I’ve been a chemical educator for going on 10 years now, and I’ve seen all manner of teaching methods come and go. Everyone has to adapt with the times, and I’ve certainly been no opponent of progressing with the times as new technology is developed. However, I was recently approached with a job opportunity involving chemistry education that I simply had to turn down. It was for an online chemical education service. I wouldn’t have any direct contact with my students, and would instead be expected to carry out all of my lectures and instructions through email, web updates, and (occasionally) a “virtual white board” type arrangement. There was no web conferencing with live video or sound. The pay seemed quite good, and so I did give it a lot of thought. However, eventually I turned down the offer. I thought that I would detail my reasoning, based upon all of my experience as a chemical educator.
Chemistry is a difficult, difficult subject. It’s not just frustrating for the students, it can be actually scary for the students. They fall behind, and they start to panic. Their self confidence becomes destroyed, and before you know it, they’re forgetting basic concepts and missing the easiest possible questions. It’s not that the students aren’t smart – chemistry classes attract some of the brightest members of the student population. However, when the students don’t have a person to talk to, they rapidly lose confidence in themselves and seem to completely collapse and give up.
Email isn’t enough. Electronically distributed Powerpoint slides aren’t enough. What’s needed is eye contact. Scientists such as chemists sometimes try to divorce themselves from this type of emotional involvement, but as educators, we can’t afford to make this mistake. When a student begins to struggle, they need to know that someone is there for them – directly in front of them – that understands their fear, and is willing to help them through it. Normally this type of thing doesn’t have a place in a super-hard science like chemistry, but when it comes to teaching new students about the subject, its importance cannot be ignored.
Virtual whiteboards cannot reassure, they can only display cold facts. Powerpoint presentations cannot calm, they can only elevate fears and tensions when the student realizes he doesn’t recognize the material on a single slide. Email, well…text will never be a substitute for speech, given all the inflections and inferred meanings present in a spoken sentence. It doesn’t matter what technological advances are made in the coming months and years, there will never be a substitute for a teacher present in the same classroom in the student who can immediately detect nonverbal cues of confusion and distress and act quickly to solve them.
I may use online tutoring to supplement my teaching, but so far, there is no substitute for in-person teaching. It doesn’t matter how advanced our technology becomes…teaching will always require a significant human element, and it’s important that all of us keep that in mind, even as our society is flooded with Tweets and Flash videos and secure web server test procedures. We still need to connect with our students in a very real and human way. I’m not sure how I was ever tempted to lose track of that all-important concept.