Course Components

Online textbooks

Online or digital textbooks solve some problems associated with standard textbooks: textbooks are heavy, expensive, and sometimes do not serve students well. Online and digital textbooks can be obtained commercially, free through sites supported by advertising (such as Bookboon), or free from sites that develop peer-reviewed resources (like Connexions).

Participants identified problems with the current model of online textbooks. One difficulty is adopting a sustainable business model; this would require paying for textbook development and consistent technical support from sources other than research funds. A second challenge is that online homework systems (such as WebAssign or MasteringPhysics) have different technical standards, so that changing systems is difficult once a department or individual has chosen a system and imported materials into it.

Open education resources

There were two presentations on large platforms hosting free, research-based instructional materials. These platforms offer homework problems, texts, and assessments that can be used in either traditional courses or courses utilizing distance education, and can supplement or potentially replace traditional textbooks.

Candace Thille of Stanford University talked about the Open Learning Initiative (OLI), developed at Carnegie Mellon University. OLI creates free instructional materials that employ a cognitive tutor, which provides hints and tutoring. The goal of OLI is to enable students to think more metacognitively, so that they learn when and how to use different problem-solving strategies. To do this, OLI collects the detailed learning data needed to improve instruction of individual topics and then provides feedback at the time students need it.

Gerd Kortemeyer of Michigan State University discussed the free, open-source platform LON-CAPA, which offers over 400,000 resources, texts, and assessments in physics. Michigan State University has used these resources to run both online and blended large enrollment courses for the last decade. Problems have randomized numbers and differing graphs to encourage collaboration, rather than copying, among students. This platform also includes formative assessment for students and instructors. Formative assessment is ongoing assessment, as students are learning, that (1) provides instructors with information about students’ current learning to guide future instruction and (2) enables students to recognize their progress and see where they need to improve. Both traditional and online instructors want to efficiently, yet comprehensively, assess students’ critical thinking and their ability to go beyond algorithmic problem solving.

Online labs and simulations

A concern for instructors teaching online courses is how to incorporate the lab experience, which is seen as an essential part of introductory physics. Researchers have developed resources to address this need, including simulations, video-based labs, and java-based applets. For example, a MOOC with a lab component was offered through the education company Coursera; this course included video-analysis-based labs (Physics with Video Analysis) developed by Priscilla Laws et al. Another available resource is PhET simulations, which are free, interactive, research-based simulations designed to help students visually comprehend physics concepts. Physlets are small, interactive Java applets designed for teaching physics online.

Online homework systems

Online homework systems can be used in online, blended, or traditional courses. Working online, students do assigned physics homework, which is automatically evaluated. Webassign is an online homework system used by 10 million students since 1998. Instructors of introductory courses can assign content assessments like the Force Concept Inventory, conceptual and quantitative questions, and password-protected, timed exams. MasteringPhysics is an online homework system offering three semesters of content for introductory physics and an adaptive tutorial. It determines individual difficulties based on homework answers and assigns questions personalized for those difficulties.