Online learning and instructions have emerged as popular methods and potential supplements to conventional face-to-face teaching and learning with the rapid development and integration of technology into education. Technology can be used as an effective tool to stimulate attention, interest, thought, and feeling of learners in learning activities to achieve learning goals [1
]. Over the past few years, an increasing number of research studies have explored the perspectives of students and educators who are using various technologies for online learning and pedagogies for online teaching [2
]. Online education is often associated with virtual education, internet education, cyber-learning, and asynchronous learning. Kearsley [6
] stated that collaboration, connectivity, student-centeredness, unboundedness, community, exploration, shared knowledge, multisensory experience, and authenticity are the main themes that shape online education.
Many studies have suggested that education develops curiosity, imagination, creativity, diversity, efficiency, learning, and communication skills in students. Nonetheless, many reports [7
] have indicated an increasing need to improve science, mathematics, and technology education, especially at the high school level. When talking about science, chemistry is at the center of producing the resources necessary for socio-economic, scientific, and technological advancement needed for any nation. Teaching and learning chemistry by using the World Wide Web (www) as an interactive mode is a topic of interest “to master chemical concepts while developing the wide spectrum of critical skills essential for future career development” [8
] p. 445.
Chemistry is regarded as the central science for its contribution to other sciences such as Biology, Physics, Nutrition, and Health [9
]. However, chemistry is mainly viewed as one of the most challenging subjects to understand among the science subjects, and as a result, it attracts fewer students to enroll in it [10
]. Despite the vital role and importance of chemistry, the failure rate has remained very high. Various factors may contribute to students’ poor achievement in chemistry, such as students’ background, lack of interest and qualified teachers, and traditional teaching strategies with inadequate instructional materials [11
]. Hussain [12
] considered three levels of barriers to using ICT in chemistry classes. These levels are—teacher, school, and system levels that may affect the attitudes of students to learning, opportunities for professional development of science teachers that affect teaching in the classroom, and students’ performance in chemistry.
In the UAE, chemistry is taught as a separate subject in grade 10. Then, in grade 11, students who choose a science track major in science study mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, and geology [13
]. One of the significant problems that education in the UAE suffers from is students’ low achievement and poor performance in chemistry in high schools [14
]. Studies show that the demographic, home environment, prior knowledge, scholastic ability, attitudes, and perceptions related to chemistry and science, and student perception of instructional practices are the variables correlated with student chemistry achievement and performance in the UAE [15
]. The major chemistry resources in the selected school where this study was conducted included Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), textbooks and other resources as per the NGSS, and a school science laboratory. There were three chemistry classes each week in grades 9–12. The teachers and students used Zoom meetings to conduct online synchronous classes. The school used the learning management system for students to access learning materials and upload their tasks and assignments. The Ministry of Education of the United Arab Emirates provided necessary support and training to all teachers and school administrators to conduct online classes smoothly during the COVID-19 pandemic [16
]. The government also provided Internet connectivity to the needy students [16
The recent coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused a paradigm shift in the way educators deliver quality education through various online platforms used in schools in the UAE [17
]. Online or distance learning has become a solution for this unprecedented global pandemic, despite the challenges posed to both educators and the learners [18
]. Simultaneously, the pandemic has uncovered various opportunities for new and innovative ways of learning and digitization in education systems worldwide and enabling them to “learn lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic that could make education policies more evidence based, inclusive, responsive, and transparent” [19
]. However, this transition from traditional face-to-face chemistry learning to online chemistry learning can be an entirely different experience for learners and educators, in which they must adapt to with little or no other alternatives available with respect to changes in lessons, homework, and learning practices [20
]. Teaching and learning of chemistry that requires some practical activities, such as lab demonstrations and hands-on modeling have been more challenging due to the virtual mode of classes with online and distance education [21
The factors affecting students’ performance in chemistry have continued to be a main concern for educational authorities and other education stakeholders in the UAE [14
]. Academic achievement has led to low mean grades for most candidates and thus endangered their chances for upward social mobility, and it raises challenges for Emirati students to keep up with their international counterparts in science and mathematics-related subjects [22
]. At the higher level, the academic achievement has led to low uptake of careers in science, especially chemistry, due to the declining interest of students in this field [23
]. Various measures have been adopted targeting students, teachers, and the overall teaching and learning environment in the schools and classrooms in the UAE [15
]. Despite these measures, the academic performance and achievement in chemistry has suffered, with lower mean national averages being recorded year after year [15
]. The continued poor achievement in chemistry has been attributed to several factors, such as students’ attitude towards chemistry, their motivation level, students’ resources for learning, students’ interpersonal relationships, students’ collaboration, and students’ irregularity in their classes [24
]. However, there is limited information about factors affecting students’ performance in chemistry during online and distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, it was crucial to examine some indicators of students’ performance in online and distance chemistry classes during the COVID-19 pandemic in the UAE.
Numerous studies have been conducted on students’ performance and different factors affecting their performance in science subjects in high school [25
]. However, there are limited studies in this area in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). To the best of our knowledge, this study about students’ performance and factors influencing those performances in online chemistry classes is the first to be carried out at the high school level in the UAE. Furthermore, this study argues that the online learning experience in chemistry could be better, and an effective method relative to the traditional methods of teaching and learning once it provides equal learning experiences to all the students. The study of students’ achievement or performance in the online and distance learning of chemistry during COVID-19 may provide an insight to developing new pedagogical approaches and policies to deal with the crises in education in the future [29
3. Theoretical Framework
We applied social constructivism, activity theory, and interaction theory as guiding principles to the study. An effective integration of the propositions of these three theories into online classes could enhance the learning outcomes. These theories are associated with six performance indicators of students’ online and distance learning of chemistry. These indicators were devised as critical thinking (CT), collaborative skills (CS), creativity and innovation (CI), technology application (TA), participation level (PL), and overall achievement (OA) of students during online chemistry learning. Similarly, creating an online learning environment that provides an equivalent learning experience relative to the face-to-face mode [59
] may improve all six indicators of students’ performance (Figure 1
Social constructivism is a theory of knowledge construction as a social reality with interaction of social members that continues forever without any time and space bounds [60
]. The process of teaching and learning chemistry and the construction of knowledge, skills, and dispositions are based on social negotiation of concepts, methods, and processes in the social environment (e.g., classrooms, schools, and communities) [61
] by transforming subjective meanings and actions into an objective social reality of teaching and learning (chemistry or any other discipline) in an online and distance-education context [62
Activity theory focuses on three elements in human action—the actor (subject), the object on which the subject acts, and the method/tool to perform the action in a context [63
]. These three elements are further interconnected to the community where the action takes place with some rules or norms based on the division of responsibilities and the potential outcomes to be shared by the members [64
]. The online teaching-learning of chemistry can be interpreted with this framework in terms of role of teachers and students (subjects), the process of teaching-learning (actions), the methods and tools, such as technological devices and means of communication (artifacts) within the school community with a set of guidelines by the school and the government by dividing their roles and responsibilities for a better learning outcome [65
Online and distance learning of chemistry has been influenced by how students and teachers interact with technological tools, such as computers and other hardware, and online web-based tools such as learning management systems, applications, and different learning and teaching tools [66
]. Biundo and Wendemuth [66
] introduced companion technology as a means of technology-human interaction as a cognitive technical system that focuses on user competence, adaptation, access, safety, cooperation, trust, and flexibility. In this context, we applied Norros et al.’s [67
] human-technology interaction (HTI) as a means to understand students’ performance in using technological tools to access chemistry class and resources for their learning in both live virtual classrooms and off-line asynchronous activities [44
We applied these three broad theoretical constructs to understand students’ performance in CT, CS, CI, TA, PL, and OA in online chemistry classes. Critical thinking (CT) is an essential skill that has been recommended by governments and educational institutions globally to enhance performance in education, especially among the younger generation. Another essential component in the theoretical structure is collaborative skill (CS), which is also one of the recommended 21st century skills in education, particularly in online classes [68
]. The positive impact of CS on students’ success in online learning could be explained by the social constructivism and activities theory, which states that working collectively to achieve a specific goal creates an influential learning atmosphere that helps in agile knowledge construction [34
]. The CS helps students formulate ideas through collective learning, improves individual performance and raises the quality of students’ productivity, and facilitates better understanding of course contents in online classes, which in turn improves students’ performance [36
]. The other components of the framework are creativity and innovation (CI) and technological applications (TA). Student participation is a critical factor for the success of online and distance learning in chemistry classes. In this regard, we studied students’ participation level (PL) in terms of the impact of online and distance classes on their attendance, regularity, motivation, and engagement in chemistry learning. Finally, we associated students’ perceptions of overall achievement (OA) in terms of effect on their grades and overall performance in chemistry learning.
To be successful in both online and face-to-face learning, students need excellent collaborative skills, knowledge of technological application, good creativity and innovative skills, and a high level of critical thinking. In this light, four of the aforementioned 21st century skills are crucial for students’ performance in online chemistry classes. Researchers have discussed the benefits of online learning of chemistry for a long time due to its flexibility, accessibility, synchronicity and asynchronicity, and layered presentations of materials, concept-by-concept with well-connected resources and models [8
]. It may even offer students an opportunity for self-regulated and self-paced learning of chemistry concepts and problems [77
]. The current study results showed that student participation was the indicator with the greatest effect in terms of the highest mean value compared to other indicators of student performance.
Overall, the one-sample Wilcoxon Singed Rank test indicated that students agreed that their creative thinking skills had been significantly enhanced during the online classes (T = 2123.50, Z = 2.919, p =
0.004 < 0.05). This finding is consistent with the view of Palevich [78
] and Derwin [79
]. Next, the findings of this study showed that students agreed that their collaborative skills had been significantly enhanced during the online classes (T = 2549.50, Z = 2.694, p =
0.007 < 0.05). This result is consistent with Chao et al. [80
], Jahng [81
], and Priyambodo [82
]. In addition, the students agreed that the online or distance chemistry classes enhanced their creativity and innovative skills (T = 2287.00, Z = 4.028, p
= 0.000 < 0.05) and this result is consistent with several other studies [83
]. The students agreed that the online or distance chemistry classes enhanced their technology application skills in chemistry learning (T = 2769.50, Z = 4.414, p
= 0.000 < 0.05). Such skills not only help students learn independently, but they may also support their cognition through improved retention, critical thinking, and information processing [85
]. The participants in the study rated their active participation in the online or distance chemistry classes as high (T = 2287.00, Z = 4.028, p
= 0.000 < 0.05), and this result is consistent with the findings reported in Zhou et al. [86
]. Overall, the students rated their achievement in the online or distance chemistry classes as high (T = 2339.00, Z = 5.195, p
= 0.000 < 0.05). However, this finding was based on students’ self-reported beliefs about their achievement, which might be different from their actual achievement. This view corroborates with the view that students’ self-efficacy on chemistry class may not truly represent their academic achievement [87
The comparison of students’ CT, CS, CI, TA, PL, and OA with respect to gender showed that the female students had a greater sense of performance in all areas than their male counterparts at a 0.05 level of significance, indicating that female students outperformed male students. This finding was consistent with other studies [88
]. This success seems to result from female students having a greater propensity to seek communication, collaboration, and assistance from colleagues [92
] compared to male students. However, such results are controversial because this might not be the case for all places and contexts [93
]. Similarly, students of non-Emirati nationality outperformed in all aspects compared to their Emirati counterparts. There was no statistically significant difference between students of grades 10, 11, and 12 in all performance indicators, except creativity and innovation, which were significantly different between students of grades 11 and 12. This finding is in line with a study conducted in the Southern US on students taking online business courses, which revealed that graduate students had higher motivational levels compared with undergraduate students [94
]. The results in the current study showed that there was a statistically significant difference between Emirati and non-Emirati students in terms of their critical thinking, collaborative skills, and creativity and innovative (CI) skills in online and distance learning of chemistry. These differences could be due to the social and cultural factors where most non-Emirati students come from families with high motivation for chemistry education compared with the Emirati families who might not consider chemistry education a priority. The non-Emirati students had a greater sense of achievement than the Emirati students did in online and distance chemistry classes, and the difference was statistically significant. However, there was no statistically significant difference between the Emirati and non-Emirati students’ ability in using technological tools in online and distance learning of chemistry. There were significant positive correlations among the variables CT, CS, CI, TA, PL, and OA.
The significant positive effect of CS on student performance affirms the social constructivism and activities theory, which states that working collectively to achieve a specific goal creates an influential learning atmosphere that helps in agile knowledge construction [34
]. Likewise, the finding on TA corroborates the study by Cao and Hong [33
], who found a significant positive correlation between student educational achievement and the use of social media interaction. The positive relationship between CT and student performance in this study is not similar to what [41
] and [42
] have found. Their findings show that students hardly demonstrate high critical thinking and participation levels in online discussions, which could be seen in conversations that are shallow and uncollaborative.
7. Conclusion, Implications, and Limitations
The findings of the study identified significant correlations among four of the 21st century skills, including critical thinking (CT), collaborative skills (CS), creativity and innovation (CI), and technology application (TA) in addition to student participation level (PL) and overall achievement (OA) in online chemistry classes in the UAE. The students had, in general, a sense of enhancement of their skills in CT, CS, CI, TA, PL, and OA. There was a greater degree of achievement among female students compared to males, and non-Emirati students compared to the Emirati nationals. These findings suggest that the online and distance learning environments have an overall positive impact on students’ learning of chemistry, despite the challenges of conducting laboratory-related demonstrations and hands-on activities. Although these findings are based on students’ self-reported feelings and opinions about the impact of online learning of chemistry on their performance, it may not represent their actual grades or performance. However, it showed a likelihood of positive influence on students’ overall performance in chemistry.
The future of chemistry education in online and distance modes may benefit students with greater flexibility, autonomy, safety, and a sense of community in virtual classes. These findings showed a positive sign of the pedagogical implications of the online and distance teaching-learning of chemistry in a sample high school. The online virtual classes would have the potential to provide flexibility to the students to go back to recorded lessons, would change the mood and modes of communication between students and teachers, and student-to-student social presence in the online modes through threaded discussions, etc. These implications could be explored in the future studies. Moreover, the literature also suggests that blended mode of science classes in general and chemistry teaching-learning, in particular with the integration of online simulations, encourages students’ creativity and innovation. The virtual classes with synchronous and asynchronous sessions may provide a broader opportunity for teachers and students to enhance creativity, collaboration, openness, flexibility, innovation, multiple-technological integration with a greater participation, and overall multiple-skills and learning outcomes.
Although the present findings have important implications, there are still limitations. The study focused on only one school in Al Ain that limited its data size. Therefore, there was less randomization and diversification, and we cannot generalize the findings of the study. The participants of this study were below age 18 and researchers were required to acquire parental consent before administering the questionnaire, which is why it was difficult for the researchers to include other schools in a limited time. Most of the participants were non-native English speakers. As a result, this might have affected their responses to the given questionnaire (written in English). The scope of the research was limited, as the researchers carried out research alongside various constraints, such as lack of direct excess to respondents, and many technical issues in conducting online surveys due to COVID-19. During the administration of the instrument in the sample school, the researchers were given limited slots, and they were sometimes not enough. Furthermore, due to the limited allocated time, the researchers were not able to reach the target sample size. Despite all these limitations, the instrument was administered, and research was carried out successfully. The biases and sampling errors could be minimized in future studies by extending the study to several schools and including a larger sample size with cluster sampling or stratified random sampling (instead of purposive sampling of one school) where both public and private schools could be included in the study sample. To have more absolute answers, we suggest that future studies include a larger and more representative sample of participants from different schools and different Emirates in the UAE. Future research should examine cross-cultural differences in students’ performance in online chemistry classes. Researchers should also look at factors affecting students’ performance in other majors (e.g., Physics and Biology) in the science track in the UAE.