Response to Governor Bush: Virtual science classes aren’t yet ready for prime time

In an essay posted on the school choice advocacy blog redefinED, Jeb Bush evoked a picture that he might have thought would be an attractive, even halcyon scene for an old science professor like me to ponder:

With the creation of The Jetsons in the 1960s, Hanna-Barbera projected what 100 years into the future could look like. Set in 2062, The Jetsons lived in an automated, push-button world…

…What if we were to channel our inner Hanna-Barbera, and visualize what public education should look like in the digital age?

…Imagine with me an education system where a student’s homework is listening to their teacher’s lecture, and class time is spent working through the military genius of Napoleon by using the latest GPS mapping software.

Or it might be a 10th-grader in his backyard, at the picnic table, diving into his chemistry lesson via his mobile tablet. He gets so caught up in what he is learning that two hours go by before he even looks up.

Unfortunately, that last scene – the 10th-grader studying chemistry on his iPad in his backyard – didn’t have the encouraging effect on me that the Governor probably intended.  Why not?  Because we know that most students – nearly all students, in fact – don’t learn chemistry (and physics) that way, at least not with the deep understanding that is necessary to prepare for the best jobs – and informed citizenship – in the 21st century world.

Instead of the picture of the student trying to learn in his backyard with nobody and nothing other than his iPad, consider this alternate vision:

Josh is on his back porch with two ninth-grade classmates, their iPads and a basketball.  They also have an ultrasonic motion detector and interface that communicates directly with their iPads, and their iPads have an app that plots the position reading from the detector, the instantaneous velocity (the first derivative of the position signal) and the instantaneous acceleration (the second derivative of the position signal) on the iPad screen.  They’ve checked the motion sensor and interface out from the local school district office – much as students used to check out library books.  They bounce their basketball under the motion detector, and the position, velocity and acceleration of the ball are all plotted in real time on their iPads.  From this, they can also determine the kinetic energy and gravitational potential energy of the ball at any point in its flight, and see how the friction involved in the bouncing process robs mechanical energy from the ball.  The classmates have a script to follow for the exercise, but it has been extensively evaluated and revised, and includes many leading questions that the students have to answer for themselves.


How the experiment looks in a physical classroom. A group of students uses technology to extract quantitative data they can analyze and use to build understanding from a concrete physical situation in real time.

There is a highly skilled and highly qualified physics teacher sitting in front of her computer (somewhere – anywhere) on a four-hour shift, responsible for monitoring the progress of these students and whomever else from her class of fifty is presently online.  She has a window on her computer screen that shows in real time the position, velocity and acceleration plots that are on the iPads of Josh and his two groupmates.

Every so often, the teacher glances at the plots from Josh and Co. to see how they are progressing.  She is doing the same for the other groups in her class who are presently active.  Every few minutes, one of the groups the teacher is monitoring asks her a question, either by voice or by text.  The teacher responds – generally with another question that pushes that group forward.  Once in awhile, a frustrated student responds with, “Can’t you just give us an answer?”  The teacher patiently responds that her job isn’t to make this easy, but instead to help the student truly understand what is going on.

The instructor pokes his nose into the students’ deliberations to respond to the students’ questions and check on the development of their understanding.

When Josh and Co. get to a critical juncture in their experiment, the teacher chimes in over their iPads with a few questions to make sure the students’ understanding of what they are measuring is headed in the right direction.  One of the boys has gotten a little off course:  “What about the motion force?” he asks.  The teacher patiently explains:  “There is no such thing as a motion force,” and then asks, “What ARE the forces on the ball?  Tell me ALL of them.”  The student stops, and then says, “Well, gravity.  And air resistance.  And I guess air resistance isn’t that big.  So really almost all gravity.”  The teacher exhorts back, “There you go – you have it now.  Keep going.”

And there it is.  Students need to work together.  There has to be a highly skilled teacher on the line to make course corrections in the students’ learning and to challenge them.  The students aren’t always going to be happy.  Students have to make real physical measurements to learn physical concepts.  And not just any experiment will do – the Physics Education Research community has demonstrated how difficult it is to design a laboratory exercise that really improves student understanding.  But they’ve also shown that all that effort is worth it.

Teaching a truly effective virtual science course would be intense, exhausting work.  It’s not at all clear that a teacher can handle more students online than in a physical classroom.  In fact, if the virtual course is really effective it would require constant individual interactions with students, much more than are ever observed in a typical (and bad) lecture class.

Implementing such a course would require an extensive investment of resources and the effort of the nation’s experts in research and development.  Doing it “on the cheap” would not work.  And we have to be realistic about the teaching skill and effort it would take to succeed in such a course.  This is not an inexpensive enterprise – instead, it probably requires a greater level of skill and focus than is generally demanded of classroom teachers.  And a single teacher will probably not be able to handle 150 students per term in such a course – and perhaps not even close to that number.

It’s also not clear that a venture capitalist would find such an enterprise attractive.  The payoff to society and the society’s economy from such an R&D project and its large-scale implementation are clear enough.  But it’s not clear that stockholders in a private concern that executes such a project would receive the material benefits necessary to make an investment attractive.

And there’s the rub.  Making this happen would require, as Governor Bush says in his essay, leaders with “vision” and “courage”.  But it would also require these leaders to be informed enough to know what genuine science learning is and to recognize that it is not “kids in rural Nebraska” learning “physics from engineers in Japan without leaving their 11th grade classroom” – another example the Governor gives.

Convincing our society’s leaders to support an effort to develop high quality virtual science classes would indeed be a feat of leadership.  Now we just need a leader who will step up to the plate to give it a try.

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One Response to Response to Governor Bush: Virtual science classes aren’t yet ready for prime time

  1. Pingback: Orlando Sentinel columnist: Florida House Speaker-designate concedes that online university would not “solve all the problems of the world” « Bridge to Tomorrow

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