Towards high quality e-learning of chemical technology

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Towards high quality e-learning of chemical technology

                                             P. Pietikäinen, K. Vilonen

Department of Biotechnology and Chemical Technology
Faculty of Chemistry and Materials sciences
Helsinki University of Technology (TKK), P.O.Box 6100, FI-02015 TKK, Finland

During recent years a wide variety of technical possibilities to apply e-learning tools has been created. Nowadays
most courses have at least informative material in electronic form (e.g. www-pages) and e-mail as well as discussion
areas are used. But how does this all become e-learning of high quality? In addition to the material delivery and
implementation of new electronic tools the (e-)learning process requires support in technical matters and especially
activation of learning processes. The learning does not happen automatically with help of effective teaching, because
there is a need of studying, gathering knowledge and learning to apply it. The experiences of co-operation between
teachers, a clear need for quality management to standardize approaches of e-learning has been found. International
co-operation would emphasize this requirement even more.

In this paper we report experiences of developing of courses in which web or virtual learning environment has been
utilized. Also the drafted frame of quality in e-learning of chemical technology is presented. Both technical and
pedagogical aspects are considered. There is a need for increasing co-operation between teachers, both in planning
and in implementation of web-based teaching. The adjustment of thinking of assessment of teaching to assessment of
learning is a big but essential change in the way towards higher quality of (e-)learning. In addition to proper
technical equipment, the ability to utilize enthusiasm among the teachers who carry out the development, is a key
issue in developing (e-)learning.

Keywords quality, e-learning, assessment


ITC is utilized at majority of courses also in Helsinki University of Technology (TKK). Courses have informative
www-pages and e-mail is used as information channel. By autumn 2008 all courses of the university are to have
uniform web information layout in common portal called Noppa [1]. Through that uniform portal basic information
such as short description, teaching period, lectures, exercises and dates for exams will be available for all. In addition
of general information students can also see the course material by signing in to the system.

Virtual learning environments (VLE) have also been used to inform and deliver material. These make the interaction
between teachers and students as well as student groups possible. By applying VLE also co-operation between
universities can be enhanced since VLEs makes the learning independent of place. However, learners’ commitment
to a course in a virtual environment without meeting teachers and co-learners might be difficult to obtain. On the
other hand, a course containing only lectures doesn’t necessarily gain students’ commitment even though the topics
would be interesting and lecturers’ talented specialists. Timetables of courses that are fixed to certain periods of
teaching may also cause problems. Blended learning [2], meaning the combination of contact learning and learning
activities in web seems to be a fruitful way to improve the quality of learning.

From the pedagogical point of view the quality of e-learning is seen as learning outcomes [3]. If the learning is
considered not to happen directly from teaching but via active studying, the learning process is to be focused in [4].
When the quality of learning is considered activation of learning process and assessment of learning seem to be the
key issue. Other important things are:
    • Appropriate teaching methods (pedagogically relevant technology used, considering the context)
    • High quality material (clear, structured, instructive)
    • Effective delivery of information
    • Support and guidance (both technical and tutorial)

One challenge in enhancing e-learning is the changing role of teacher who former was considered as a transformer of
the knowledge and now should act as facilitator of learning process. In order to overcome this challenge the
pedagogical background of teaching has to be carefully planned and appropriate tools are to be evaluated for each

Activation of learning process is important in order to attain high quality learning. The role of ICT in activation is
extremely important, especially in blended learning, where web-based teaching is combined with contact learning.
Figure 1 describes two ways how students use their time in studying. It is generated based on discussions with
students and course feedback gathered during years. Way I is the one where students attend lectures and are expected
to study at home which they hardly do. In the end of the course there is an exam for what students use couple of days
with the material. Often there are several exams during e.g. a week which makes this kind of studying extremely
challenging. In Way II students work with learning activities during whole the course
                                           Amount of learning at course

          • Way I
             – Lectures/contact learning
             – Self studies?
             – Exam

          • Way II
             – Lectures/contact learning
             – Learning activities

                                                                          Duration of the course

Figure 1. Ways how students use time during course.

Differences between younger and older generation i.e. students and teachers has been found in their attitudes towards
e-learning. The students are used to different ITC tools already in their childhood whereas university teachers are just
learning to utilize the possibilities of the tools. One example of recent development is Web 2.0 tools, which seems to
offer interesting possibilities for e-learning by offering social learning environments. These differences in thinking
and action arising from different background are challenging also the university education. Changes are needed in
the methodology of teaching and new ITC tools will be inseparable part of the development. Implementation of new
technologies brings along challenges such as balancing the importance of substance taught and technique used for
teaching. However, the pedagogical issues should never be forgotten when learning process is planned [4].


2.1 Blended learning
At course Modern Methods for Polymer Analysis are students at Master and Post graduate levels. The post graduate
students work either in universities or in industry. The course is carried out in co-operation of TKK and Helsinki
University (UH). Lectures are carried out at organizing universities which made it possible for students to make new
friends and get to know other laboratories. To pass the course students are:
     -    to attend lectures (9 all together, 3 days)
     -    to write learning diary to assess own learning and to give feedback
     -    to write three (3) essays of themes of lectures (the rest of the group did comment them in their own home group
          in WebCT)
-    to write 6 references of scientific articles dealing with analysis method of the week possibly from a point of view
         of students’ research topic

For students who are more interested in subjects of the course it is possible to make a written seminar work that is
presented in the end of the course. Groups of 3-4 students were formed and the group stood three weeks after which
teachers formed new groups. This is how students got to know as many co-learners as possible.

The VLE (Optima/WebCT) of our course included:
    -  general information of the course
    -  calendar including important dates of the course
    -  literal material of the lectures and links to important websites concerning analysis methods handled in the lectures
    -  students’ contact information
    -  area for group work (essays and summaries) and learning diaries
    -  area for discussion
    -  area for seminar works

2.1.1 Feedback from the teachers
One challenge has been the new way to organize a course. The planning of teaching and learning activities as well as
taking over the technique needed for e-learning environment took a lot of time. One point that was considered
carefully was the students’ need for support, especially in the beginning of the course. Most of the students were not
familiar with our VLE Optima. It has been possible for students to attend a teaching session in computer class where
they can try the features with teachers. After that support has worked out via e-mail.

During the course it was extremely interesting to follow the learning process of students. Few found learning diaries
for their new learning tools. Learning diaries were also an on-line feedback forum because students asked freely
questions about the subject studied and the course in common. The questions were mostly answered at the discussion
forum of the course.

Especially in the first time the course was carried (2003) out in blended way teachers spent enormous amount of time
in web waiting for students’ comments. Later they found it useful to tell students that they would attend course area
for example every twice a week afternoon and times of dead lines. Sending e-mail to teacher was not encouraged.

2.1.2 Feedback from the students
For students the different activities of the course were easy to adopt. Any kind of VLE was not familiar to most of
the students and it was the first time many of them wrote learning diaries but they managed mostly well with the
instruction given. Students found their role as experts in commenting each other work a little strange and in some
cases they did not dare to correct each other even though teachers were encourage them.

Work load of the course was criticized. This is understandable because most of the students were not used to study
actively throughout the course. Teachers had, however, prepared to this kind of discussion with careful designing of
the course and emphasized students to tally time they spent with this course. VLE was not problem for students
regardless firewall that restricted someones’ studying at work. Their commitment into group work was rather mild.
They did just the things that they had to do but discussion and commenting was minimal.

2.1.3 General feedback
In the beginning of courses like this informing can not be emphasized too much. Different learning activities are to
be made clear and motivated for the students in order to reach true commitment. The aims of learning as well as
learning tools used are to be introduced as well as technical requirements needed. The weekly time table is also to be
underlined because this kind of active learning is not familiar to all students that might be used to sleeping (if
attending at all) the lectures and studying just a couple of days before the exam.

For some teachers it is difficult to live without an exam. How can we really assess students’ learning by reading their
essays, article references and learning diary? An other question is, should grades be given or is it enough to just pass
the course. Grades would certainly motivate some of the students.
2.2 Web-aided contact teaching
A couple of examples of traditional lecture courses at which web have been utilized mostly as information and
material delivery tool are presented.

2.2.1 Lectures supported by material handling and information delivery in VLE
Activating teaching methods, such as weekly calculations and small exercises, are used with lectures to enhance
learning in the first year university course for chemical engineering students (course Introduction to chemical
processes). The activating methods are planned to support student-centered learning and they play an important role
in “forcing” students to study during the whole course, not only before exam, according the example shown in figure
1. VLE (Optima) enabled the delivery of exercises and later the model answers easier and faster, which is important
in six weeks course period. Students were also able to return their answers with VLE and around 35 % of students
used this possibility. Also the lectured materials were delivered through VLE. Students’ questions were answered in
a discussion area of VLE, which was for teacher much easier than an e-mail in course having almost 100 students.

Another example is a second year basic course, Basics in Process Technology, where the main course performance
has been a traditional one with lectures and calculation exercises. The elements of blended learning were the use of
internet for course news and materials delivery and computer exercises using simulation programs.

2.2.2 Individual self-study material combined with lectures
An example of a virtual course is, also a first year university course (course Ideal Reactors). There is actually two
ways to take this course. The traditionally taught version of the course consisted of lectures and calculation exercises
and internet mainly used for course news and materials delivery. Few years ago totally virtual version of the same
course was developed - the content of course material is available in web-form, including small exercises and
quizzes. The virtual course was developed in order to offer for students a possibility to study regardless of the place
and time.

Virtual tutor is available in the VLE for guidance in both substance and technical matters. The students that are
willing to complete the course in a web may create their schedule for the course according to individual
requirements. The only limitation given by the course administration is that five exercises with both theoretical and
calculation questions have to be returned and passed before taking part in final exam. The final exam is the same as
for conventionally lectured course.

2.2.3 General observations based on feedback from both students and teachers
According to the questionnaire made last year to the first year students, most of the students (60-70%) were satisfied
with traditionally taught courses with materials and exercises delivered via the internet. Around 20-25% of students
would be interested in the possibility of studying the whole course using web-based material and virtual learning
environment. This might be especially good solution for students having needs for individually organized time tables
e.g. in a case students is sickness or staying abroad when the traditionally lectured course takes place. This
possibility is especially important in the case of a basic course having around 100 students per year and content that
is preliminary knowledge for further studies.

Individual course feedback of utilization of VLE combined with lecture was similar to the results from study
questionnaire. Students were clearly more interested in web-based studying combined with contact teaching than
pure virtual courses. This was also seen in the case of aforementioned virtual course (Ideal reactors). The web-
material was used beside lectures but not many students studied the whole course virtually. One reason might be that
first and even second year students prefer contact learning because it offers support for their learning process.
Another reason was probably the low quality of the virtual course material. There is a need of improving instructions
and pedagogical matters are to be considered more carefully when further versions are developed.

2.3 Future aspects
It can be concluded that most students preferred blended learning, the combination of contact and web-based
teaching, although there are significant minority of students that were interested in totally virtual courses. The goal is
to serve both of these groups in the future. The offering of individual web-based possibility together with web-aided
contact teaching needs extra work in the development of study material, but with careful planning and co-operation
this is possible. The important thing is the simultaneous planning of web courses and the course having traditional
lectures with web-aided activation methods, because with partly the same material it is possible to offer support for
all students regardless their studying strategy.

Another important thing in the development of web-based teaching is to remember the continuous evaluation of
teaching methods and learning outcomes. This is naturally important in teaching generally but is underlined in cases
of courses at which students study independently. The scheduling of the students and also the teachers work during
the web-based course in one of the key issues towards the quality of e-learning.


The quality tool presented here has been sketched based on Voplaa quality frame created by pedagogical unit of
Helsinki University (in Finnish [5]. It has been formulated for one major in faculty of
Chemical Technology and Material Sciences at Helsinki University of Technology. The main goal of the quality
frame is to guide teachers’ work and make the assessment and development of e-learning more systematic and
transparent. The present stage is described in first column in realistic and way because although web-based teaching
has applied already years there are still many things to be improved. The second column describes the building of
better practices and aspects to be considered. In the third column ideas of maintenance and development are
combined emphasizing the idea that teacher or teaching methods at any course will never be totally ready and
continuous development is required. The important role in this process of development plays interaction between
students and teachers and feedback gathered continuously

In general the development of e-learning in our major is still in the implementation phase, column 2 in quality frame
(Diagram 1). It will still take a few years to reach the targeted level of maintenance and continuous development.
The most important role of this kind of quality frame is to bring questions of learning and teaching of high quality
Diagram 1. Developing frame of quality of (e-)learning of one major at TKK.

                   Present stage               Implementation
Management         Unclear strategies of e-    Depends strongly from            Teachers are collecting
                   learning                    teacher to another               feed back at their courses.
                   ⇒ lack of organization
                   ⇒ teachers who are          The most important thing is      Practices vary form lab to
                   willing and able do what    to find appropriate methods      lab.
                   they like                   of teaching for each
                                               situation. Technique is not      CHALLENGE
                   No special support for e-   to guide development.            - delivery of good practices
                   teaching can be obtained                                     - organized collection of
                   There is                    Information channel of           feed back, also during
                   - general ITC support       experiences and support is       courses
                   - experiences of            to be generated.
                   - support of TKK            CHALLENGE
                   Pedagogical resource        descriptions of changes
                   centre                      needed
Competence         Teacher                     Ability to                       No clear plan of
                   1)produces the content      - choose appropriate tools       developing skills of
                   2) deals with the           - collect assessment             personnel
                   technical realization       information
                                               - find support                   The strategy of assessment
                   Roles of teachers                                            and its utilization is under
                   - enthusiastic              Courses for personnel of         development
                   - passive                   TKK
                   - pessimistic                                                Encouragement:
                                               Courses of TKK                   - research and development
                   Attitude of students        organization of teaching         of own teaching
                   towards e-learning is       development                      -- contact situations
                   positive.                                                    -- e-learning

                   Students prefer blended
                   learning compared to
Resources          No separate resources for   Formulation of strategies        May be that one day
                   e-learning                                                   activity in development of
                                               Role of e-learning is settling   (e-)teaching can be seen in
                   TKK supports technically    its place ⇒ e-learning           salary.
                   Optima VLE                  becomes part of everyday
                                               teaching                         Aims co-operation and
Diagram 1. Developing frame of quality of (e-)learning of one major at TKK. (Continues)

Prosesses          Preparation of materials    1) More emphasis on course      After description of
                   in separate developing      planning processes              processes, the methods of
                   projects                                                    quality assessment and
                                               2) Emphasis on stage wise       utilization thereof can be
                   TKK is in process of        continuous development          created.
                   applying NOPPA portal
                   that will standardize       3) Development of e-
                   www-pages of all            learning that has
                   courses.                    pedagogically high
                   Part time ITC support in
                   some laboratories.
Assessment         Feedback from students      Definition of appropriate       Implementation of
                   - discussions during        indicators                      continuous feedback
                   teaching                                                    collection and utilization
                   - course feedback           Indicators for quality goals?   model.
                   - results of exams
                   - free, spontaneous         Right timing of gathering of
                   feedback                    assessment information?

                   Self assesment of           Development of feed back
                   teachers                    system

                                               Utilizing of gathered
                                               assessment information


Teaching and learning processes are now in exciting stage of development. The understanding of features and
challenges of e-learning is growing and steps towards standardization of e-learning of high quality are being taken.
Blended learning that combines conventional contact learning with activation of learning by internet has found its
place also in universities. Lively discussion has aroused here at TKK and the structural change from departments to
larger faculties makes possible new ways of co-operation also in the filed of development of teaching and hopefully
especially of learning in order to provide competitive education also for future engineers.

2. Charles D. Dziuban, Joel L. Hartman, Patsy D. Moskal, Blended Learning, EDUCAUSE Research Bulletin, 7
(2004) 1-12. (
3. Ulf-Daniel Ehlers, Lutz Goertz, Barbara Hildebrandt, Jan M. Pawlowski, Quality in e-learning, Use and
dissemination of quality approaches in European e-learning A study by the European Quality Observatory, Cedefop
Panorama series 116, Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2005.
4. Karen L. Evans, Gaea Leinhardt, A Cognitive Framework for the Analysis of Online Chemistry Courses, J. Sci.
Educ. Technol. 17 (2008), 100–120.
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