Online physics education: Our K-12 policy-makers must learn how students learn science

The American Physical Society’s Forum on Education, which I presently chair, publishes a newsletter three times per year that includes research and position articles in addition to announcements.  The Spring 2014 issue, which was recently released, features articles on online learning in physics.  As chair, I have the opportunity to write a “Chair’s Letter” that leads off the issue.  For this issue, I chose to give my take on online learning in K-12 physics – and here it is:

If you want to know what educational policy-makers and thought leaders think is hot in physics education, start with this lead from the December 5 issue of the New York Times:

To ease the way for students grappling with certain key concepts, professors at Davidson College in North Carolina will design online lessons for high school students in Advanced Placement courses in calculus, physics and macroeconomics and make them widely available through the College Board and edX, a nonprofit online education venture.

Given the tremendous work that the Davidson Physics faculty has done over the years in using technology to improve physics learning, we can all have confidence that the product of this initiative will be cutting-edge and will benefit the high school students who use it. But as this issue of the Forum on Education newsletter illustrates, the Davidson faculty has plenty of company in making important advances in the uses of technology for improving student learning, both in physical classroom and virtual environments.

There are particularly important challenges for the developers of virtual learning environments to overcome. Those of us who work in SCALE-UP classrooms and similar environments understand the power of interactions among students and between students and faculty for promoting learning. It is difficult to imagine an effective virtual environment that doesn’t somehow replace those in-person social interactions with equivalently intense interactions between real human students and faculty over some medium like the internet. If you accept that, then you also realize that virtual learning environments will not replace highly qualified physics instructors. But they will allow students in remote locations like small rural communities to have access to high quality physics instruction.

All of which is to say that virtual physics courses will never “solve” the high school physics teacher shortage, as some policy-makers hope they will. Last year, one state legislator in Florida repeatedly talked about allowing students to earn their physics credits by watching Walter Lewin’s entertaining lectures. If only it were that easy to learn physics! But of course, MIT doesn’t teach physics to its own students that way (the subject of another New York Times article, this one from January 12, 2009). Lewin himself emphasized the importance of other aspects of learning (like labs!) in a comment on the New York Times “Room for Debate” feature in May of 2012.

Nevertheless, I’ve been told over and over again by my own state’s policy-makers (giving a list here would only get me into more trouble) that virtual physics will solve the state’s physics teacher shortage. This is fueled in part by the standard desire for a cheap and easy solution to an instructional problem in what is generally considered to be a low-priority subject. But the certainty that virtual learning will solve the physics teaching problem is also the result of a deep-seated ignorance about how students learn science. One of the difficult tasks the community of physics educators has before it is leading our leaders to an understanding of how students learn science. Reading a textbook doesn’t do it. Watching a video of an entertaining lecturer doesn’t do it (even if it’s Walter Lewin). Learning happens when a group of students and a passionate instructor invest in the hard work of making measurements (physical or virtual) and use the results of those measurements to help each other along the rocky road to understanding a new concept. For most of us, there are no shortcuts.

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One Response to Online physics education: Our K-12 policy-makers must learn how students learn science

  1. Pingback: The frustration of virtual education: We must do better than we’re doing, but online courses could short-circuit the push to improve | Bridge to Tomorrow

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