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Facilitating Access: Introductory Biology Classes Online*


David Patriquin

Biology Department,

Dalhousie University



Colleen Adl

Learning Connections Project

Dalhousie University



Jennifer Van Dommelen

Biology Department,

Dalhousie University



Carol O'Neil

Centre for Learning and Teaching

Dalhousie University



Bill Freedman

Biology Department,

Dalhousie University





Abstract:  Currently, few universities offer fully online versions of their introductory science classes although online delivery would greatly facilitate access to these key classes. The Dalhousie University Biology Department and the University's Centre for Learning and Teaching developed two fully online classes which together meet the introductory biology requirement (see This paper highlights key concepts and resources drawn upon in designing the classes (e.g., providing generic content with a "Dalhousie stamp", creating an active learning environment, use of WebCT and a major biology textbook and its associated multimedia resources), the presentation format (asynchronous, 13 weekly lessons and assignments, a Term Project; one teaching assistant per 20 students), student response (mostly highly favourable, mark distributions similar to those of the conventional classes) and major challenges (e.g., providing the equivalent of a laboratory experience).



*Authors' version of paper for E-LEARN 2005 CONFERENCE, Oct. 22-28, Vancouver, B.C. Copyright by AACE (





            In most disciplines, completion of a first year, two-semester introductory class (or two single semester classes)  with a prescribed minimum grade is a requirement for more advanced study. Commonly these on-campus classes are given once a year or once during the regular academic year and once during the summer.  Currently, few universities offer fully online versions of their introductory science classes, although this mode of delivery could greatly facilitate access to these key classes. Students often take some time to decide what area they want to pursue, or to adapt to university life and standards, and end up delaying their program by a year or more while they complete or improve their marks in an introductory class.  Scheduling can be problematic: a full course load commonly involves ten or more lectures and three or more labs or tutorials during a week, and many students also work part-time. Many potential students may want to take an introductory class before committing to a full degree program, but cannot do so because of travel and time restrictions. To provide more options for these students, the Department of Biology at Dalhousie University collaborated with the University's Centre for Learning and Teaching to develop fully online versions of our two introductory classes. The online classes are Introductory Biology I: Cells, Genetics and Evolution (BIOL 1020) and Introductory Biology II: Organismal Biology & Ecology (BIOL 1021); class descriptions and information about the operation of the classes can be viewed at  Both of these classes are offered in each of the fall, winter and summer semesters. In combination, the two classes meet the introductory class requirement for biology at Dalhousie University. The classes have been well received and currently are serving more than 300 students per year. In this paper, we outline the key concepts and resources drawn upon in developing the classes, the presentation format, student response and major challenges.



The Opportunity


            As these would be the first completely online classes developed within the mainstream undergraduate faculties at Dalhousie University, we had to make a strong case for them both academically and financially. Conceptualization of the classes began in June 2002. Proposals were made to the department, faculty and administration in the fall and development of the classes began in January 2003. The first class (BIOL 1020) was initiated in September 2003, and the second (BIOL 1021) in May 2004. Several factors made this an opportune time to propose the classes and contributed to our being able to do develop them relatively quickly.

            First, the introductory nature of the class and the subject area reduced development needs. The disciplinary material for introductory biology classes is well defined, there is broad concurrence across universities on the content of these classes, and there are excellent, comprehensive texts to choose from. Thus we did not need to make heavy demands on faculty to choose and write original materials. Moreover, in recent years, textbook publishers have produced some excellent multimedia resources which are available on discs and/or via the internet; our use of these materials (in conjunction with the selected textbook) greatly reduced requirements to produce them de novo which otherwise would have been a major task.  Also, the large enrolment in our introductory biology classes (approximately 1000 each semester) eased the funding to underwrite the high development costs (circa $50k per class, exclusive of faculty time); in this context, a relatively small increase in enrolment (or maintenance of enrolment in the case of declining enrolments overall) would cover most of the costs within a few years.

            Second, internet technology had improved to the point that it was not seriously limiting in any way. As one of the first users of WebCT, by 2003 the University had six years of experience with this on-line course tool; delivery was stable, fast and well supported by personnel in our Academic Computing department.  The University had also recently completed major rewiring of the campus to support personal computer connections and had set up a number of computer labs and a large computer commons area, which greatly facilitated on-campus access to the internet. Off-campus, internet  access and use had improved to the point that regular access to the web would not be a limitation for most of the potential clientele for this class.

Finally, the interest and availability of a core of three persons with highly relevant skills and experience and strong support from the Chair of the Biology Department, the Director of the Centre of Learning and Teaching, the Dean of the Faculty of Science, and the University's President and Academic VP were critical to the timely development of the class. Faculty colleagues were, appropriately, skeptical but open-minded; they gave our proposals serious consideration and feedback and finally, approved and supported them; we could not have gone ahead without that support.  Within the Biology Department, the class is considered a product and responsibility of the department as whole rather than of particular individuals.



Key Design Considerations and Objectives


            There were three important determinants of the design of the class. First, to serve our in-house students and facilitate registration and examinations, we would offer the classes on the same schedule as that for Dalhousie's conventional (face-to-face), one-semester classes, i.e., over 12-13 weeks  plus the final exam.

            Second, we wanted the classes to be highly structured and to provide an active learning environment with "interaction between instructors and students, a student-centered approach and built-in opportunities for students to learn on their own" (Lee R. Alley quoted in Carnevale, 2000). We considered this to be especially important for a fact- and concept-intensive introductory class; students should not simply be given the materials to pursue at their own pace.

            Third, we wanted the classes to be generic but bear a "Dalhousie stamp".  By generic, we mean that the content would be comprehensive and broadly recognized as equivalent to a conventional, university level,  introductory biology class.  This would be achieved by selecting and making use of most of the content of a comprehensive textbook and requiring the same standards for acceptance as for conventional university classes and programs. The Dalhousie stamp would be achieved by highlighting university research activities related to class topics, review of content by professors with research expertise in relevant fields, creation of original content  to provide the equivalent of the laboratory portion of conventional classes and through the personnel who interact with students.


General presentation of the class


Except for the textbook readings and mid-term and final exams, the classes are presented entirely via WebCT over a period of 13 weeks.  The delivery is asynchronous, with voluntary options for synchronous interactions with the teaching assistants (TAs). The Instructor and TAs interact with students on a daily basis, except weekends and holidays; there is one TA per 20 students and each TA works 7.5 to 10 hours per week. There are some assignments that must be completed on a weekly basis, others over several weeks. Mid-term and final exams account  for 75% of total marks; they are held at the University for students living within 50 km, students living further away are proctored locally. Both classes are offered in each of the fall, winter and summer semesters.

Table 1 lists the major components on the WebCT  pages, or examples of them,  for BIOL 1020.  Eight  buttons on the Homepage provide entry  points to (i) an Orientation Lesson;  (ii) three Units which group major subject areas and corresponding blocks of  weekly lessons; (iii) Science Writing and Term Project modules that include activities distributed over a semester; (iv) the Syllabus;  and (v) a Discussions panel. A Course Menu, presented as a left panel (frame) on every page, provides access to frequently used tools and resources such as access to grades and lists of assignments.

An Orientation Lesson, presented in the first week, introduces students to the general format of the class and the technical tools, and requires students to carry out some active discussions with the instructor and other students. TAs become directly involved in the second week, after students have been assigned to sections.  

Each Unit corresponds to a unit in the textbook and comprises an Introduction and three to five weekly lessons. Most of the lessons correspond to and require reading of an entire chapter in the textbook. The content of each lesson is presented as a sequence of activities, beginning with a list of Learning Objectives; students are told that exam questions  are designed to test their achievement of these objectives.

The textbook materials for a lesson are presented in a number of sections, each of which entails reading one part of a chapter. For each, we provide (i) a brief introduction to the reading and (ii) a set of voluntary Guiding Questions, keyed to the text; these are designed to help students identify "what they have to know" by emphasizing the most important points.  In some sections, we also provide (iii) additional comments on topics with which students commonly have conceptual problems, (iv) recommend that students run particular interactives  - these are multimedia resources on the publisher's website that are listed and accessed via links on our WebCT page, and (v) provide a Self-Test which is in multiple choice format with comments for each possible answer. 

In each lesson, students are required to complete and hand in one or two assignments. Most are taken from the multimedia "Thinking as a Scientist" exercises provided by the textbook publisher; we provide our own templates for students to insert answers (rather than use the publisher's templates) which allows us to mark and provide individualized feedback.

In each lesson, students are required to complete a timed, open book quiz that presents a randomly selected set of questions drawn from test banks provided by the publisher.  Students can do a quiz twice (on different question sets).

In each lesson, we provide a set of Integrative Questions.  These questions require more higher order thinking than do the multiple choice questions in Self Tests and formal weekly quizzes. They are not compulsory, but students are encouraged to explore them and discuss them in class forums. (Bonus marks are awarded for this sort of activity.)

Other textbook resources related to the lesson (key terms, flash cards etc.) are listed in the final section of the lesson (Table 1). 

The Science Writing and Term Project modules, developed specifically for this class, include exercises that span more than one lesson.  The Term Project in BIOL 1020 begins with a discussion of Scientific Method. Students are taken through sets of related experiments over several weeks. In each week they are asked to make observations on photographed or videoed materials and to think about, interpret and discuss the observations and propose follow-up experiments, all with reference to the initial materials on Scientific Method.  The complementary Science Writing module emphasizes proper use of the literature and disciplinary thinking (Middendorf and Pace, 2004).



Student Response


In 2004/2005, final enrolments were 112, 110 and 142 students in the fall, winter, and summer sessions respectively, split almost evenly between the two classes. The dropout rate averaged approximately 20%. The mark distributions have been similar to those for the conventional classes, with approximately 60% achieving a B- or better overall. A preliminary study of students who completed classes in 2003/2004 suggests there were no significant differences between students from the online classes and those from the conventional classes in their performance in second year classes in 2004/2005 (M. Oulton, Instructor in Biology, personal communication, September 5, 2005). Following are some of the results from in-class surveys (more details can be seen at

— 75% of students said they took the online classes because they fit into their schedule; 25% said they simply wanted to try an online class;

— 67% said they were taking the class as a prerequisite; others were taking it to fulfill a science requirement for an arts degree (11%), as an elective (13%) or out of general interest (9%);

— 38% said they were taking this class to improve marks over what they had achieved previously in the same online class or in the conventional class;

— most students (73%) report spending 6 or more hours per week on the class;

— in fall and winter, most students (74%) were taking 2 or more other classes at the same time, in summer, 28%;

— in the fall and winter semesters, 39% of students did not have any outside employment while 23% reported that they worked 31 or more hours per week; in the summer semester, these figures were 20 and 50%, respectively;

— questioned about the degree of interaction with the Instructor, TAs and other students, 49% of students indicated that they were content with the level of interaction; some indicated a desire for more interaction with the instructors and TAs (24%) , some with students (23%); none said they would prefer less interaction; 3% indicated  that they feel "isolated and neglected";

— the top four class features identified as helpful or useful were the textbook, lesson quizzes, interactives,  and lesson assignments (cited by 90%, 75%, 56% and 52% of respondents, respectively).



Major Challenges


Choosing an appropriate textbook was critical because we would rely on this resource to provide the equivalent of lectures, we wanted to make use of the associated electronic resources, and we would be essentially tied to the text and publisher for some time.   We needed a textbook that is comprehensive but that could be read by students as a substitute for lectures. The large, almost encyclopedic textbooks that are standard for many introductory biology classes at major universities, including Dalhousie, did not meet our requirements. Fortunately, the publisher of the textbook for our conventional class also produces a condensed. more readable but still comprehensive textbook by the same senior authors, which we chose for the online classes. Students report being highly satisfied with this textbook.

Providing the equivalent of the laboratory sessions in a conventional class was another major issue: would we deliver the class entirely online, or would a separate, hands-on lab component be necessary?  Laboratory exercises in the conventional class serve important functions, including familiarization with the practical tools of biology, developing particular manual skills, developing problem solving skills, socialization, and learning the style and process of formal scientific investigation and communication. Except for manual skills (notably use of the microscope), which account for about 15% of total lab time in conventional classes, we felt that all of these functions could be addressed online, and that some might even  be strengthened through online delivery. We integrated the "lab type" activities into the weekly lessons, rather than treat them as a discrete entity. These include, for example, a number of the textbook's interactive, electronic exercises that involve making and reporting observations on simulated experiments. We provide some introduction to microscopy through use of a virtual microscope (Barrett et al., 2003) and several exercises that involve observations of microscopic materials online.  In the Scientific Writing and Term Project modules, exercises help students develop writing and numeracy skills and to think about the scientific method in a broad, disciplinary context (Middendorf and Pace, 2004).

Plagiarism issues are similar to those for conventional classes, and arise mainly in relation to assignments. With time, we are developing a larger bank of resources which will make it easier to individualize assignments, e.g., by having each student observe a unique set of microscopic materials or quadrats in ecology exercises (both in digitized photos). Regardless, by maintaining 75% of the total marks in mid-term and final exams, it is difficult for students to obtain a B- or better except through their own work.  (A grade of B- or better is required to take upper level classes in Biology at Dalhousie University.) We have had some concerns, so far only in relation to two students, about confirming identity and reliability of proctors; to deal with these sorts of concerns, we are trying to develop long term relationships with certain proctors, and to pool off-campus students with these proctors as much as possible.

As indicated by the surveys, students are, in general, satisfied with the level of interaction in the classes, which is largely voluntary and informal. Our initial efforts to encourage more formal, collaborative interactions in groups were not successful.  We divided class sections (one TA/20 students) into groups of 4 to 5, assigned a number of formal group activities and instituted a peer assessment component in the marking scheme. Students found the timeframe for coordination of such activities frustrating and we subsequently eliminated the group exercises, or changed them to individualized activities. We plan further trials of collaborative exercises, initially for BIOL 1021, which is the less intense of the two classes.





Overall, these classes have met our expectations. There have been few issues with the technology, which we attribute to improvements in web access and platforms generally, well designed and standardized layout the lessons, making the publisher's multimedia resources directly available, our ensuring that students familiarize themselves with the technology in the first, (orientation) lesson, and to a high level of Instructor and TA involvement in the classes

As we had surmised, students indicate that the online classes help to address a major problem, i.e., that of scheduling classes and work.  While not offering completely open-ended, "start anytime, finish anytime" scheduling, the online classes offer students flexibility with respect to when in the academic year they wish to take a class, and when during the week they wish to do the required work. Further the classes promote time on task within a highly structured, active learning environment, which students appreciate, and the level of student learning is demonstrably similar to that of our conventional introductory classes in biology.





Barrett, R., Cona, J., Hyde, P., Ketcham, B., Kinney, B. & Schakelman, J. (2003). Virtual Microscope.  [Interactive, on-line multimedia resource made available by University of  Delaware, Department of Biological Sciences]  Retrieved September 6, 2005, from


Carnevale D. (2000).  Study assesses what participants look for in high-quality online courses. Chronicle of Higher Education. 47 (9): A46.


Middendorf, J. and Pace, D. (2004). Decoding the disciplines: a model for helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking. New Directions for Teaching and Learning,  98 (Summer 2004): 1-12.



Table 1.  Upper level components of  pages in WebCT.

Static copies of the pages can be viewed at


HOME PAGE  Introductory Biology I: Cells, Genetics & Evolution Summer 2005

  • LESSON 01: Orientation 
  • UNIT 1: Cell Structure, Function and Chemistry         
  • UNIT II: Genetics and Molecular Biology   
  • UNIT III: Evolution and Origin of Microbial Diversity
  • Syllabus           
  • Discussions       
  • Science Writing
  • Term Project


UNIT II: Genetics and Molecular Biology

Unit II: Introduction

LESSON 06: The Cellular Basis of Reproduction and Inheritance

LESSON 07: Patterns of Inheritance

LESSON 08: Molecular Biology of the Gene

       LESSON 09: Gene Expression and DNA         Technology


COURSE MENU (left panel on all pages)


About This Class









MC Workshop

My Grades

My Progress

Quizzes & Survey


Student Guide


Instructor: Jennifer

C TA: Alain

  C Submit ULinks

  C Grade ULinks



LESSON 8 Molecular Biology of the Gene

 1. Introduction: Molecular Biology of the Gene

        1.1. Lesson 8 Learning Objectives

        1.2. Introducing Escherichia coli

 2. The Structure of Genetic Material

        (2.1-2.4; headings not shown)

  3. DNA Replication

       (3.1-3.3; headings not shown)

4. The Flow of Genetic Information

        4.1. Interpreting the Genetic Code

        4.2. Reading: The Flow of Genetic                Information

        4.3. Dictionary of the Genetic Code

        4.4. Practice Problems: Transcription and                Translation

        4.5. Self Test: Interpreting the Genetic Code

 5. The Role of Viruses in Genetic Research

       (5.1-5.2; headings not shown)

 6. Lesson 8 Crossword


7. Assignments

        7.1. What is the Correct Model for DNA                Replication?

8. Integrative Questions

        8.1. Gyrate Atrophy

        8.2. Lattice Corneal Dystrophy

        8.3-8.5 (headings not shown)

 9. Lesson 8 Quiz

 10. Chapter 10: Textbook Resources

        10.1. Activities

        10.2. Thinking as a Scientist

        10.3. Learning Tools

               10.3.1. Key Terms

               10.3.2. Word Roots

               10.3.3. Flashcards

               10.3.4. Art and Videos

        10.4. Researching Resources

               10.4.1. Web Links

               10.4.2. News Links

               10.4.3. News Archives

               10.4.4. Further Readings