The North American Network of Science Labs Online: The Role of the Discipline Panels

By Pat Shea, Project Director, Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and Rhonda Epper, Assistant Provost, Colorado Community College System

When you think about what it takes to create openly licensed courseware, inter-institutional and international faculty collaboration might not be the first association that comes to mind. But they’ve proved to be among the most interesting outcomes of our project to develop the North American Network of Science Labs Online. NANSLO is an effort by an international consortium of higher education institutions and organizations to deliver science labs remotely to online students. The consortium was formed as a result of a successful proposal in the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) grant program “Building Blocks for College Completion” (Wave I).

Members of the consortium include the Colorado Community College System (CCCS)—a consortium of 13 community colleges; Colorado School of Mines; the Western Interstate Commission of Higher Education (WICHE) based in Colorado; Montana State University and Great Falls College in Montana; University of Wyoming and Laramie County Community College in Wyoming; and North Island College along with its consortial organization BCcampus,  a consortium of 25 higher education institutions based in British Columbia, Canada.  In the NGLC grant, NANSLO focused on introductory courses in biology, chemistry, and physics and produced openly licensed courses in these subjects as well as six experiments using robotics and software to allow students to conduct their experiments with real scientific equipment that they could manipulate over the Internet.

WICHE, the coordinating partner, formed three discipline panels –one for each of the subject areas—with faculty representatives from each of the institutions and multiple representatives from CCCS and BCcampus to help guide this academic work.  The discipline panels were charged primarily with

  • Reviewing the learning outcomes and curriculum for the introductory online biology, chemistry, and physics courses offered by BCcampus and CCCS and recommending revisions and adaptations to result in NANSLO openly-licensed courses in these subjects.
  • Making recommendations for developing experiments (two for each course) using NANSLO software and robotics to manipulate scientific equipment.

Over the 15-month life of the  grant and the following six-month no-cost extension period, the discipline panels met once face-to-face for a two-day workshop at North Island College in BC, quarterly by conference call, and via ongoing discussions on listservs dedicated to each subject.  The end result was three openly licensed courses and six remote web-based experiments published on the NANSLO website.

  • Biology—Labs: Introduction to Microscopy; Mitosis and Meiosis
  • Chemistry—Labs: Emission Spectroscopy; Beer-Lambert Law
  • Physics—Labs: Uniform Motion; Accelerated Motion

Lessons Learned

Discipline panels help to build acceptance and alignment of the curriculum and a core of champions.  Faculty from both two-year and four-year institutions in multiple states across two countries made for a highly diverse group.  Their differences took a back seat, however, to their common interests in sharing knowledge in the disciplines and finding ways to provide better learning experiences for students.  All were curious about how NANSLO would work, and most were excited about the opportunity to be involved in conversations with their international colleagues.  Although a few were reluctant to engage in some of the conversations initially, a two-day face-to-face workshop provided the opportunity for building rapport and trust as the panels discussed learning outcomes and how NANSLO experiments could be used in their disciplines. As time went on some dropped out, but others became very vocal about how and what the experiments should teach and whether students could have the same quality learning experience in a remote lab versus a traditional lab.  These debates continued electronically and there were some strong differences of opinion, especially in physics.  Interestingly, physics students turned out to be the ones who had the most favorable opinion of NANSLO experiments when they were made available a few months later. In the end, we learned that these conversations were helpful in understanding the various perspectives and requirements for the curriculum which were folded into the new NANSLO open courses and lab procedures. But perhaps more importantly, the panels distilled into a core of champions who truly believe in the potential of remote science labs and are eager to play a role in shaping its future.

Findings from a collaboratively developed lab review process identified opportunities for improved teaching. When the discipline panels had concluded their work, volunteers from each panel participated in the development of a rubric for evaluating “deeper learning” in student lab reports. Again, two- and four-year faculty participated from institutions across the consortium.  Once they developed the rubric, they used it in a blinded evaluation of the lab reports of students in the NANSLO labs and those of students in traditional labs conducting a similar experiment.  In the conversation that followed their independent scoring of the lab reports, the faculty had some interesting observations—most of which focused on how the instructors could make changes to improve the outcomes for students.  These included  

1) ensuring that students had the fundamental reading and writing skills to participate in the lab experiment and write a report;

2) providing clearer instructions about how to conduct the NANSLO lab experiments;

3) making a demo available of a NANSLO experiment for those students less familiar with the online environment; and

4) providing a sample lab report so students had a better understanding of expectations—especially for online students who were working alone. 

Thus, what began as a student evaluation exercise turned into an engaging professional development experience that should result in even better learning opportunities for students.   

Today, we are building on our NGLC work via a TAACCCT grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.  In this new project, the Consortium for Healthcare Education Online (CHEO) consisting of eight institutions in five states will be developing 12 new allied health experiments using the NANSLO labs.  Again, the discipline panels will play a critical role in shaping and testing these openly-licensed experiments - so stay tuned! 

For more information about these topics, see

About the authors:

Pat Shea directs two academic leadership organizations (the Alliance and the Forum) and the Internet Course Exchange based at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, a regional compact established by the U.S. Congress in the 1950s to share information, expertise, and resources among higher education institutions in 15 western states. She was the PI on the NGLC-funded NANSLO project and continues to coordinate activities among its consortium partners.

Rhonda Epper is Assistant Provost for the Colorado Community College System, which serves over 160,000 students annually through its 13 independently accredited community colleges.  She was a Co-PI on this Wave I NGLC project, and continues to support the NANSLO initiative under the TAACCCT Round 2 Consortium for Healthcare Education Online program.  

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