Interview with Prof. Dr. Dietmar Kennepohl


Dr. Dietmar Kennepohl is Professor of Chemistry and former Accosiate VP Acedemic at Athabasca University, a leading Canadian university offering online courses and degree programs through distance education. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from McMaster University with a B.Sc. (Honours) degree in chemistry in 1984 and continued directly to his doctoral studies in main group synthetic chemistry at the University of Alberta, where he obtained a Ph.D. in 1990. He became an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen in Germany, where he investigated Te-N and Mn-N chemistry and later returned to Canada to design molecular metals as a post-doctoral fellow with a research group at the University of Guelph. Dr. Kennepohl is also the Past President of the Humboldt Association of Canada and current Director of the Humboldt Foundation Liaison Office in Canada, as well as Secretary on the GCCIR Board. He is a well-published science researcher and has a strong commitment to online teaching.

1) You are a professor of chemistry at Athabasca University and you have written the book “Teaching science online”.  Can you tell us more about teaching online?

The emergence of new technologies and their promise of better instructional facilitation are not new to educators and so learning online provides both new opportunities and challenges. My university is unusual as it is 100% online and at a distance. That flexibility together with our open approach is part of a strong social mandate to provide access to quality university education. A much more common scenario would be traditional campus-based institutions blending online and face-to-face modes of teaching. In either situation in a world of ubiquitous knowledge the appeal of online learning is about convenience and supporting a more independent learner. Teaching and learning online opens the door to some interesting opportunities.

2) Do you see differences in teaching sciences online in comparison to other subjects?

Very much so. Every discipline and sub-discipline has its own particular epistemology, language, culture, and its own way of doing things. Students are not merely learning facts and concepts, they usually undergo an apprenticeship within their discipline. However, the approach to teaching and learning in the science disciplines also tries to reflect scientific methodology or process. That is, students are expected to state a problem, ask questions, make observations, keep records, offer explanations, create a design or carry out an experiment, and communicate findings with others. The vehicle to learning is problem solving and scientific inquiry, and this forms the model for navigating and dealing with hypotheses, facts, laws, and theories. It is therefore not surprising that the practical components are at the heart of most science programs—yet this practical component is incredibly challenging to do properly online and at a distance.

3) What are the key elements of successful online education?

Essentially good teaching is good teaching. There are basic practices and principles for creating a learning environment that will lead to student success. Of course some of these are particular to the online mode including selecting appropriate technology, providing technical support and training, exploiting open educational resources, or taking a team approach when developing and delivering courses to name a few. However, many of the more important principles are applicable to any mode of teaching such as engaging the learner early, focusing on concepts rather than content, avoiding cognitive overload, providing timely feedback, and so on.

4) When did you start to use online teaching methods and can you give us some examples of the ways you teach certain material to your students online?

The initial Athabasca University model was independent study courses with print-based material and telephone tutor support. As newer technologies became available, they were experimented with and, if found useful, adopted. Assignments originally sent through the postal system can now be submitted electronically. In the mid 90s my chemistry courses were hybrid—having both print and online components. It was not until this past decade that AU has truly moved online. This was precipitated by a number of system-wide changes across the entire university including adopting a standard learning management system to house courses (including electronic versions of all AU learning materials), the preference of both students and teachers to move away from telephone communications, the move towards e-textbooks and/or OER textbooks to replace commercial print materials, and finally the integration of a student relationship management system.

So, for example, my organic chemistry students work through their course online. Each section has clearly stated learning objectives with online activities including readings where they are linked to a ‘textbook’ which is an online wiki. Assignments are done and submitted electronically. They do attend face-to-face supervised laboratories. However, some components of the laboratory (pre-lab work, spectroscopy simulations, etc.) are done online. We are now even experimenting with having students analyzing products made in the laboratory by remote access to instrumentation.

5) How do you see the future of online education?

There are several exciting developments on the horizon for online learning and I’ll mention only a couple. The most obvious being new technologies that allow connectivity to both content and people. One subset of this has been the emergence of mobile devices and the entire area of mobile learning. Science educators (especially those doing field work) have been looking at this to facilitate online learning in the field. With handheld GPS-enabled mobile devices one is not limited by classroom walls and can readily do self-guided field work and in situ learning. Another area of interest is big data and learning analytics. Once a course and learner activities are digital they are also trackable. One can take that information to tailor courses to individuals and their learning styles. Finally, open educational resources has a big role in the future of learning online. Collaboration, sharing, reusing and adapting content is an emerging trend that will have a profound effect on quality of learning. Together online education will not only become even more flexible and accessible, but will also rise in quality and personalization.

6) Do you see signs that the already existing online universities could replace the classical ones?

I do not think so. A few years ago this same question was asked surrounding the hype on MOOCs (massive open online courses). Apparently MOOCs would shake the very foundations of higher education to the ground, and by 2060 there would only be 10 universities in the world. I do not believe that this is happening at all. Certainly the online learning environment will be used more to supplement existing universities and will dramatically increase capacity of and access to higher education worldwide. Still, there are other social interactions and learning opportunities classic on-campus universities provide that will continue to be valued and sought after.

There is another final thought. The initial concern with MOOCS was also that were meant to cut labour costs by replacing faculty, but I think the bigger and better discussion is around the role of the teacher itself. In a world of ubiquitous knowledge, what added value do we provide as educators? Indeed, online education is forcing this question on an entire generation of teachers and may end up being one of its biggest contributions to learning.