Chemical Education Journal (CEJ), Vol. 6, No. 2 /Registration No. 6-12/Received December 9, 2002.


R. W. Hollingworth

Chemistry, School of Biological, Biomedical and Molecular Sciences,
University of New England, NSW, 2351, AUSTRALIA




What might we look forward to?

What will our students need to learn?

What do we know about learning and how should we teach?

How might we best use technology?





The rapid advances recently made in ICT, particularly in the Internet, have very important implications for us, as chemical educators. As we begin the 21st century it is almost impossible to imagine what ICT will be like by the end of the century. We can already start to see how these advances are changing our ideas about traditional education, distance education, just-in-time learning and the importance of life-long learning. Advances in ICT will mean an enormous increase in the amount of information available to our students as they study their courses and as they move into the workplace, but this must not be the limit of our expectations. If we wish to provide our students with a quality education in chemistry, we must consider more than mere transmission of information and facts. We must take account of what the educational research tells us about learning; namely that students learn best by: building on pre-existing knowledge; active learning; learning with understanding; and adopting a metacognitive approach Unfortunately the widespread uptake of educational research is much slower than that of technology.


This quotation from Oldham highlights a central theme of this paper ö the balance of technology vs. teaching and learning. Technological progress impacts on our everyday lives with an ever-increasing frequency and effect. How advances in technology might influence teaching and learning must be of special importance to us, as chemical educators. We need to plan carefully how we respond to these advances, if we don't just wish to allow ourselves to be swept along unthinkingly in the current of technological innovation. We need to adopt a proactive and informed attitude towards our teaching to make the most effective use of emerging technologies. We need to reflect carefully on our own teaching practices, preferably with the benefit of a conception of teaching and learning well informed by educational research.

This paper will consider several general questions related to the role of ICT in chemical education as that technology develops in the coming years. What might we look forward to? What will our students need to learn? What do we know about learning and how should we teach? How might we best use technology? The paper also includes examples of educational research concerning ICT and of some useful resources for the teaching of chemistry using ICT.

What might we look forward to?

The rapid advances recently made in ICT, particularly in the Internet, have very important implications for us as chemical educators. As we begin the 21st century it is almost impossible to imagine what ICT will be like by the end of the century. Certainly no one knows exactly what the future will bring. Even though experts may be able to make educated predictions, the future will always surprise us in the way it evolves. Given this proviso, in the not too distant future we might reasonably expect the following developments to impact strongly on how we approach our teaching and our students' learning.

We are already starting to see how these advances are changing our ideas about traditional education, distance education, just-in-time learning and the importance of life-long learning.

In the near future, advances in ICT will mean an enormous increase in the amount of information available to our students as they study their courses and as they move into the workplace. Many educationists in their initial attempt to use the Internet have merely used it to provide on-line materials to students primarily as information resources. (Harper, Hedberg, Bennett, & Lockyer, 1999) However, if we wish to provide our students with a quality education in chemistry, we must consider more than just the transmission of information, which will be facilitated immensely by the advances we expect to occur. We can employ ICT better in the future to change teaching and learning in chemistry more fundamentally by promoting such activities as networking, communities of learning and research, solving of real-world, complex, interdisciplinary problems, individualised learning supported by AI, etc. As the pace of change increases the more important it will become to ensure our students acquire a breadth of thinking skills and attitudes to keep abreast of developments. Chemistry (and all of science) progresses through a process of inquiry, rather than just building a body of factual information.

The advances in ICT mentioned above require us also to face the question of whether there will eventually be any need for teachers at all. Could learning in the future be entirely self-directed through interactive learning with suitably developed ICT and intelligent computers able to fully replace human teachers? Intelligent tutoring systems are already starting to automate learning in some areas, but it may be some time before this becomes all-inclusive. As Bates notes, "the interaction between a learner and a real teacher can be substituted only to a certain extent by learning materials. Learners are always capable of generating questions and ideas that cannot be adequately anticipated by machine-based learning. If the learning system cannot handle this, then the quality of learning will drop." (Bates, 1996)

What will our students need to learn?

What do our students really need to learn and what skills will they actually need when they move into the workplace? In recent years we have seen a growing emphasis in many universities on their students' acquisition of "generic skills" or attainment of certain "graduate attributes." This is partly in response to the stated requirements of employers, who express a need for graduates with well-developed skills such as: effective communication both orally and in writing, team work, problem solving. Attributes of social responsibility, a global perspective and a desire to undertake lifelong learning are similarly valued.

Discipline knowledge: What about knowledge specifically in the discipline of chemistry? Of course our students will need to possess a solid knowledge base in chemistry to be able to operate effectively, but it will be utterly impossible to teach them everything they will need to know throughout their working lives during a course of undergraduate chemistry. It is expected that workers now have more information at their desktop than was available during an entire lifetime at the beginning of the 20th century. (Toffler, 1993) Much of the knowledge our students will need during their life of employment will not have yet been discovered at the time of their formal education. Our past reliance on a content-based curriculum in chemistry may have been suitable for a past world of stability, but it is not an appropriate preparation for the rapidly changing world of the future. (Lowe, 1999)

ICT skills and information literacy will become increasingly important, and educators would be failing even nowadays unless they ensured their students were familiar with the use of CD ROMs, email, bulletin boards, Internet and on-line database searching. The amount of information available to future graduates is growing exponentially and they must have the skills to access and evaluate information relevant to their work tasks. The trend will move away from possessing information to being able to access, evaluate and utilise relevant quality information to solve problems; it will move to an emphasis more on "process" rather than on "content." There will be a movement away from learning, which will last a lifetime to just-in-time learning.

Communication skills will become increasingly important as the new communications technologies facilitate collaboration and networking with colleagues and experts nationally and internationally to an extent difficult to imagine now. Our students will need to interact effectively with a wider range of persons as they solve more complex interdisciplinary problems in the future. The social construction of knowledge will become more prevalent and so we will need to expose our students to appropriate learning activities utilising ICT to develop the skills required for this.

Thinking and problem-solving skills: In the future the more important problems faced by humanity will be more complex and require a multi-disciplinary approach for their solution. To prepare our students adequately we will need to teach expressly higher order thinking skills and problem solving skills more than we presently do. Advances in the power of computers and in artificial intelligence will assist in this. Intelligent Tutors will help individualise learning for each student and explicitly develop effective problem solving skills.

As yet unknown skills: Even more exciting is the technological progress, which will lead to skills we presently cannot fully appreciate. For example, already in high schools one of the most popular subjects is media production. Students undertaking these studies are being prepared for a future technology, which will require visual skills and ways of thinking much advanced from those we possess today. The implication of this for chemistry is obvious. We do already have quite sophisticated computer software for modelling molecules and molecular processes. These will develop immensely to allow future chemists to research much more complex molecular processes directly in a more visual, less verbal manner to what we are now accustomed.

Research: Sanger and Badger have studied the use of computer animations and electrostatic potential maps to supplement traditional methods, such as model kits and demonstrations, to improve conceptual understanding of molecular polarity and miscibility. (Sanger & Badger, 2001) Significant results were achieved and the investigators suggest such animations and maps have great potential for use in first year classes. In research we already use sophisticated molecular visualisation software, but this example gives an inkling into how important new visual skills and thinking will become in the future and how visualisation software will profoundly affect student understanding of chemical properties and processes at the molecular level.

What do we know about learning and how should we teach?

If we wish to employ the advances in ICT most effectively to produce learning resources and provide learning experiences of high quality for our students in the future, we need to take account of what educational research tells us about learning. Unfortunately the widespread uptake of educational research is much slower than that of technology. The research tells us that students learn best by: building on pre-existing knowledge; active learning; learning with understanding; and adopting a metacognitive approach. (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000)

What do these terms mean? It is generally accepted that new knowledge must be constructed from existing knowledge. A consequence of this is that teachers need to become aware of the incomplete understandings and misconceptions that their students may hold in their subject area as they build new knowledge on this. Learning with understanding implies students are given sufficient opportunities to study topics in depth rather than superficially. This is often contrasted as "deep learning" vs. "surface learning." Active learning implies students are assisted to take more control of their own learning. Metacognition refers to the internal dialogue students engage in as they monitor and evaluate their own understanding and learning. Students may not necessarily develop these monitoring strategies by themselves and research has demonstrated the benefit to students of teaching a variety of strategies appropriate to discipline areas.

How each of these factors is addressed in their students' learning activities requires the expert judgement of each individual teacher in their own specific setting, based on their personal experience. (Jenkins, 2000) We must use our own judgement in teaching chemistry, but it should be sufficiently informed by the educational research. "The task of educational research is to sharpen thinking, direct attention to important issues, clarify problems, and encourage debate and the exchange of views, thereby preventing ossification of thinking and promoting flexibility and adaptation to changing demands." (Jenkins, 2000 quoting Nisbet, 1974)

Research: The Educational Materials for Organic Chemistry (EMOC) Project at University of Memphis was designed to provide for organic chemistry students supplemental materials including highly visual, dynamic, interactive and guided-inquiry based learning. An evaluation of EMOC indicated students were generally favourable to the site and saw its advantages as access to materials (particularly on-line homework), the feedback system and the convenience and flexibility of the site. Disadvantages mentioned by students concerned computer access, software issues and some confusing formats/layouts. With regard to EMOC's impact on student understanding small participant numbers clouds the issue somewhat. It appears that EMOC was of most benefit to students with weaker backgrounds and that student motivation is an important factor. (Nakleh, Donovan, & Parrill, 2000)

Materials at the EMOC website are publicly accessible:

Samuelowicz & Bain describe the following five categories for teachers' conceptions of their own teaching:

These represent a continuum moving from a more teacher-centred to a more student-centred focus. In the first three conceptions the primary focus, labelled as quantitative, is on increasing the students' knowledge, while in the last two conceptions, labelled as qualitative, the focus is on changing the way students view and utilise the knowledge they possess. (Samuelowicz & Bain, 1992)

Research: A study on microcomputer-based laboratory technology in a high school chemistry class examining gases and gas laws showed that technology by itself lacked the power to transform the teaching and learning in the class and that teacher and student beliefs were major obstacles to effective implementation. (McRobbie & Thomas, 2000) When the teacher's conception of teaching as transmission of knowledge dominates the classroom, the technology provides little added value. In contrast other teachers report the key to successful implementation is in taking on" a different view of what has been accepted previously as the teaching role.

How can we relate this specifically to teaching chemistry and to the implementation of ICT into chemical education now and into the future? Lagowski suggests that technology alone is not the solution to the problems of current chemical education, but changes to our educational models, which will require new curricular materials and extensive teacher training. (Lagowski, 1999) He also suggests "the environment in which we teach chemistry is the antithesis of the environment in which most of our students will do their life's work." Table 1 shows an outdated model of chemical education and a fresh model for the 21st century.

Outdated Model 21st Century Model
Students are passive with throughout their entire educational experience. Individualization will be enhanced using networked personal workstations.
Collaborative work is not valued. Team learning will be encouraged using collaborative software tools. E.g. email, bulletin boards, chat, net conferencing
Teachers are assumed to be omniscient. Teachers will become guides to student learning through the use of networked experts.
The course content is stable. Networks and new software publishing tools will allow us to adapt to rapidly changing subject matter content.
The course is homogeneous. Diversity of interactions ö who is doing what for what reasons ö will become the norm replacing the homogeneous 'one size fits all' approach to education.

Table 1 Chemical education models adapted from information in Lagowski, 1999.

In incorporating the use of ICT into studentsâ learning activities, the teacher needs to ensure that it is the pedagogical requirements that take priority and that these clearly justify the use of the ICT. We can too easily "put the cart before the horse" if we allow ourselves to be seduced by the technological wizardry of some new computerised learning resources. On the other, hand we need to be aware of the tremendous educational possibilities that the new technologies open up in order to take full advantage of them. We must not allow the ways we have traditionally taught in the past to blinker how we employ ICT in the future.

How might we best use technology?

Students and staff typically encounter three phases of development as their sophistication in their use of ICT progresses. (Valdez et al., 1999) In the first phase, automation, the user learns how to use the technology, whether it is hardware or software, rather than learning more deeply in their subject area. This might include such tasks as becoming familiar with the operation of word processors, authoring software, bulletin boards, the WebCT environment, etc. This phase is important, and student learning may be compromised if it is assumed that all students have basic ICT skills and are not given sufficient basic training. (Lim & Lee, 2000)

In the second phase, transition, software is used to carry out activities, which assist learning in the discipline area. For example distance education students might actually make use of a bulletin board to collaboratively develop a solution to a relevant problem posed by their instructor.

Example: LUCID (Learning and Understanding through Computer-based Interactive Discovery) is a new model for computer-assisted learning workshops to promote student engagement in the learning process. (Wolfskill & Hanson, 2001) Some features of LUCID are that students are provided with an orientation for the learning process, and then freely navigate through activities. Key questions are employed to guide the exploration of interactive models and the development of understanding, with instant multilevel feedback (for questions with a single correct answer) to promote confidence while developing problem-solving skills. More complex questions network reporting and peer assessment promote critical review and the achievement of consensus in a group. To assist in reflection and self-assessment performance distributions are provided on the quantity and quality of the work and reports of other teams.

This example illustrates how ICT can enhance learning activities and the importance of using sound pedagogical principles to drive the implementation of ICT.

In the third phase, data-driven virtual learning, students undertake activities which produce meaningful learning by using ICT to create new knowledge. As instructors we need to undergo a simultaneous professional development, adapting our teaching, as we move through these phases together with our students, if we wish to make the best use of ICT.

Example: Many textbooks are now accompanied by a CD ROM or website. The freely accessible website for the book, "Chemistry for Changing Times," by Hill & Kolb, provides excellent examples of a variety of learning activities at the first year level introducing students to the gathering synthesis and evaluation of web information to create new student knowledge.


For each chapter of the text, the web pages contain Introduction, MediaLab, Web References, On-line projects, Practice Questions and Postings.

The way we utilise ICT informed by the research findings will be of vital importance to high quality chemical education for our students. The Internet can be used to create learning environments where students are allowed to explain and defend their thinking, opinions and decisions in order to cultivate critical thinking and metacognition. (Tsai, 2001) For example, critical thinking can be enhanced through issue-based discussion and peer assessment on-line. Synchronous or asynchronous communications enable remote interactions, which can assist students reticent to engage in discussions in a face-to-face classroom setting. ICT can support metacognition, for example, in the use of the Internet to create meaningful categories of information, gathered worldwide, on the basis of the student's own interests. (Tsai, 2001) Concept mapping software can be used as a metacognitive tool to facilitate activities involving the structuring of knowledge. Meaningful understanding will be enhanced by sophisticated visualisations of molecules and their properties, simulations of chemical phenomena and processes at the molecular level with interactivity and the ability to perform virtual or remote experiments.

However, the implementation of ICT into teaching is by no means a simple matter and there can be problems associated with it. With regard to science learning specifically, it is possible that multimedia materials in being so clean and neat can give misleading impressions of science and what scientists do and breed misconceptions about scientific ideas. (Wellington, 1999)

More generally, there are issues related to deficiencies in quality of content, media production, instructional design and delivery. (Bates, 1996) It can also lead to overloads of staff and students. For example, it is estimated that to change 20% study time to ICT and with all this ICT material being generated anew this will require an increase in academic staff time around 40% and an increase of around 140% for production staff. (Laurillard, 2001) There is clearly a need for careful workload planning, costing tools and productivity methods. On the students' side typical dropout rate for distance education students is about 30-50% depending on course type. Reasons given for this are: 33% workload is too high, 24% underestimate study time required. (Laurillard, 2001) Students in ICT supported courses regularly report workload problems, indicating a need for: study time planning, the correct balance of ICT vs. non-ICT and efficient learning materials.

In summary, according to Open University in Britain, the Golden Rules for the implementation of ICT into teaching and learning are: use pedagogically appropriate media; use the right balance; and provide students with active learning opportunities that are efficient and enjoyable, in a supportive environment. (Taylor, 2001)


The future looks very exciting from a chemical education viewpoint. ICT thoughtfully implemented has the potential to profoundly influence learning in chemistry for the better. However, if we wish to gain the most benefit from the advances in ICT, we must ensure that its implementation follows sound pedagogical guidelines informed by educational research. This will require profound changes in our attitudes as chemistry teachers.

The technology will provide us with great opportunities for our own learning and professional development. And we need to keep in mind, what should be the limitations on change - our demands for quality teaching or the technology?

(An earlier version of this paper was originally presented as a keynote address at the Asia-Pacific Symposium on Information & Communications Technology in Chemical Education Research & Development (ICTinCERD) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, March 2002.)


Books on Teaching

(Bransford et al., 2000)
(Biggs, 1999)
(Chalmers & Fuller, 1996)
(Lockwood & Gooley, 2001)
(Herron, 1996)

Chemical Education On-line Journals, Newsletters, Conferences

Journal of Chemical Education,

University Chemistry Education,

The Chemical Educator,

CERP - Chemistry Education: Research And Practice In Europe,

The Chemical Education Journal,

Newsletter: Using Computers in Chemical Education,

CONFCHEM: Conferences on Chemistry,

Using ICT

Check Centres for Teaching and Learning at most universities

The WebCT website contains useful information for developing on-line courses. Specifically, the Chemistry Community Home has resources and links for teaching chemistry.

On-line teaching of chemistry:

Wellington provides a checklist for evaluating multimedia. (Wellington, 1999)

Other Examples of ICT in Teaching Chemistry

Computer simulations:

Java applets:

Virtual lab at Oxford University:

Remote Experiments ö Interactive Nanovisualization:

Collaborative education:

Problem based learning:

Intelligent tutors:



Concept Mapping Software:


IHMC Concept Map software:


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