An Internet-Based Introductory College Astronomy Course with Real-Time Telescopic Observing
Journal article by David G. Iadevaia; T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), Vol. 26, 1999

Here is an excerpt from the article:

An Internet-Based Introductory College Astronomy Course with Real-Time Telescopic Observing


Using current technology it is possible to demonstrate a method of distance learning that is both efficient, effective and can be applied to a physical science course. This method uses the Internet and the science course as an introduction to a college-level astronomy course, complete with laboratory and real-time telescope observation sessions.

Following are the criteria used to design a four-credit introductory astronomy course with an observation laboratory for use over the Internet. Not only do students in this course work in a highly interactive mode, but they are also able to make telescopic observations in real-time using only their Internet browser.[1]

The "Lecture" Component: From So Far Away

Over the years it has become apparent to me that my students learn best when they can directly interact with their professor. During a lecture, those students who seem to be the most engaged in what is happening are those that ask questions and follow me with their eyes as I move about. They tend to do better on exams. I decided to design an Internet course that allows students to become engaged in a similar way.[2] In other words, interactivity and a visual sense would have to be incorporated into the course.

I also noticed that my students are engaged in the learning process when they can relate to me as a living, breathing person. I am talking about a sense of personality with which the student identifies as their professor. This trait was also incorporated into the course. Another important aspect of engaging students is to have the latest materials that can be used in lecture. These materials bring relevance to the discipline being taught. As it turns out, this was the easiest section to implement in the Internet astronomy course.

Armed with these anecdotal observations I began to design the Internet astronomy course. I settled on a three-point approach. Each point covers one of my observations about how students seem to become engaged in learning. I will begin with the easiest point to implement.

The First Point: Current Information

By its very nature the Interact is a storehouse of current, factual material on almost every subject. The astronomical community has made great use of the Internet. New discoveries are made available to the public almost as they happen. NASA and its many contractors constantly display up to the minute images, space shuttle data and direct data from spacecraft such as the lunar explorer. A memorable example was the Pathfinder's Martian images. Many scientists also freely display information about their projects. The Internet has reduced the size of the textbook for this course. I have supplied the student with links that cover all of the topics that are taught in the course. The student always has information from the source, which is accurate and up to date.[3]

The Second Point: Eye Contact

I incorporated into the course the ability for the students to actually see me during online conferences. Using a relatively inexpensive program, I can send a live video stream to the student's browser when they link to the appropriate part of my Web site.[4] I call this APITV, and it has the ability to connect to four users simultaneously. Once connected, the student can see me, and we can communicate back and forth via a text chat mode built into the program or through other text chat programs.

APITV is also the video link that the student uses for the real-time online telescopic observations. To support this aspect of the course I built an observatory with a number of cameras at various points throughout the facility. I am able to show the student the control room and the telescope in its dome. Students can see me working with the equipment, which gives them a sense of the observatory environment and what an astronomer does in that environment.

A second use of video is accomplished by sending a frame-by-frame update whenever the student is on the appropriate Web page. This program, also relatively inexpensive, is used in a mode I call Show and Tell.[5] It can serve only one student at a time, so when a frame is being "grabbed" by more than one student a "busy" message appears. Using Show and Tell I am able to show the student the actual object I might be chatting with them about. For example, using a lunar globe I can point out the area where Apollo ...