APS News

Sold-out Crowd Examines Distance Learning in Physics

By Deanna Ratnikova

An increasing number of US colleges and universities are turning to online course offerings and other versions of distance education for a portion of their courses.  Physics departments are not exempt from the push for distance education and are putting substantial time and resources into online homework systems, video-recorded lectures and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Over 100 participants gathered at APS headquarters in College Park on June 1-2 to learn about the opportunities and implications of distance education and online learning for the physics community.  

Over the course of the workshop, which lasted a day and a half, speakers primarily focused on online resources designed to enhance the classroom experience, and they presented what physics education research has to offer to optimize the effectiveness of distance education efforts. Some speakers, however, directly addressed the contentious topic of distance education and MOOCs.  

Jack Wilson, President Emeritus of the University of Massachusetts Lowell and former CEO of UMass Online, kicked off the conference with the keynote “Radical Change in Higher Education–will physics lead, follow, or get out of the way?” He noted that traditional press coverage of MOOCs ranges from skepticism (how to deal with cheating; are these courses effective?) to hype (distance education will change the world and transform education).   

Wilson reported on a Sloan Foundation/Association of Public and Land-grant Universities survey finding that nearly three-quarters of university presidents believe online learning is critical to their institution’s long-term strategy. This is consistent with the results of an informal survey conducted at the workshop, which showed that physics departments are primarily encouraged by entities outside the department (deans, provosts, presidents, and other high-level administrators) to offer more online courses. In response to this pressure, 87% of the responding workshop participants noted that they anticipate their department will increase its use of distance education modes in the next three years; the other 13% anticipate their use of distance education modes will remain the same in the short-term.

Renee Michelle Goertzen, APS Education Programs Manager, remarked, “Conference participants expressed the need for increased attention and research into the best practices in distance education and online learning, and they were particularly enthusiastic in sessions on topics such as MOOCs and assessment in online learning.”  

Ryan Baker of Columbia University addressed concerns over assessment and discussed how it is not necessarily measuring whether the knowledge is learned but whether it is robustly learned (i.e., will it stay retained for a longer period?) and whether it can be transferred to other situations or used to learn new skills. Baker presented research on models that can predict whether students will learn robustly early in their learning process.

Gerd Kortemeyer and Wolfgang Bauer, both of Michigan State University, reported on their experience running completely online and blended large-enrollment physics courses for more than 10 years at Michigan State. Kortemeyer presented his work using the free open-source platform LON-CAPA as a learning delivery system—a tool that David Pritchard of MIT has also used for his online classes. Prichard now, however, bases his online classes on EdX, a non-profit organization created by Harvard and MIT that offers MOOCs and interactive online classes in a variety of subjects. According to Pritchard, those who satisfactorily complete the required portion of his course are awarded a certificate from EdX, and for teachers in the US, the course awards Professional Development Points (free for teachers in Massachusetts) or, for a fee, Continuing Education Units through the American Association of Physics Teachers.

Michigan State’s Bauer discussed how MOOCs can be monetized—which may account for the push from higher administrators for their implementation. He explained that MOOC materials can be used in a flipped classroom along with a teaching assistant for student interactions, thus potentially removing the need for faculty, and that institutions may soon start to charge some tuition to those students who successfully complete a MOOC and wish to receive college credit.

The first day of the workshop finished with a keynote address from Candace Thille of Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI), a grant-funded group offering online courses to all. OLI was built upon the idea of integrating cognitive tutoring into online courses that can stand on their own and provide instruction. Their model is based on cognitive science telling us how students need help to think more metacognitively, and it provides feedback when the students need it. OLI provides students with simulations, time-independent access to the course, and connections to students around the world, but more importantly, it allows education researchers to collect data on how people are learning and using the system.  

On the final day of the workshop, Pritchard and Kortemeyer delved deeper into the challenges of distance education. Pritchard remarked that academic cheating can be broken down into several groups—general cheating, exam cheating, plagiarism, and unauthorized collaboration—and according to literature on the subject, only unauthorized collaboration is significantly growing. An MIT study, which defined cheating as putting in the answer into the online system faster than it would take to read the problem and input the answer, showed that students who cheated more did worse on the exams and that they pass future classes less often. This leads to a division of opinions by instructors—one extreme contends that it is not appropriate to intervene, as they should only maintain standards and allow the students to decide what to do, while the other extreme believes in trying to reduce copying because the wrong message is conveyed if instructors ignore the cheating.

Kortemeyer noted that there should be a distinction between cheating on homework, which leads to learning failure and demoralization, and cheating on exams, which should lead to course failure. Based on an analysis of student discussions, Kortemeyer found that multiple choice problems produce the most solution-oriented discussions and that the best discussions occur with problems of medium-range difficulty.  He also shared his results from conducting weekly exams rather than just a midterm and final: there was less use of unsanctioned websites and more use of the sanctioned site, more student satisfaction, more regular e-text use, and better final exam scores.

Andy Rundquist of Hamline University brought to light a major challenge for mass adoption of authentic assessment methods—scalability. At the Department Chairs Conference held just prior to the Distance Education Workshop, Rundquist presented his standards-based grading with voice approach and noted that it could be a possible solution to cheating. He recognized, however, that it could not scale easily past a 40-person class, so the question remains how instructors can best address cheating in large introductory college courses that are based online or use online homework.   

APS Director of Education & Diversity Ted Hodapp remarked that “APS staff and the Committee on Education are considering ways to connect faculty wrestling with the issues of distance education, and to provide resources for understanding this changing landscape.”

The workshop was supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation and organized by Jacob Clark Blickenstaff, Noah Finkelstein, Ted Hodapp, Edward Prather, David Pritchard, and Carl Wieman.


©1995 - 2016, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella