, many with the same urgent question: When is the next course coming?
The response led Nowick to enlist his colleagues at Irvine's School of Physical Sciences in an effort that breaks new ground in open courseware. OpenChem, launched in March, makes available the entire lecture series that UC Irvine students complete for an undergraduate chemistry major.
The breadth of access is even more remarkable given that UC Irvine's chemistry program is considered one of the best in the nation.
• Five UC campuses have partnered with MOOC providers
• Thirteen MOOC classes have been offered through UC, enrolling more than 350,000 students
OpenChem includes more than 325 hours of lectures from Preparation for General Chemistry to upper-division classes like Molecular Structure and Elementary Statistical Mechanics.
Students receive no credit for learning the material, and there are rarely any supporting assignments. What students do receive is a free, top-flight supplement to traditional instruction.
"We see this as augmenting the normal classroom experience, not replacing it," Nowick said. "It's one more way to teach our students [and] allow innovation in the classroom." Faculty, for example, are excited about the possibility of a "flipped classroom," in which students watch the lectures outside of class and use in-class time for solving problems.
At the forefront of open education
OpenChem is just one example of how UC campuses have been at the forefront of explorations into online education and open access.
Berkeley is a lead player in edX, a non-profit venture founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to test the viability of MOOCs — short for Massively Open Online Courses — as a means of providing free educational access to anyone who wants it.
As with OpenChem, these courses aren't intended to compete with the traditional college experience. They offer learning for learning's sake, not for degrees.
Harvard and MIT have made big financial investments in edX. UC Berkeley's contribution comes in the form of technological innovation. Among other contributions, it has developed a sophisticated automatic grading technology that is able to quickly assess student performance and provide useful feedback. The technology enables great numbers of students to be graded, a necessity for the large enrollments that are typical in massive open online courses.
UC Irvine and UC San Francisco campuses were among early universities to partner with Coursera, another provider of MOOCs. Santa Cruz and San Diego announced last month that they would join in developing courses through the platform. San Diego also is developing its own MOOC, "Our Clean Energy Future," funded by a $50,000 grant from Google and utilizing the search giant's Web tools and social platforms.
Making educational materials freely available is a core part of UC's public service mission to advance knowledge, advocates say.
A boon for UC students
But beyond those lofty goals, early indicators seem to show that these online resources provide a valuable educational boost for UC students. About half of Norwick's students use the videos during a course, for example.
"You've got all these students coming from high school who then fail chemistry when they start taking it at the college level," said Larry Cooperman, director of the UCI OpenCourseware Initiative, which partnered with the School of Physical Sciences in developing OpenChem.
With OpenChem, high school students are better prepared for the rigors of college-level chemistry when they arrive, he said. And students already at Irvine are using it to bone up on the subject before enrolling or to review concepts with which they are struggling.
"This has the potential to transform the way this subject is learned in California and elsewhere," Cooperman said.
Berkeley is seeing a similar response from its students. Online courses in computer science are helping students be better prepared for class, said Armando Fox, academic director of the Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education.
"Since we began this effort, the strength of our students' work is up," Fox said. "The students' ratings of the courses are up, despite rising enrollment."
A distinction between learning and credit
Educators say that the online courses should not be viewed as a threat to the traditional classroom give-and-take between student and professor, but as a powerful adjunct to it.
And they make a strong distinction between the material that is made freely available online and that which has been vetted by an institution for meeting its particular standards for quality and integrity.
"The last thing we want to do is educate the largest number of people in the shallowest way," said Fox.
Nowick likens the OpenChem lectures to an engaging and well-written textbook. "Putting out this material doesn't impoverish the teaching in this field. It enhances the field."
UC Irvine's School of Physical Sciences now is at work posting lectures for the other majors in its department: math, physics and astronomy, and Earth system science. It also is looking to add supporting problems and exercises. "This is just the first step," said the school's dean, Kenneth Janda.
The same could be said of OpenChem's followers.
"I'm looking forward to the next few years of learning," wrote one professional who was teaching himself organic chemistry as part of a New Year's pledge to his wife. "Next comes biochem, and then molecular cell bio, then off to other things."