University science courses offer particular challenges to online learning due to the laboratory-based nature of many subjects in this category. This barrier is the main reason for the lack of any significant online/distance learning courses equivalent to the campus-based versions available in these subjects. This project aimed to demonstrate how to overcome such barriers and to serve as an exemplar in extending fully interactive laboratory intensive science education to the online student. When The University of Manchester teamed with Coursera to produce Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), it was decided to test this medium for the production of a course on chemistry which in addition to theoretical content would allow the participants to conduct and be assessed on simulated versions of the practical laboratory classes undertaken by the on-campus students. The theoretical content of the course was delivered using short focussed and engaging video screencast presentations interspersed with short quizzes. To accompany this a virtual laboratory was designed enabling bespoke experiments to be performed online relevant to the course syllabus. The virtual laboratory sessions were designed in collaboration with the faculty eLearning team and combined video, animation and simulation. These allowed the students to immerse themselves in the laboratory experiment, enabling them to conduct measurements, analyse data and report results for assessment purposes in a similar fashion to the on-campus student.



The project objective was to enable The University of Manchester to share the science and technology education the university offers to students from all over the world, while exploring novel pedagogical approaches to on-line learning. In this respect Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, offer particular challenges to on-line learning due to the laboratory-based nature of many subjects in this category. This barrier is the main reason for the lack of any significant on-line learning courses available in laboratory intensive STEM subjects. Overcoming such barriers could offer great potential in providing STEM education beyond the UoM campus, making it more widely accessible. The main and obvious pedagogical challenge is the feasibility of including an assessed laboratory component at a distance. The Introduction to Physical Chemistry MOOC was selected to explore the feasibility of delivering complete courses in laboratory-based subjects such as chemistry on an online platform. The course design aimed to be pioneering in its use of innovative pedagogy. This included not only the provision of a bespoke virtual laboratory module, which allows students to conduct experiments and be assessed on but also short focussed and dynamic video screencast lectures interspersed with short quizzes for immediate formative feedback. Interactive clicker-type questions were also uniquely adapted to allow a worldwide audience to test their knowledge against the on-campus students.


The campus-based first year module on Physical Chemistry was selected as the most suitable for adaptation to an online delivery format. The course is traditionally taught on-campus using two weekly one hour lectures and is accompanied by a laboratory class each week. The content comprises selected topics from the three main areas of physical chemistry namely, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics and kinetics. Chemistry is by its nature a practical subject and it is the practical aspect that often stimulates interest in students. As mentioned above, this provides obvious challenges for online delivery and this was achieved in this course by including a virtual laboratory which allowed students to complete their own measurements and also include assessment. The formal lecture content was delivered using short (10- 15 minute) video screencasts. These were interspersed with online quizzes allowing the student to assess their comprehension of the material as they viewed the content. The delivery was mainly done using real time annotation of slides on a tablet computer adopting an approach similar to the Khan Academy videos. This form of presentation was chosen as it has been proven to enhance learner concentration in online delivery. In addition footage of interactive clicker sessions with campus-based students was adapted so that the MOOC students could directly participate and allow them to compare their performance relative to the campus based students. The virtual laboratory experiments were the same as those performed on-campus and usually comprised an initial video segment filmed in the laboratory followed by an interactive simulation of the experiment allowing the student to fully participate in the practical. The virtual laboratory sessions were designed in collaboration with the faculty eLearning team who were in charge of producing the videos and the simulations. The eLearning team also designed the course presentation format on the Coursera platform and dealt with all technical aspects of the project. Examples of simulated experiments include a virtual calorimeter for heat of reaction measurements and an absorption spectrophotometer for measuring the visible spectra of dye compounds. Students were enabled to interact with the simulated equipment allowing them to take their own measurements and submit results for assessment purposes. The first version of the course was delivered on the Coursera platform, starting on June 2nd 2014, with a second version running in February 15, 2015. Direct support of student learning was mainly via the discussion forums. Six teaching assistants and the three presenters continuously monitored the discussion forums and provided guidance and advice when required.


The course was designed to maximise student engagement in the course. All individual video presentations lasted between 5-15 minutes, an ideal time for retaining student interest. Great care was take to ensure that pen annotation was used throughout the presentation as again this has been shown to significantly enhance video-based instruction. The video presentations were interspersed with inline quizzes which allowed students to test their retention and comprehension of the material. All videos could be sped up or slowed down to permit flexibility of learning and engagement. A live on-campus student response system was adapted to allow participation by the MOOC students enabling them to test their understanding of the material against the on-campus students. Weekly formative quizzes were available with video feedback provided. Summary tests were required to be taken to obtain a statement of accomplishment. In addition students were required to conduct the laboratory experiments and results reported were used in assessment.

The discussion forums were the principal means used to facilitate interaction between students, instructors and teaching assistants. Six teaching assistants plus the three professors teaching the course were on-hand to respond to student questions and queries. The forums were highly active and in many cases student-student interaction helped to solve a problem without need for intervention by forum teaching assistants. Such learning is more likely in a MOOC where people with widely varying backgrounds are learning together compared with the more homogeneous on-campus cohort.

Based on student feedback the virtual laboratory was key to student engagement. Many students commented that the provision of such laboratories brought the whole subject to life and provided a real opportunity to sample real-life campus laboratories as well as cementing the theoretical knowledge delivered in the video presentations. A typical comment was "I really enjoyed the virtual labs. It's an amazing idea because it's difficult to have access to these kind of instruments in some places. I'm almost finishing a technical course in Chemistry and I have never even seen some of the instruments used". Other samples of the voluminous student feedback comments are provided in the supplementary information.


The project provided a highly visible exemplar of how to successfully deliver an academically rigorous university level laboratory-based course on-line. The most popular activity was watching the video presentations and performing the laboratory simulations. These accounted for 198,005 participation events during the course. As found in the pre-course survey of student intentions, most of the participants did not take the course with a view to obtaining a statement of accomplishment. The MOOC audience is quite distinct and heterogeneous compared with the more homogeneous on-campus student body. Participants differ in nationality, age and academic backgrounds. Even a highly academic topic like physical chemistry attracted participants whose motivation is primarily in learning or refreshing their knowledge of a topic they find interesting. Both Coursera, the largest MOOC platform provider in the world, together with the world's leading chemical community, the Royal Society of Chemistry, have complemented both the pedagogy used and the impact the course has had on instructional design in an on-line environment. The course is being featured in their presentations as an example of best practice in science and engineering on-line teaching. The course has been re-purposed for the eTekkatho project ( for distribution on standalone PCs in Burma. Further comments are provided in the supplementary information. They emphasise the pioneering achievement of the project in guiding future delivery of realistic science education on-line. This point was emphasised by the receipt of the Guardian newspaper 2015 Higher Education award in the Online/Distance Learning Category ( The course has also been shortlisted for a Times Higher Education award in the "Outstanding Digital Innovation in Teaching and Research" category. Student reaction to the course, has been overwhelmingly positive with a 94% rating of good or excellent on the post-course survey and a range of detailed student, colleagues and press comments are supplied in the supplementary materials.

Next Steps

The course has recently been selected by Coursera as an on-demand course. This means that the course is now available at any time to prospective students. We have significantly upgraded the simulated laboratory and plan to include more fully featured virtual laboratory experiments within the next year. In a separate development we are continuing to develop virtual laboratories for a number of our other courses in areas such as organic/inorganic/spectroscopic chemistry and are in the process of producing further MOOCs and distance learning courses in these areas. The aim is to be a unique School of Chemistry, offering the majority of our laboratory classes on-line within the next three years. Future plans include extending virtual laboratories over all science and engineering courses offered by the university. While we applaud the generic virtual laboratory offerings in this area by companies such as Labster and Phet, we believe real-life university-based education can only be delivered by traditional institutions adapting their delivery to the on-line environment and delivering bespoke offerings. Our hope is that our pioneering attempts will inspire other higher education institutions to follow our lead.

Other Information

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Project Website - Introduction to Physical Chemistry
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