The Web: A Revolutionary Resource or Just One More Addition to the Chemist's Crowded Toolbox?

Brian M. Tissue
Department of Chemistry
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, VA 24061-0212

Presented at Furman University National Symposium on New Information Technologies and Liberal Education, Greenville, SC, May 5-7, 2000. (Best Paper in the Sciences Award.)


This paper discusses some of the costs and benefits of incorporating computer and network technology in the chemistry curriculum. Incorporating information technology (IT) in science education is similar to incorporating new laboratory instrumentation. Teaching with the tools of working scientists is vital to maintaining a modern curriculum, but it is also increasingly expensive. Some costs are obvious: the initial price of hardware and software, and the continual costs of upgrades, maintenance, and technical support. Other costs are less obvious and can include an increasing time commitment for educators to remain adept using IT, changes in the use of classroom and laboratory space, and an increase in classroom and student study time to learn technology skills rather than science concepts. Incorporating more IT in education adds to the ongoing challenge of acquiring and maintaining modern instrumentation when funding for science and education is at a steady state. Graduates need IT skills and teaching students to use these new tools efficiently and effectively must be a priority for science educators.


Teaching chemistry has always involved a constant sifting and winnowing of topics as the theory and practice of chemistry advances. One aspect of this sifting and winnowing has been the teaching of new instrumental tools as they develop. Many new tools or methods replace existing tools because they are faster, more sensitive, or more powerful. Instrumental analytical methods; such as nuclear-magnetic-resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, infrared (IR) absorption spectroscopy, atomic spectroscopies, and mass spectrometry; have largely replaced wet-chemical analytical methods. Courses in organic-structure identification and instrumental analysis have replaced qualitative analysis in the chemistry curriculum. These changes incorporate the modern tools of working chemists in coursework and are a natural evolution of a curriculum to prepare graduates for their future careers. However, many new tools are completely new additions to the chemist's toolbox. They must be squeezed into the curriculum or must displace existing topics. A computer-based example is molecular-modeling software, which allows computation of the stable structure and other properties of molecules. Introducing molecular modeling into a course does not replace obsolete concepts, but must be squeezed in with all of the existing course topics. A 4-year degree program cannot include all of the tools used by working scientists in a discipline. Instructors pick and choose instrumental tools based on overlap with other topics, wide-spread use in industry and research, affordability, and personal preferences.

In many ways, information technology (IT) and the Internet are just more tools that chemists use. Do these tools replace less effective or less efficient tools, or are they new tools that must be crammed into a crowded curriculum? At the current time, adding IT to the science curriculum can require additional instruction, just like introducing a new instrument. Instruction in technology can displace instruction in science concepts. One important example of information technology is the use of "business" software, such as word processors and spreadsheets, in educational settings. Using a spreadsheet has distinct advantages for manipulating data, but students do not necessarily understand their data better by plotting it in a spreadsheet instead of on graph paper. A major challenge in teaching science is to use modern instrumentation and tools without losing the important underlying principles and concepts. Eventually, entering freshman will have basic computer expertise similar to their current ability to use electronic calculators. However, some new level of technology will take the place of the personal computer and current software at the leading edge of technology. The common student request "Show me how to do that on my calculator" will become "Show me how to do that on my wrist-mounted supercomputer."

Another aspect of incorporating IT in education is its effect on the learning environment. From a pedagogical perspective, using information technology provides new resources in a learning environment that is already crowded. Information technology enables computer visualization of data, molecules, and reactions; calculational simulations; the vast library of the Internet; and electronic communication and collaboration. But science students already wrestle with lectures, textbook readings, homework problems, laboratory work, library research, and independent research. Chemistry students spend a large fraction of their time in laboratory to learn modern chemical methods and instrumental tools. However, students often do not make the connection between their laboratory work and the topics they study in lecture. Many computer-based tools have been integrated into the chemistry curriculum, including spreadsheets for statistical analysis and data visualization, molecular simulations and modeling, multimedia tutorials, and computer programming. As in work at the lab bench, novice learners might not make the connection between their work on a computer and underlying chemical concepts. Multimedia and Internet resources might be effective learning resources, but adding more learning tools can also create a fragmented menu of resources. Access to IT resources can be counterproductive to the concentrated study that is necessary to understand many scientific concepts. Learning how to access information is not the same as understanding that information. Which is the more effective and efficient use of one hour of time: studying three textbook pages or finding and viewing 30 Web pages? Similarly, understanding a picture or presentation is not the same as understanding the underlying concept being demonstrated. A new challenge for educators is to fit various types of resources together that facilitate rather than impede student learning.

Benefits of Information Technology

Information Technology is used in many ways in the chemistry curriculum. Some examples include:

1. On-line homework, practice quizzes, and practice exams

2. Visualization

3. On-line Tutorials

4. Communication and Collaboration

5. Professional Development

Some of these examples are most relevant for chemistry, but many are useful in any discipline. Different IT applications are best suited for different educational levels. Drill-and-practice exercises might be useful for freshman students to learn chemical nomenclature, but are not appropriate for most senior-level material. Some uses of information technology seem to go against the philosophy of the close personal contact available at small four-year colleges. However, students study at times when instructors are not available, and IT can provide resources for students when they need it. Internet communication has also enabled much less expensive and more convenient professional development opportunities. Two examples are the CONFCHEM on-line conferences [CONFCHEM] and the Physical Chemistry On-Line consortium [PCOL].

There is no shortage of authors and organizations who vigorously promote information technology [Negroponte 1995, Stahlke & Nyce 1996] or sound alarm bells about IT in education [Rawlins 1996, Siegel & Markoff 1985, Stoll 1995, Talbot 1995]. Various technologies have been promoted over the last 100 years to revolutionize education: the magic lantern, slide projector, movie projector, overhead projector, broadcast television, video cassette or videodisc players, personal computer, and the Internet [Hankins & Silverman 1995, Stoll 1995]. Although technological advances might provide new teaching media, none of these technologies have revolutionized the dialog and thinking that is necessary in teaching and learning [Laurillard 1995]. The ability to use information technology is becoming a required skill in the workforce and IT can be a useful learning tool. However, IT is only a tool that must be used properly in an appropriate learning environment to be effective in whatever task it is applied [Ehrmann 1995, Stahlke & Nyce 1996].

A common argument to use information technology in education is that it improves the cost effectiveness of education. I think incorporating IT in education is similar to any other new technology and actually makes education more expensive [Oberlin 1996]. Some other common rationales to incorporate IT in education are:

I think that the first item in this list can be true, but educational software has a very high development cost. A common argument is that buying the tools or building the infrastructure will drive development of effective educational courseware. As demonstrated by most television programming, this reasoning is probably faulty. The use of an educational tool must also fit into an overall learning structure to be effective [Ehrmann 1995, Laurillard 1995, Tobias 1992]. In my opinion, teaching students to use the tools that they will use in their careers is the best rationale for using information technology. I think that a curriculum must incorporate modern information technology tools in the same way that chemistry courses incorporated modern instrumentation. I can't imagine letting a B.S. graduate out the door who couldn't use a volumetric flask, an IR spectrophotometer, a computer, or a spreadsheet program.

Curriculum Changes and Costs of IT

I've discussed the costs of incorporating information technology in education in detail elsewhere [Tissue 1997]. Previously I categorized the costs as monetary costs, space costs, and time costs. Here I want to concentrate on how IT affects the learning environment. Learning is inherently inefficient in any model of productivity. The same activity is done over and over until, hopefully, a concept is understood at least partially. If students now take the time to learn an application program, what are they not studying that students used to study? IT can greatly increase the efficiency of finding information, manipulating data, and visualizing equations. Does the increased efficiency of using technology make up for the extra time that is necessary to learn the technological tools? Are students in the information age learning more, less, or the same amount of science as students did 20 or 30 years ago? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I think that such questions are important to ask ourselves before requiring students to use specific IT resources. Using IT also often duplicates existing teaching activities. Posting assignments, answer keys, and lecture notes on a Web page is done in addition to providing the same information on a bulletin board or in class. E-mail is a convenient means of communication, especially for a student who walks across campus to find his or her instructor's office empty. However, I find e-mail much less effective than face-to-face communication when trying to convey abstract concepts. My second reply to a student's question is always to come to my office.

I think it is inevitable that information technology will become much more pervasive in education. For better or worse, I also think that information technology will affect what and how students learn. Many of these changes can be considered in terms of the natural evolution of a curriculum to equip students with the tools and skills that they will need in their future careers. I think the appropriate questions to ask are where and how should we use information technology, and how do we pay for it? A panel of faculty members in the humanities, math, and sciences; who had been using technology in their courses for a number of years; reached a general consensus that using technology was more expensive (time- and money-wise), but that it was worth the cost [Va Tech 1996]. In my opinion, the best case for using computer technology was made by a faculty member from the music department. Computer technology could convey annotated experiential material, e.g., a symphony, that was not possible otherwise. I've heard conflicting comments about a math initiative to teach calculus in computer classrooms, e.g., "the computer does not hurt learning," and "the students are learning the computer program and not calculus."

On the positive side, technology enhances continuing education, which is becoming more important for a rapidly changing and increasingly technological workforce. Students and working professionals can find resources and learn on their own. As the amount of knowledge grows - old theories are discarded but the total amount of accepted knowledge continues to grow - it is impossible to master a field. Literacy in a subject becomes the mastery of basic principles, the ability to apply those principles in new contexts, and the ability to learn independently. This focus on becoming independent learners has always been at the heart of the liberal arts model of education. Adding IT to the scientific toolbox might throw off the current balance in the chemistry curriculum, but, as in any system, equilibrium will be reestablished. A key focus in using IT in education should be on teaching students how to use these tools effectively and efficiently.


Part of my reason to focus so much on the costs of incorporating information technology into education is to frame the discussion analogous to the situation in science research. Many recent books and articles describe the end of exponential growth in science [Cole, et al. 1994, Goodstein 1995, Sigma Xi 1996, Ziman 1994]. Goodstein titled his article "The Big Crunch," as an analog to the end of an expanding universe [Goodstein 1995]. No doubt many educators feel that they have always worked in a "Big Crunch" economic model. Since science builds on itself, the cost to "push back the frontiers" continually increases. However, research funding cannot continue to increase faster than the rate of economic growth, hence a funding crunch and change in the research enterprise is inevitable.

Educational institutions in the U.S. are spending billions of dollars to rapidly increase their use of technology in teaching. There are strong indicators that education has reached a steady-state funding regime, analogous to the situation in scientific research. Restructuring and reinventing education is occurring at all levels: in individual departments, single schools, universities, school districts, and state and national educational systems [NAP 1995, NSF 1996, Stahlke & Nyce 1996]. Other evidence indicative of fundamental changes in education include decreasing financial support from state governments; increasing requirements for accountability, such as post-tenure review and national education standards; increasing demands to justify funding and funding increases, e.g., caps on tuition increases; and calls to improve the cost-effectiveness of education using technology. The long-term question becomes: How do we pay for education and educational tools, which continue to increase in sophistication and cost, in an era of steady-state funding? Implementing information technology requires some strategic planning (at least as much as possible). Oberlin makes a strong case for planning on incremental change and the need for institutions to reallocate some portion of their annual budgets for information technology [Oberlin 1996]. Any plan must recognize the continuing upward trend in the cost of education.

It's one thing to rationalize changes and plan strategies for the big picture, but what about the individual choices that educators and students must make about how they spend their time? Incorporating and using information technology in education requires faculty time. I am not aware of any institutions that are changing the basis of their faculty reward system to compensate for these shifts in how faculty members allocate their time. Students also have only a finite amount of time. Introducing the latest flashy technology will not improve the performance of students who are not developing adequate study and work skills. IT might even make the situation worse by giving students the perception that they are studying. Two of the major themes from a recent workshop on student success were remediating poor math, problem-solving, and work skills and tracking students' time-on-task [Tuskegee 1997]. The quality of a textbook, lecture, multimedia instructional program, or on-line resource is irrelevant if a student doesn't or can't take advantage of the learning opportunity.

Understanding science requires thinking, dialog, and a balance of experiential and reflective learning experiences. Computer and network technology can be valuable teaching tools when applied to an appropriate task in an effective overall learning environment. These information technologies are also tools that graduates will be required to use effectively in their future careers. The continuous expansion of science and scientific tools results in inevitable changes for science education. The challenge for science educators is to provide a high-quality education in ever-expanding fields in a regime of steady-state funding and to teach students to use the new tools effectively and efficiently.

So What's My Point?

My main point is that the "information age" requires graduates to have even more skills than were expected just 5 or 10 years ago. The good news is that chemical educators have plenty of practice neglecting various new tools and scientific advances. What I really mean is that specific technical skills are less important than communication and collaboration skills and the ability to be an independent learner. The liberal arts tradition has always concentrated on preparing graduates with these skills.


Cole, R.; Barber, E. G.; Graubard, S. R., Eds. 1994. The Research University in a Time of Discontent. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

[CONFCHEM] CONFCHEM (Conferences on Chemistry), "Home Page," <> (28 July 2000).

Ehrmann, S. C. 1995. "Asking the Right Questions: What Does Research Tell Us About Technology and Higher Learning?," Change Magazine, issue of March/April 1995, 20; See also the American Association for Higher Education, "Home Page," (28 July 2000).

Goodstein, D. 1995. "The Big Crunch" MRS Bulletin 20(10):7; < (28 July 2000).

Hankins, T. L.; Silverman, R. J. 1995. Instruments and the Imagination. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Laurillard, D. 1993. Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology. London: Routledge.

[NAP 1995] Reinventing Schools: The Technology Is Now. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; <> (28 July 2000).

Negroponte, N. P. 1995. Being Digital. New York: Knopf.

[NSF 1996] NSF Division of Undergraduate Education 1996. "Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology." Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation; NSF Report 96-139; <> (28 July 2000).

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[PCOL] Physical Chemistry On-Line, "Home Page," <> (28 July 2000).

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[Tuskegee 1997] Workshop on Improving Student Performance: Strategies, Tools and Evaluations. Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, AL, March 14-15, 1997.

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[Va Tech 1996] Virginia Tech College of Arts and Sciences Roundtable Discussion, Oct. 15, 1996.

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Ziman, J. 1994. Prometheus Bound: Science in a Dynamic Steady State. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Brian Tissue is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, VA. Besides developing hypermedia for chemistry education, he studies the efficiency of luminescent nanomaterials and develops analytical methods for biological molecules. He is the author of more than 40 peer-reviewed journal articles in chemical research and education. He earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did post-doctoral research at the University of Georgia and Los Alamos National Laboratory. You may contact him by e-mail at or visit his research page or the Chemistry Hypermedia Project.