Field of Science

The Invisible College

I spent part of today preparing for a talk for I'm giving at Drexel on Wednesday, for their E-Learning Lecture Series. Jean-Claude Bradley (whose lecture is linked to the posts on chirality) is my host. He's been constructing on-line courses in chemistry, that are also taught in real-time. By the end of term, most of the students are not present in the classroom, but are invisible in some sense to the lecturer. The web allows us to construct an invisible university, where neither chronological nor spatial constraints apply to the community of scholars.

This is nothing new. In the 17th centure, Robert Boyle, whose name we associate with the inverse relationship between pressure and volume, was part of an institutuion known as the Invisible College. The Invisible College was group of natural philosophers working in England, which Boyle joined in the 1650s. This group eventually became the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, still operating nearly 400 years later.

Interesting tidbits about Boyle: He identified himself as an alchemist and believed that base metals (such as iron) could be "transmuted" into more precious metals such as gold. The study of the properties of gases is the precursor of "scientific chemistry", and was an active field in the 17th century (think balloons!). Even though general chemistry books refer to Boyle's Law, it is also attributed in some texts (principally in Europe) to Mariotte. Boyle authored The Skeptical Chemist, where he encouraged experimentation and observation, and Some Considerations Touching the Usefulnesse of Experimental Natural Philosophy, where he strongly supported the teaching of experimental science in schools (if you don't enjoy lab, blame Boyle).


  1. The fully online students may be physically invisible but I still sense their presence in their online behavior - do they do quizzes early, late, often or not at all, do they rush through tests or take all the time to review, do they do test as early or as late as possible? When they ask questions by email, do they summarize their understanding lucidly or use disjointed sentence fragments that are hard to comprehend? When they comment on the class blog do they sign with their real names? Do they skip the first test and just take the make-up? Do they take the first test then don't take the make-up, even though they have nothing to loose? Are they morning people who email me at 6:00 am or night owls that have questions at midnight? I don't think true invisibility is possible in an online class.
    By the way we look forward to your talk tomorrow!

  2. True, the new "invisible" university is very different from Boyle's. Communication was by letter and small group conversations, and was difficult for outsiders to be aware of, let alone access. I see the parallels more in the asynchronicity of the interaction. Student, teachers and colleagues can be shifted in time in space, yet still effectively be "together".


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