The Royal Society of Chemistry’s ‘Advances in Chemistry Education’ series provides books that address key issues in the teaching and learning of chemistry and offer readers research-informed accounts of topics to both inform good teaching practice and support further research in the field. In that regard, I am very pleased to see the publication of this timely book edited by Yehudit Judy Dori, Courtney Ngai, and Gabriela Szteinberg.
Chemistry education is now a well-established research field and has had time to develop multiple foci and themes. At its heart, however, are the related and complex processes of student learning of chemistry and how this can best be supported through teaching. This is the core focus of the ‘Advances in Chemistry Education’ book series, and ‘Digital Learning and Teaching in Chemistry’ is clearly ‘on-topic’ in that regard. I was encouraged to learn from the introductory chapter that the most frequent words identified from the text were ‘students’ and ‘learning’, with ‘teachers’ following on close behind.
The notion of ‘digital learning and teaching’ is of course at one level a misnomer—learning itself is no more digital or analogue than it ever was. Yet this terminology does reflect something of a revolution in the extent and power of the educational technology now available to support teaching and learning. Digital tools—computers of various kinds (including mobile phones and tablets), the internet, simulations, virtual learning environments, automatic data-logging, editable textbooks and student notebooks, Wikis, and so forth—have in a few decades completely changed the nature of the technology available (or at least, potentially available) in the classroom. Indeed, the change has been so extensive that the ‘classroom’ no longer needs to be a shared physical space but can be a manifold of connected spaces.
The history of this revolution has not always been smooth. Initially the hardware was expensive at a time when it was largely unproven—and so it often had to be used in ‘very dilute concentrations’, even when budget allowed acquisition. Early teaching and learning tools were often clunky, relatively slow, error-prone, and not always designed with a strong consideration of pedagogy or research into students’ learning difficulties.
Sometimes these resources seemed to offer limited advances on existing approaches yet required teachers to commit time and effort to familiarisation, and even change aspects of how they worked. This relatively large ‘activation energy’ for minimal ‘enthalpy’ change did not support a high rate of uptake, nor promise an equilibrium position that would lead to the adoption ever ‘going to completion’.
But in a relatively short period the speed of machines, the available memory, the quality of graphics, the sophistication of programming, and the increased focus on what the teachers want to support (rather than disrupt) their work have progressed considerably. The internet makes available through the World Wide Web an effectively infinite resource bank, encompassing professional scientific materials (but including dubious scientific reports in many low quality predatory open-access journals), professionally designed teaching and learning resources, and, increasingly, banks of materials shared by communities of, and individual, teachers. These extensive riches bring a need for new skills of quality assessment, syllabus matching, and curation.
One of the greatest advances of the digital age is the ability to copy, and potentially modify, materials without losing or destroying the original. One teacher’s worksheet can in principle be shared with every other and customised as needed. Each student can annotate a digital textbook in their own way, and the teacher can read and respond to their notes without having to deny the students access. No more collecting-in, and handing back out, piles of books; nor excuses for why some seem to have gone missing during the process. Students can keep copies of ongoing work at different stages to monitor their own progress. A concept map for a new topic can be copied and updated from time to time.
Some of the ‘new’ technologies offer genuinely new opportunities.1 There is technology offering haptic feedback that gives a feel for molecular structures. There are immersive simulations of virtual reality and augmented reality that superimposes the virtual on the real environment. New affordances, and new ways of working, can enrich teaching, but teachers need support in initial and continuing professional education to acquire the knowledge and skills to best make use of the technology. This became especially clear at the start of the COVID-19 global pandemic when schools and colleges closed down and shifted to on-line working in many parts of the world. This also highlighted the vast disparity in the level of resource that can be taken for granted both across and within different countries.
Whilst distance learning may never completely match some aspects of teaching undertaken face to face,2 the pandemic showed just what is possible with the new technology. But it also showed how such transitions cannot be made effortlessly overnight. Good teaching, in whatever mode, requires extensive preparation. Even when there are endless resources accessible, it takes time to access, evaluate and incorporate them. Even when there are effective ways of group working on-line through chat rooms and break-out groups and the like, both teachers and students need familiarity with the systems available and support to learn how to make best use of them.
In other words, alongside investment in resources, research into their effective application is also needed. Tools need to meet teachers’ needs, support their work, and make their professional lives easier and more productive. That requires research to develop solutions to educational challenges through resources that meet educational aims and enable effective pedagogies. It also needs the resulting knowledge and skills to be widely disseminated—by people who understand teaching and learning as well as new technology.
Teachers can only undertake evidence-based practice when the evidence has been collected and analysed; and conclusions have been drawn and validated; and the findings disseminated. There is an extensive developing research base on the effective use of digital tools in teaching, and a fair amount of this is discipline specific (and sometimes even topic specific). There is a ‘state of the art’ of our knowledge of Digital Learning and Teaching in Chemistry to be shared both amongst the research community, and with teacher educators and the teachers themselves.
This book offers a timely overview of the current state of the field of supporting chemistry teaching and learning with digital tools and includes diverse contributions from a wide range of experts from within the chemistry education research family across the world. I thank the editors for putting this book together, and all the contributors for collectively providing a resource (available in digital as well as physical form!) that I think will prove invaluable to the chemistry education community.
Keith S. Taber