Creation of Academic Social Networks for Effective Online eLearning in General Chemistry

Project No.
PI Name
John Brennan
Rutgers University


Abstract 1

Creation of Academic Social Networks for Effective Online eLearning in General Chemistry

Presentation Type
Emily L. Buginsky, Rutgers University Kar Lun Chun, Rutgers University Raship Shah, Rutgers University Swapnil Patel, Rutgers University Francesca Guerra, Rutgers University John Brennan, Rutgers University Darrin M. York, Rutgers University


This project impacts students studying introductory chemistry both at the high school level as well as college. In effect, the infrastructure we will provide through this project will enable instruction, team learning and peer mentoring in chemistry to occur online in a virtual classroom environment. The underlying network connects students through tracking of mastery of learning objectives as measured through problem solving of questions provided by the system, and interfaced with a number of textbooks. This academic social networking will enable peer-led team learning in cyberspace, as well as a host of other online active learning activities that can occur either independently between students or facilitated by an instructor online. This is a novel innovation for which no technology currently exists.


The goal is to create infrastructure that allows students to work general chemistry problems, engage in team learning and peer mentoring activities online. This requires an interface to be built that integrates a new general chemistry eLearning System that delivers general chemistry problems in order to test specific learning objectives, and then tracks mastery of these objectives, along with the required elemental critical skills, in a network. This information is then used to facilitate connections with students; i.e., a student struggling with a learning objective can be connected with another that has mastered that objective at the appropriate difficulty level. Together with the web tools we have built to create low-bandwidth virtual classroom environments online, we will create powerful infrastructure for an academic social network that will enable a wide range of online activities for students and instructors, and allows the delivery of custom instruction at scale. This is a potentially transformative technology in STEM education. A beta version of this technology is currently being deployed to over 2,500 students at Rutgers, and very recently this scope has been extended to mathematics, computer science and philosophy. This project is truly within our reach within the next two years.


The methodologies used involve two main components: the general chemistry eLearning system (GCeLS) and a virtual classroom environment (VCE) created and deployed as a set of integrated web tools through a Rutgers initiated start-up company Discourse Technologies. What needs to be developed is the underlying database and network infrastructure that allows the information collected by GCeLS to be used to facilitate connections with students. As simple examples, a student struggling with an online problem can reach out to the network and engage in a synchronous interaction with another student that has mastered the learning objective associated with the problem, and that has a track record of being an effective peer mentor. Students can create dynamic study groups that can be either public or private, or moderated by an instructor. Thematic interactive workshops provided by instructors or teaching interns can specifically target and engage students struggling with or in need of remediation of the learning objectives associated with the workshops. This is a general tool that allows one to transform data created through online problem solving into knowledge about how to deliver personalized instruction.


The outcomes of this work will be to create an online learning framework that keep pace with social network technology that are routinely used by high school and college students nationwide. The system will provide a mechanism to create new types of effective online learning communities that provide social rewards for academic achievement. Further, the system can be used independently of textbook, and can also serve as a platform for conducting virtual office hours, recitations, study groups, and review sessions - many of which are already ongoing at Rutgers.

Broader Impacts

The technology developed in this project will impact high school, college and university students and instructors nationwide. It is likely that large publishing companies will be interested in leveraging the networks that are created to build new interfaces and eLearning products. Overall, a new paradigm may be created where the quality of education improves, rather than degrades, with increasing enrollments, and effective, meaningful online eLearning communities develop not only in chemistry, but in other STEM disciplines as well.

Unexpected Challenges

Transform the culture of online learning for incoming students was extremely challenging, as was responding to a broad range of needs.