Online Weather Studies: A Unique Introductory Course in Atmospheric Science

Delivered via the World Wide Web
   
 
 
 

James A. Brey 
University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley
Menasha, WI, USA
Joseph M. Moran 
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay 
Green Bay, WI, USA

 
 

1. Introduction

The American Meteorological Society (AMS), with support from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education, developed a one-semester, introductory college-level, online distance-learning course on the fundamentals of atmospheric science. Online Weather Studies is an innovative and cost-effective science education opportunity designed for the increasingly diverse and non-traditional student populations of two- and four-year colleges and universities. Atmospheric science is particularly appealing for online distance learning because weather is often newsworthy and piques student interest, and meteorology uses real-time data that can be conveniently delivered in learner-friendly formats via the Internet. In Online Weather Studies, students negotiate understanding about the atmosphere and atmospheric processes by following weather as it happens—in nearly real time.

2. History

Online Weather Studies has its roots in the AMS DataStreme Project, a major teacher-enhancement initiative of the American Meteorological Society in collaboration with the U.S. National Weather Service and the State University of New York College at Brockport and funded by the National Science Foundation. The DataStreme Project’s centerpiece is a distance learning course which provides preparation for pre-college teaching professionals to become resource teachers who, in turn, serve their schools by promoting weather study across the curriculum using online data. This graduate-level college course for educators focuses on the study of the atmospheric environment through the use of real-time weather data and learning materials accessed via the DataStreme homepage, combined with hardcopy materials and hands-on investigations. Local Implementation Teams (LITs) across the U.S. administer the course by offering it to teachers recruited from their geographic areas (Geer, et al., 1998). It is customary to include a college faculty member who teaches atmospheric science on the Local Implementation Team. Many of these professors also have participated in a two week, NSF-funded, Undergraduate Faculty Enhancement Program (UFEP) provided through the AMS education program with the cooperation of the National Weather Service Training Center in Kansas City, Missouri. UFEP participants have been brought together by the AMS for further training and to exchange information on their DataStreme experiences. Many of these faculty LIT members have integrated DataStreme data and exercises into their on-campus courses and subsequently evaluated the results (Brey, 1999). Much of the discussion at the training sessions revolved around the adaptation and use of the DataStreme materials in the college classroom. The DataStreme course itself has been assessed using pre-and post-tests to determine content retention and surveys of participant satisfaction. The results have been overwhelmingly positive (Weinbeck, et al., 1999). Positive learning outcomes revealed by assessments of the DataStreme course itself, as well as experimentation with its components in undergraduate college classes, contributed to the modification of the DataStreme course into Online Weather Studies, an introductory college weather course, developed and offered via the World Wide Web by the AMS through a variety of post-secondary educational institutions (Geer, et. al.,1999).

3. Course Components

Online Weather Studies is a turn-key package with both electronic and printed components. The customized textbook Online Weather Studies (by author Moran), provides students with in-depth background information on the properties of the atmosphere, weather systems, and principles that govern weather and climate. Each of its 15 chapters is written on a weekly topic (e.g., Solar and Terrestrial Radiation) that students explore in learning activities. Three of the chapters are independent of the course delivery schedule to accommodate differences in academic year calendars.

Each learning activity (two per week) begins with a preprinted section in the companion Study Guide and is completed with an electronic section (using near real-time weather information and images) accessed via the Online Weather Studies course homepage. Learning activities guide the student through analysis and interpretation of weather as it happens. The electronic portion of each learning activity is prepared by staff members Ira Geer, Robert Weinbeck, and Bernard Blair of the AMS education program in Washington, DC, and is available on the homepage by noon (Eastern Time) on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Along with the electronic portion of learning activities, the Online Weather Studies homepage delivers a national weather summary every weekday. The Daily Weather Summary prepared by Ed Hopkins of the University of Wisconsin – Madison describes major weather features and systems affecting the U.S., historical weather events, and timely supplementary information (e.g., the meaning of growing season, equinox). The homepage also includes current surface and upper-air weather maps and data, forecasts for the U.S. and Canada, and weather radar and visible, infrared, and water vapor satellite imagery. Real-time weather data are made available in a user-friendly format by COMET (Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education, and Training, UCAR) in Boulder, CO. Data are updated hourly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round.

The 12- to 15-week Online Weather Studies course is offered by local faculty members in formats ranging from conventional class/lecture to entirely online. Online Weather Studies has been implemented as a new distance-learning course and used to revitalize the lecture component of an existing course with state-of-the-art technology or as a laboratory component in an existing course. It has been used as a non-credit-bearing, continuing education enrichment course and is under consideration for use in technical training programs in forestry, fire suppression, and emergency management. A major agribusiness firm is considering its adoption as an in-house training course for its risk management executives. Using an archive of real-time exercises from a previous semester allows the course to be delivered as a self-paced, individualized directed study course or in situations where the real-time delivery schedule is inconvenient. Course credit is granted by the sponsoring institution. A faculty manual and secure homepage includes teaching aids, a test bank, suggestions for course implementation in a variety of instructional settings, and a link for interaction with AMS project staff. In addition, instructors offering the course for the first time are matched with a mentor who has previous experience with the course. It is hoped that this collegial assistance will develop into a network of instructional experts who can assist with further development of the course. Online Weather Studies is designed so that it can be readily offered by science faculty having limited background in meteorology.

4. Course Process

During the Online course, students:

Since the idea is to study atmospheric science with real world, real time data, it is essential that students do their work on a timely basis. Students who fall behind find it very difficult to catch up although there is an archive of past learning activities for this purpose. The volume of work to be done is significant and the pace of the course is fast. To successfully complete the course, one must develop a study plan that includes ample time to download activities and complete and submit them for grading. Additional time must be available for reading the text chapters and Daily Weather Summaries, and perhaps accessing some of the weather maps and charts provided with the course. When one week’s worth of assignments is complete it is just about time to begin the next week’s.  Students who put off downloading materials and working on them because they can do it "at their convenience" or students who assume that the time required is not all that significant will soon find that they are so far behind they cannot easily catch up. These are the students who usually end up dropping the course.

5. The Pilot Study

Pilot testing of Online Weather Studies took place during spring semester (January through May) 1999. Taking part were 14 two- and four-year colleges and universities across the U.S. Instructors made use of the flexible design of Online Weather Studies and offered the course using a variety of models ranging from a laboratory supplement in a traditional lecture-based course to a totally online, asynchronous, distance-learning course. Most of the institutions in the pilot offered the course online with three to four on-campus class meetings. Professors offering the course were invited to participate in a pre-semester meeting held in conjunction with the AMS Annual Meeting in January and a post-semester meeting held in conjunction with the AMS Project Atmosphere Summer Training in July. The first meeting was primarily an orientation to the course. The second meeting gathered information about how the course was offered and how it was received. Special focus group sessions probed for common themes and experiences. Ample time was provided to allow the Pilot study instructors to interact and participate in planning the future direction of the course. They all reported frequently on how the course was proceeding (via phone, fax and e-mail) throughout the semester. Finally, a formal survey questionnaire was used immediately after the course to capture information about the course. Results of the questionnaire are presented in Appendix A. In addition to AMS efforts to assess the course, many of the individual instructors carried out their own assessments using student surveys, regular test results, pre- and post-course tests, and a variety of other means. These results were incorporated into the AMS assessment effort.

Some conclusions from the pilot study include:

The course offering at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (UWGB) exemplifies one mode of offering of Online Weather Studies: an online, distance-learning course open to all students for general education credit with no prerequisites. A course management homepage was developed to bridge the course to the Online Weather Studies homepage. The course management homepage includes most of the same items found on a typical course syllabus: course description, statement of learning objectives, calendar of topics and reading assignments, list of student responsibilities, and grading scheme. In addition, the course homepage includes an e-mail link to the instructor and links to practice questions and photographs for each chapter, and the local National Weather Service homepage. By supplying a password, a student accesses Online Weather Studies learning activities and daily weather summary directly from the course management homepage.

Students met as a class with the instructor on the UWGB campus four times scheduled during the semester. The initial meeting was basically an orientation to the course; the other two meetings addressed concepts that students were finding particularly challenging, and at the final meeting, students completed a comprehensive examination. Each week, students submitted their completed learning activities (via fax, mail, or in person) which were then graded and mailed back to them.

Anonymous student evaluations of the experience were generally very positive. In response to the question, "What do you like most about the course?" student replies included the following: "Even though the activities come out weekly, I feel that I can work at my own pace;" "I don’t have to take 3 hours away from my son or work twice a week;" "The hands on approach, being able to be my own teacher, not having to spend time driving to class to attend lecture." Similarly positive reports came from student evaluations at the other pilot test sites.

The same instructor offered a second section of the same introductory weather course on the UWGB campus in a conventional lecture format with no online components (except for a 5-minute weather summary at the opening of each class). For comparison purposes, both groups of students completed the same comprehensive final examination. The average score of the conventional class was about 9 percentage points higher than the average score of the online class. In retrospect, administering the same type of exam to both groups was probably inappropriate in view of the distinctly different emphases of the two courses. The conventional class scored higher because the exam was heavily weighted toward theoretical concepts of basic meteorology which were covered by numerous examples and illustrations delivered via lecture. From analysis of completed learning activities, it was obvious that online students developed great facility with analysis and interpretation of weather maps, graphs, and charts, but they had much less exposure to theoretical concepts. Future offerings of Online Weather Studies at UWGB will include examinations that more closely focus on the learning objectives of the course.

Student attrition was somewhat higher for the online section than the conventional section. Apparently, some students underestimated their ability or willingness to keep up with the required weekly text reading and learning activities. Nonetheless, the vast majority of students completing the online course reported that learning about weather as it happens is an effective way of exploring the atmosphere and they have more confidence in taking another college-level course on the Internet.

6. How does Online Weather Studies compare with a theoretical "ideal" online course?

Online Weather Studies is unique in that it is a course whose content is largely based on the study and analysis of perishable data. While it is conceivable that an instructor could duplicate the effort of data acquisition and activity creation and coordinate this with a commercial text, to do so would be an extraordinary undertaking. Most would be hindered by time constraints, limited expertise, and the lack of reliable and appropriately formatted meteorological data. Having AMS provide these services to licensed instructors removes the obstacles. AMS also provides additional collegial assistance to first-time instructors with both the science content and the pedagogy. Not all licensees are well-versed in meteorology. Unlike other entities licensing online courses, AMS licenses only Online Weather Studies, the content of which is firmly within its expertise. While these are aspects which make Online Weather Studies unique, it is possible to compare some of its characteristics with measures that have been applied to other online courses. A template for "The Ideal Online Course," based on current learning theory, is outlined in an article of the same name by Alison Carr-Chellman and Philip Duchastel (1999). In their article, they suggest what type of organization and content is found in the typical well-managed, web-based course. While their point-by-point conclusions are what one might expect to find as attributes of successful online courses, it is nonetheless surprising that, taken as a whole, they describe many of the characteristics of Online Weather Studies.

Carr-Chellman and Duchastel begin by asking "What is an Online Course?" According to them such a course is primarily internet-based. The web is the main communication tool of the course and the course content is designed to take advantage of the web’s unique capabilities. Online Weather Studies fits this description well, particularly when one considers the demands of using real-time environmental data. The web is the only source of real-time meteorological data and the only way this data can be effectively formatted and delivered. These lessons were learned during the development of DataStreme, when data delivery was attempted by other means. Print data have, of course, been used in labs for years, but they are not as immediately available for analysis with computer tools and lack the excitement of dealing with the current situation.

Why online courses? Carr-Chellman and Duchastel cite the need for distance education to provide for the professional development needs of the masses. Web-based courses serve the needs of those already in the workforce who can not fit traditional classes into their busy schedules. Others feel that online courses can better reach traditional constituencies. One of the main goals of the American Meteorological Society in creating Online Weather Studies was to provide a means of access to a quality atmospheric science course in institutions where one was not available. While course content and delivery methods are ideal for online use, it was envisioned that course content could be incorporated into an existing traditional course or used to develop one. In terms of who is using Online, some are taking advantage of the distance education promise and others are using it traditionally. Those using it as a basis for an asynchronous, web-based course find that it serves the needs of the nontraditional learner well but is sought out by traditional students, too.

Technologies involved in an "Ideal Online Course" are many and varied but usually involve some mix of those providing content and others providing communication. A key to a successful online course is using technology in ways that are appropriate to the goals of the course. By using the technology to deliver real-time weather data and activities based data which could not be delivered as effectively any other way, Online Weather Studies appears to fit the bill. The technology allows the real-time excitement which enhances student motivation and facilitates student learning. This fit is even more evident if one examines the individual course components. According to Carr-Chellman and Duchastel, the "Ideal Online Course" has an online study guide which is the students’ main contact with course activities. "The essence of an online course is the organization of learning activities that enable the student to reach certain learning outcomes" (Carr-Chellman and Duchastel, 1999). The Online Weather Studies Study Guide provides such organization of learning activities, although only part of it is online. The printed part that a student can work on without a computer begins each lesson and provides appropriate introductory information concerning the topic. The activity continues with the online conclusion featuring a current, real-time weather example of the topic being studied and an analysis of the data associated with it. The Online Weather Studies Student Study Guide is well integrated with the course text, which was written specifically for the course. Carr-Chellman and Duchastel suggest that there should be no online textbook and the Online Weather Studies Text is not online except for a set of photographs and a glossary that are presented online to take advantage of that medium. "The ideal online course is centered on the set of student tasks, projects or assignments that constitute the learning experiences that the students will engage in," according to Carr-Chellman and Duchastel. They state further that "We are moving here to a mode of learning that is less dependent on the acquisition of information or content coverage via lectures, and more dependent on the application and use of such information in real world settings wherever possible." This is certainly true of Online Weather Studies. In most cases a portfolio of completed and graded online activities based on the analysis of real-time, real-world data provides the basis for most of the grade rather than traditional exams about content acquired in a lecture or from the text. Providing clues to allow students to assess their own mastery of the material is an important element of this mode of learning so having "examples online" is another key feature of Carr-Chellman and Duchastel’s ideal online course. This might be accomplished by providing self-scoring quizzes or other exercises that the students can access online and then get immediate feedback on their efforts. In Online Weather Studies this is sometimes provided via a course management homepage or through weather products and data provided in various stages of analysis where the raw data is analyzed by the student who then can immediately click on the analyzed product to check if their analysis was essentially correct. In the real world of weather it is difficult to gain facility with such analysis without much practice. Online Weather Studies provides such practice within its formal activities and through the provision of a broad array of weather data products.

Course communications are another key element of the "Ideal Online Course." Carr-Chellman and Duchastel suggest these can be made via a mix of asynchronous exchanges, synchronous exchanges, e-mail communications, and interactive skill building tools such as those described in the preceeding paragraph. This suite of communication tools is used to facilitate student-content interaction, student-instructor interaction and student-student interaction. In the case of Online Weather Studies, only synchronous communications have not been used extensively except for the telephone in student-instructor communication. The idea to forgo using synchronous chat or various teleconferencing options stems from the need to include a variety of students in the total course experience regardless of their technological capabilities (beyond a computer with an internet connection and a graphics capable browser) or their personal schedule. E-mail and listserv remain as the primary means of asynchronous student-instructor interaction. Several instructors hold e-mail office hours making this medium almost synchronous. Several are planning to use instant messaging for the same thing. Some Online offerings make extensive use of web forums or bulletin boards, which allow for asynchronous threaded discussions among all course participants and the instructor. Course content is provided asynchronously via the web through the Online homepage (once the real time lesson is delivered), the course management homepages and other links suggested. A significant portion of the content is included in the printed portion of the Study Guide and the Text. Work is exchanged via e-mail attachments or within an e-mail but the use of fax submission and even regular or campus mail is common. Many students on campus use the drop-off option at the instructor's office as an opportunity for face-to-face interaction.

7. Conclusion

The AMS education program is greatly encouraged by the success of the pilot offerings of Online Weather Studies as it moves into the full national implementation. Learning about the atmosphere by studying weather as it happens is a powerful pedagogical approach. Distance learning brings this excitement to those that otherwise would have difficulty taking a course of this sort. In Wisconsin, the course is offered again this fall by author Joe Moran through the Extended Degree Program at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay under the course title OCEAN OF AIR: INTRODUCTION TO WEATHER AND CLIMATE. It will be offered by author Jim Brey in the Department of Geography and Geology through UW Colleges under the course title INTRODUCTION TO METEOROLOGY. A list of other colleges offering the course during the fall semester is found in Appendix B.

8. Acknowledgments

The authors are indebted to Ira W. Geer, Director of the Education Program, American Meteorological Society, Robert S. Weinbeck, SUNY College at Brockport, and Edward J. Hopkins of the University of Wisconsin-Madison for their vision which resulted in Online Weather Studies. Melissa Ficek and Bernard Blair of the Education Program, American Meteorological Society also contribute to the Online Weather Studies course and assisted with the production of the graphs in the Appendix.

Funding for the Online Weather Studies project is provided by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DUE-9752416.

9. References

Brey, J.A. (1999) Assessing the use of real-time weather data in college weather courses: the DataStreme example, Preprint Volume, Education: Weather, Ocean, Climate '99: 5th International Conference on School and Popular Meteorological and Oceanographic Education, Ballarat and Melbourne, Australia, July 5-9, 1999.

Carr-Chellman, A. and Duchastel, P. (forthcoming) The ideal online course. British Journal of Educational Technology.

Geer, I.W., Moran, J.M., Hopkins, E.J., Brey, J.A., Weinbeck, R.W., and Blair, B.A. (1999) Online weather studies: a distance learning course for the introductory college level, Preprints, American Meteorological Society 8th Symposium on Education, Boston, MA: American Meteorological Society, pp. 217-218.

Geer, I.W., Weinbeck, Hopkins, E.J., R.W., Moran, J.M., Brey, J.A., and Blair, B.A. (1999) Online weather studies: an internet-delivered introductory course in atmospheric science, Education: Weather, Ocean, Climate, Preprint Volume, Ballarat and Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Fifth International Conference on School and Popular Meteorological and Oceanographic Education, pp. 62-63.

Geer, I.W., Weinbeck, R.S., Seefeldt, Hopkins, E.J., and Moran, J.M (1998) The DataStreme Project: successful distance-learning meteorology education for k-12 teachers. Preprints, American Meteorological Society 7th Symposium on Education, Boston, MA: American Meteorological Society, pp. 1-4.

Weinbeck, R.S., Geer, I.W., Hopkins, E.J., Moran, J.M., (1999) The DataStreme Project: k-12 teacher Enhancement through distance-learning. Preprints, American Meteorological Society 8th Symposium on Education, Boston, MA: American Meteorological Society, pp. 21-24.
 
 











Appendix A

Online Weather Studies Pilot Project

End-of-Course Faculty Survey

24 June, 1999 (14/14 responses)

 







1. How would you compare this course offering with your other first-time course offerings?

 
 Among the most successful
About the same
Among the least successful
5
9
0
35.7%
64.2%
0.0% 
graph
2. How do you think your students felt about this course compared to other courses they have taken?
 
Among the most liked
About the same
Among the least liked
No Response
6
7
0
1
42.8%
50.0%
0.0%
7.1%
graph
3. How would you compare student success in this course to other introductory-level weather-related courses you have taught?
 
 More than most
About the same
Less than most
6
7
0
42.8%
50.0%
0.0%
graph
4. What did your students appear to like most about this course? (Most common responses listed.)
Flexibility to work at own pace, convenience
Access to weather on the Internet
Hand-on approach
Study weather as it happened
5. What did your students appear to like least about this course? (Most common responses listed.)
Meeting deadlines
Not enough contact with the professor
Interpreting questions
6. What were the reactions, if any, of your colleagues or administrators concerning your offering the course? (Most common responses listed).
Very enthusiastic and supportive
Some doubt whether comparable to "normal course"
7.  Did you use a course management homepage?
 
Yes
No
4
10
28.5%
71.4%
graph
8. Did you provide an e-mail listserv or chat capability for interactions?
 
Yes
No
 8
6
57.1%
42.8%
graph
9. If your institution has a lab course requirement for graduation, did the Online course meet the lab requirement?
 
Yes
No
4
10 
 28.5%
71.4%
graph


10. Compared to your regular introductory-course students, how would you characterize the motivational level of your online students?

 
More motivated
Equally motivated
Less motivated
9
5
0
64.2%
35.7%
0.0%
graph


11. Why do you think your students took the Online Course? (More than a single response given)

 
Great instructor
Subject matter 
Mode of delivery
Happened to fit schedule
Who knows?
4

11 
4
1
15.3%
23.0%
42.3%
15.3%
3.8%
graph


12. Was students’ proficiency with computers and Internet delivery an obstacle to success?

 
Yes
No
4
10
28.5%
71.4%
graph
13. Compared to other introductory courses you teach, to what extent did Online students interact with one another?
 
Much more
Some more
About the same
Less than
Much less
Don’t know
1
3
2
4
3
1
7.1%
21.4
14.2% 
28.5%
21.4% 
7.1%
graph


14. Do you feel that your students met course requirements as well as students in your other introductory level courses?

 
Yes
No
13
1
92.8%
7.1%
graph
15. Based on student feedback, did your students think more or less work was required of them ascompared with other courses?
 
Much more work
More work
About the same
Less work
Much less work
No answer
1

5
2
0
1
7.1% 
35.7%
35.7%
14.2%
0.0%
7.1%
graph


16. How did students generally appear to perceive the pace of the course?

 
Too fast
About right
Too slow
No answer
2
10
0
2
14.2% 
71.4% 
0.0% 
14.2%
graph


17. Student retention:

Range 50% to 100%
Mean 72.6%
18. How did course attrition compare to your other introductory courses?
 
Very low
Lower than average
About the same
Higher than average
Very High
3
0
8
3
21.4%
0.0%
57.1%
21.4% 
0.0%
graph


19. How did course attrition compare to other online and/or distance-learning courses at your institution?

 
Low
About the same
High
Not known
0
4
1
9
0.0%
28.5%
7.1%
64.2%
graph
20. How did the grade distribution in the Online course compare with your usual grade distributions for an introductory course?
 
Higher Online grades
About the same
Lower Online grades
No grades
4
7
2
1
28.5%
50.0%
14.2%
7.1%
graph

 

Appendix B

List of Schools Licensing Online Weather Studies Fall Semester with web links.

 






Carroll Community College, Westminster, MD
http://www.carroll.cc.md.us/

Columbia Gorge Community College, The Dallas, OR
http://www.cgcc.cc.or.us/distance.htm

Cypress College, Cypress, CA
http://www.lib.cypress.cc.ca.us/

Diablo Valley College, Pleasant Hill, CA
http://www.dvc.edu/online

Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI
http://www.emuonline.edu/

Eastern New Mexico University, Portales, NM
http://www.enmu.edu/

Georgian Court College, Lakewood, NJ
http://www.georgian.edu/distance/index.html

Gulf Coast Community College, Panama City, FL
http://www.gc.cc.fl.us/vcampus

Holyoke Community College, Holyoke, MA
http://134.241.135.91/online/webct.htm

Maple Woods Community College, Kansas City, MO
http://distance.kcmetro.cc.mo.us/search.tpl

Mount Vernon Nazarene College, Mount Vernon, OH
http://www.mvnc.edu/

Mountain Empire Community College, Big Stone Gap, VA
http://www.me.cc.va.us/

Murray State University, Murray, KY
http://www.mursuky.edu/kate/kate.htm

Nassau Community College, Garden City, NY
http://www.sunynassau.edu/

Portland Community College, Portland, OR
http://www.pcc.edu/cpubs/schedule/

Portland State University, Portland, OR
http://www.pdx.edu/

Prairie State College, Chicago Heights, IL
http://www.bradley.edu/academics/gened/psc.html

Richland Community College, Decatur, IL
http://www.richland.cc.il.us/vcampus

Riverside Community College
http://opencampus.com/

Seminole Community College, Sanford, FL
http://www.seminole.cc.fl.us/

South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, Rapid City, SD
http://distance.sdsmt.edu

University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA
http://www.uni.edu/contined/cp/creditcourses/webcourse.html

University of Wisconsin Colleges, Menasha, WI
http://www.uwcolleges.com

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Green Bay, WI
http://www.uwgb.edu/moranj