15 Years of Online Physics Courses at Michigan State University

Gerd Kortemeyer, Michigan State University

In Fall 1997, our first physics course went online with 32 students: algebra-based introductory physics, first semester. Sixteen years later, we have seven physics courses online, spanning the whole range of introductory course offerings, with a total of over 1600 students in 2013. What have we learned?

Early beginnings

The use of online technology in physics teaching at MSU goes back to 1992, when CAPA came online as a homework tool. CAPA is built around the idea of immediate feedback and mastery-based formative assessment. It allows for a wide range of problem randomization, such that students cannot simply copy each other’s answers. The system was used as an online component of otherwise traditional physics courses, however, this being 1992, “online” meant Telnet and X-Windows. Online homework eventually replaced traditional recitations in our department, and exam performance increased as a result, particularly among female students [1]. Around the same time, a group of faculty started developing a “hyper-textbook” for introductory physics, which replaced traditional textbooks and was distributed on a CD using a system called Supercard. Prior to the launch of the first fully online course, both homework and material moved to a web-based format, which eventually became the LON-CAPA platform [1].

Content and content maintenance

We clearly had a head start in launching the first online course, as we could port existing materials from CAPA and Supercard: we already had all the homework we needed (developed over the past five years) and all the textual material (which is significantly less than what is included in a standard two-kilogram physics textbook — seriously, who actually reads this?).  At launch time, we added some Java applets with simulations and several movies with lecture demonstrations, which, like the original materials, were produced by physics faculty.

Over the years, the material underwent several iterations, and it was forked for different courses and instructors. This process has been facilitated and encouraged by the underlying learning content management system of LON-CAPA, which allows for versioning and sharing of materials across courses and even institutions. Online content clearly needs maintenance: Java is prone to fail and needs to be replaced by HTML5, video codecs become obsolete (and anyway, old 320x240 pixel videos are substandard today), new technologies and toolsets become available (Camtasia [2] currently being one of our favorites), etc. The continual renewal and expansion is supported by fine-granular asset management, which allows for modular replacement of course assets. Today, LON-CAPA hosts about 110,000 online assets for physics courses [3].

These very same assets are also used for on-campus instruction, where they form the online component of the courses, at a minimum the online homework. Recently, in a residential college on our campus, which is offering its own version of the calculus-based sequence, a flipped design has been adopted, where students use these online materials with embedded online assessment (“reading questions”) prior to the in-class sessions on the topics. Thus, faculty time spent on the online materials also benefits the on-campus instruction.


We essentially run our online courses as separate sections of the same physics courses, so we technically or de-facto have one course in a given semester, of which some sections are on-campus and some online. Online courses are not on autopilot. The role of their faculty instructor is not so different from traditional courses, apart from not getting to be the sage-on-the-stage. Instructors still need to answer student questions, which in both online and on-campus courses mostly takes place in the online forums. Faculty also still needs to write the exams, but frequently, the instructors of the online and on-campus sections use the same exam.

Serving materials and homework online does not pose a large logistics problem, either: faculty generally need a little more support than students (who even in 1997 were just fine using the web), somebody needs to run the servers, and links to the administrative systems need to keep class lists and authentication up-to-date.

Exams in the online sections are a different topic: how do you guarantee their integrity? Short of using “Big Brother” systems like ProctorU [4] or working with a network of testing centers, we are taking a hybrid approach. Students who live within 30 miles of campus need to take the exam on-site in a standard setting, students who live further away need to identify a proctor (typically faculty at another college or university, librarians, or commanding military officers), and faculty need to approve the proctor and deal with the logistics of getting the exam materials back and forth. Most students are within the 30-mile radius (and most of these on-campus anyway), so they take the exams like everybody else.

What have we learned?

Our first question of course was: what have they learned? Using the same exams for the traditional and the online courses, we found a disconcerting result: the students in the online course had better scores – not by much, but statistically significant. Granted, the online students were self-selected and possibly a slightly different population, but what we learned from that: our traditional lectures were useless. Whether or not students sit in a lecture hall and attend a traditional lecture makes no positive difference in their learning, as measured by standard exams. It also did not matter who lectured, the faculty assignment of these classes rotates.

The result underlined the need to reform our traditional courses, incorporate problem-solving and peer-instruction, and in some case eliminate traditional content coverage. We found that increasing the rate of in-class assessment and feedback increased use of the online resources [5] and led to better course performance [6]. We could have guessed that from analyzing the online courses, since it reflects the preferred learning path of the students. Based on access log analysis, we found that almost invariably, students first gravitated to the online assessment and only if they could not solve the problems actually read the materials [7]. We also found that particularly among female students, formative assessment was used as an opportunity for peer-teaching [8]. We thus now do not have a single introductory physics class on campus anymore that does not use clickers, peer-teaching, and in-class active problem solving — anything else would be malpractice.

In both online and on-campus scenarios, assessment that is directly embedded into the online reading materials (not in a separate compartment of the learning management system) is particularly effective. Somewhat disappointingly, we also found that students do not use simulations or movies unless they are coupled with assessment. While we as faculty enjoy physics, like to play with online toys, and enjoy our bragging rights for writing a particularly nice simulation, access logs show that the vast majority of students do not bother even considering them — students are on a time budget and do not want to “waste their time” unless the toys are coupled with graded assessment problems. We have thus moved to making the simulations and other free-form answers themselves graded assessments, which based on HTML5/JavaScript can be integrated into LON-CAPA (e.g., [9]).

Technological innovation in online and on-campus classes are moving in parallel, since these are essentially sections of the same course run by the same department with the same standards. For a while, before reforming our classrooms, the only difference between online and on-campus sections was the absence of traditional lectures in the former. We have yet to analyze if we were able to reverse the significantly negative effect of lectures.

Where do we go from here?

In the foreseeable future, there are no plans to stop offering lectures; instead, we aim to continue moving them toward more reformed curricula and methods of teaching. If the students are spending face-to-face time with us, we need to make sure this time is better spent than lecturing to them, since we have proven that that is indeed a complete waste of time.

At the same time, we plan to expand our online offerings, both in terms of number of courses and frequency of offering them (already now, if students are willing to sacrifice their whole summer, they can get all of the algebra-based sequence “out of the way” over one summer [10]). Particularly students from other universities and colleges bring additional revenue on campus, which by now makes up a sizeable component of the department budget. In terms of platform, we are working on replacing the aging LON-CAPA platform by a more modern and modular system named CourseWeaver, which we are developing as a next generation learning content management and assessment system. We will hopefully be able to transition to this system three years from now.

1. Gerd Kortemeyer, Edwin Kashy, Walter Benenson, and Wolfgang Bauer, Experiences using the open-source learning content management and assessment system LON-CAPA in introductory physics courses, The American Journal of Physics, Volume 76, Issue 4&5, 438-444 (2008)

2. http://www.techsmith.com/camtasia.html

3. Gerd Kortemeyer, Stefan Dröschler, and Dave Pritchard, Harvesting Latent and Usage-based Metadata in a Course Management System to Enrich the Underlying Educational Digital Library, International Journal on Digital Libraries, 10.1007/s00799-013-0107-6 (2013)

4. http://www.proctoru.com

5. Daniel Seaton, Gerd Kortemeyer, Yoav Bergner, Saif Rayyan, and Dave Pritchard, Analyzing the Impact of Course Structure on eText Use in Blended Introductory Physics Courses, American Journal of Physics (submitted)

6. James T. Laverty, Wolfgang Bauer, Gerd Kortemeyer, and Gary Westfall, Want to Reduce Guessing and Cheating While Making Students Happier? Give More Exams!, The Physics Teacher 50, 540-543 (2012)

7. Behrouz Minaei-Bidgoli, Data Mining for a Web-Based Educational System, Doctoral Thesis, Michigan State University, 2005

8. Gerd Kortemeyer, Gender differences in the use of an online homework system in an introductory physics course, Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 5, 010107 [8 pages], (2009)

9. James T. Laverty and Gerd Kortemeyer, Function Plot Response: A Scalable System for Teaching Kinematics Graphs, American Journal of Physics, 80, Issue 8, 724-733 (2012)

10. http://www.pa.msu.edu/academics/online-courses

Gerd Kortemeyer is an Associate Professor of Physics at Michigan State University. He is the director of the LON-CAPA project and has published numerous papers on teaching physics, particularly on his research into the development of effective tools for online learning.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.