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An Introduction to Teaching Science Online

An Introduction to Teaching Science Online
Reported by
Megan McFarland

Posted May 29, 2014

Presented By


Web-based options for teaching science have exploded in the past decade as academic institutions seek to broaden their reach by expanding course offerings beyond brick-and-mortar classrooms. These options include traditional courses taught through online platforms, massive open online courses (MOOCs), content accessible through iTunes University, and virtual classes for professionals offered by institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). On April 7, 2014, Science Alliance hosted An Introduction to Teaching Science Online, inviting David Randle and Vincent Racaniello to present an overview of online teaching, discuss their experiences, and recommend strategies for successful online facilitation. Randle is the senior manager for professional development overseeing graduate-level online courses for science teachers at AMNH, and Racaniello is a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University Medical Center.

The speakers focused on three challenges in online teaching: engaging, assessing, and retaining students. Randle, who researched online learning for his doctoral thesis, explained that the success of online teaching depends on generating meaningful interactions among students when face-to-face interaction is absent or limited. The central question for online educators, he said, is to understand how "people interact in an online space to develop a community of inquiry, or to socially construct knowledge." Racaniello, who has taught traditional courses at Columbia University and directed his own research lab in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology for more than thirty years, approaches his subject with passion and focus. "My goal is to teach people virology," he said, explaining that co-authoring a virology textbook catalyzed his entry into online teaching and social media. Racaniello had collected compelling information while writing the textbook and wanted to share it with a broader audience, including non-academics. He also began videotaping his classes at Columbia and making the content, including readings and slides, available to the general public online. Sharing knowledge via the Internet in blogs and social media expands teaching beyond lecturing to include conversations among a network of interested people, he explained. "The bottom line is most of the public would like to talk to a scientist, but they don't know how, and social media makes it possible," he said. "I found that conversations are really easy to learn from."

The homepage of Vincent Racaniello's Coursera course, Virology I: How Viruses Work, which is based on his undergraduate Columbia University course of the same title. The Coursera content includes videos of his lectures, slides in PDF form, blog posts, and readings. (Image courtesy of Vincent Racaniello)

The first step in designing an online course is to identify its educational goals. What do you want students to learn? What do you want them to do? And how will you know what they have learned? Creating content around these goals is no different for virtual courses than it is for traditional classroom courses. The second step in planning an online course is to decide which method of online learning to use. Randle described five types of online learning.

In asynchronous courses, content is posted at regular intervals but there are no set times for accessing the material—students can connect anytime and anywhere. In synchronous courses, instructors and students participate in live discussion virtually, through a streaming webinar or lecture delivered online, in real time. Adobe Connect and Google Hangouts are leading providers for this format. Blended or hybrid courses combine online and face-to-face experiences; for example, an instructor might post course content online but convene students in person for discussions or guest lectures. In MOOCs, popularized by host sites such as Coursera, EdX, and Udacity, online learning is made freely available to thousands of people worldwide. Although MOOCs have democratized learning, Randle and Racaniello cited disadvantages such as limited assessment options and difficulty monitoring plagiarism from online sources. Finally, in flipped classroom courses lectures are videotaped and posted in advance so classroom learning can focus on deeper discussion of the material.

The third step in designing an online course is to select a software program, or learning management system (LMS), to host the course. Programs that enable students to interact include proprietary software such as Blackboard and open-source versions such as Sakai or Moodle. These platforms allow instructors to upload content, communicate with students via email and announcements, host online discussions, and post and receive assignments. Increasingly, the programs can also be linked with social media, allowing students to easily share documents, videos, and photographs that are already organized and archived elsewhere. The instructor's choice of LMS depends on the project budget, the level of technical support provided by the institution, and whether a graphic designer is available to customize the appearance of the content. For some open-source programs, Randle noted, several online communities are developing free templates that allow people with some HTML knowledge to customize their own websites.

The American Museum of Natural History uses Moodle, an open-source platform, to host its online Seminars on Science courses. A graphic designer customized the online content by formatting visually appealing and user-friendly text, images, and boxed features. (Image courtesy of David Randle)

Both speakers emphasized the considerable time and planning needed to assess students' progress. Assessment can be challenging in the virtual environment because the only way to know what students have learned is by reviewing their posted assignments, projects, and discussions. Randle emphasized the importance of strong, detailed rubrics that focus on course elements he called "gradable artifacts"—tangible assignments, discussion posts, short essays, and quizzes. The AMNH online course on evolution, for example, requires students to create and submit a phylogenetic tree; the course on geology requires them to conduct and report on a "reading the rocks" field observation in their local area. Randle cautioned against requiring a minimum number of discussion posts, because students can be tempted to complete the minimum and no more, limiting class participation. To prevent students from simply looking up answers to quiz questions in the textbook, Racaniello designs questions that assess understanding of broad concepts and principles and do not focus on memorization of facts.

Much of the meeting explored how to engage students in meaningful discussion and develop rich questions and prompts, focusing, in other words, on defining strategies for effective online teaching. Racaniello advised teachers to design "compelling content, and deliver it in a compelling way." He videotapes his lectures in front of an audience, not a computer screen, because live interaction makes for passionate delivery. Randle suggested a facilitator should act as "the guide on the side," supplying expertise and correcting misperceptions when necessary but allowing the community of learners to answer one another's questions. For participants who have limited English or writing skills, the instructor may need to offer extra support and send frequent emails to encourage participation. "Unfortunately, you can't see their face and see what they are struggling with," Randle said, "so you have to rely on them to communicate with you via email." Instructors also need to allow sufficient time for students to answer discussion questions. In-person discussion is immediate, but a two-day response time might be appropriate for online courses. "You don't want somebody to feel neglected, but you also want to give the conversation an opportunity to get going," he said.

The speakers outlined general guidelines for facilitating effective discussion. Open-ended questions are good prompts; in his virology course, for example, Racaniello asks students to consider whether a virus is a form of life. Students could also be asked to consider current avenues of research and propose new options. "If you want to keep the discussion going," Randle said, "the best thing to do is supply another question." The speakers cautioned the audience to avoid questions with correct and incorrect answers and to avoid sarcasm, which can be difficult to distinguish without visual cues and can be misinterpreted.

In a series of interactive exercises, participants were asked to develop prompts that would provoke engaging and wide-ranging discussion in their own subject areas. One exemplary prompt from the AMNH Evolution Today course reads: "Please choose and discuss in detail one example of a way that the understanding of evolutionary theory influences the quality of modern life." One participant suggested introducing the history of a topic to jump-start discussion, with a question such as, "Who do you think is the most important physicist, and why?" Randle agreed that such an approach can be especially effective for courses in physical sciences, which focus on formulas and can be difficult to expand beyond the quantitative. Another participant, a specialist in bird conservation, suggested taking a public policy and economic angle to explore his field, proposing a question regarding international migratory policy in North and South America: "Should one country be responsible, say the country with the most economic resources, or should there be an international collaborative approach to migratory bird conservation?"

In the question and answer session that followed, the speakers considered the future of brick-and-mortar institutions, and whether the rise of online learning will reduce the need for PhDs to teach undergraduates in coming years. On the contrary, Randle said, "Universities are not discontinuing face-to-face programs, but they are moving into online education as a way to reach more people. So they'll need more people who know how to do both." He cited a growing body of research showing that online environments "are really well suited to fostering critical thinking," as well as reflection and interaction. Online teaching is also a valuable skill to add to a CV. Online teaching "is a good model for scientists who want to get what they are doing out there," Racaniello concurred. "This has helped me, with the blog, to build a network of people who are interested in what I'm doing."

Use the tab above to find multimedia from this event.

Presentations available from:
Vincent Racaniello, PhD (Columbia University Medical Center)
David Randle, PhD (American Museum of Natural History)



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Online learning platforms and courses

American Museum of Natural History. Seminars on Science. Experience Seminars on Science: Online Courses for Educators.

Blackboard. Blackboard Learn. Overview: A learning management system that brings your vision to life.

Coursera. Vincent Racaniello, PhD. Homepage.

iTunes Preview. Virology 2014 by Columbia University.

An open-source learning management system.

An open-source learning management system.


Vincent Racaniello, PhD

Columbia University Medical Center
website | publications

Vincent Racaniello has been studying viruses since 1975, when he entered the doctoral program in biomedical sciences at Mount Sinai School of Medicine at the City University of New York. After postdoctoral work with Dr. David Baltimore, Racaniello established a laboratory at Columbia University, where he has studied a variety of viruses including poliovirus, echovirus, enterovirus 70, rhinovirus, and hepatitis C virus. He is the co-author of a leading virology textbook, Principles of Virology. He also writes virology blog and produces three podcasts: This Week in Virology, This Week in Parasitism, and This Week in Microbiology. Racaniello's virology courses on iTunes University have engaged 120 000 students in the past two years, and two Coursera offerings have engaged nearly 50 000 students.

David Randle, PhD

American Museum of Natural History

David Randle is the senior manager of professional development in the Education Department of the American Museum of Natural History. He joined the museum after a 15-year career as a science teacher in the New York City public schools. He works with teams of educators and scientists to design and teach online courses in a variety of formats, through programs including Seminars on Science, the museum's online graduate-level professional development program, and the Gottesman Center for Science Teaching and Learning. Randle has been a member of the Seminars on Science team since 2000 and a full-time staff member at AMNH since 2004. His experience includes fully online asynchronous (no set schedule for log-in) courses, blended (hybrid) courses that incorporate face-to-face sessions with online asynchronous work, blended offerings that include face-to-face sessions with real-time (synchronous) online sessions, and free MOOCs (massive open online courses) offered to thousands of learners simultaneously. Randle's research interests relate to how teachers learn science online.

Megan McFarland

Megan McFarland is a Master of Public Health degree candidate at New York University, where she is focusing on U.S. health care policy. She is an editor, writer, and book publishing professional, and has researched and written on policy at UNICEF and the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene.