Can the advantages of a SCALE-UP learning environment be reproduced in a distance learning program?

class-panoramaWe know that the social interactions among students and between students and instructors in a studio physics learning environment dramatically improve student learning.

But can those social interactions and the collaborative hands-on learning environment that characterize a studio physics experience in a physical classroom be reproduced in a distance learning program?

This possibility was recently explored in a master’s thesis project completed by Allison Cottle, a student in Harvard’s Department of Architecture.

[OK, this is where my journalist friends put in a notice that they might have a bit of a conflict of interest. So here is mine: Allison is my daughter. And no, I didn’t make her do this project. It wasn’t my idea at all. Now to continue…]

The core idea of the project will be simple to understand for educators in physics and other fields who use the SCALE-UP learning environment pioneered by North Carolina State’s Bob Beichner. Instead of having all of the round tables in one physical room (the SCALE-UP room in which I’m teaching this semester has round tables that each seat nine students who operate as three groups of three students each, as shown above), connect round tables in different geographic locations with each other with audio and visual channels that are as complete as possible. And connect all of those student locations with an instructor in a different location. The students would benefit from in-person interactions with the other students in the physical room, and would have the best remote connection possible with students in other locations and the instructor.

Nobody would argue that the interpersonal connections between the students in different locations and the instructor (or with students in other locations) would be as high quality as they would be in a single physical room. But as pointed out in the project, having everybody in the same physical room isn’t always an option. The geographical focus during the project presentation was on Green River, Wyoming, a town of 12,515 (according to Wikipedia) which has limited access to higher education. The argument presented during the thesis presentation was that such a facility would provide Green River students with access to professors from high-powered institutions like UCLA, MIT or Harvard.

But one could imagine such a scheme serving the Florida Keys, which is a 150-mile-long string of islands served in a limited way by Florida Keys Community College. The facilities envisioned in the thesis could be located at the three FKCC locations in the upper, middle and lower Keys and provide a “critical mass” of students for a course in, say, calculus-based physics, which is required for students who want to transfer to Florida’s four-year universities and study engineering. FKCC does not presently offer that course, cutting off a population of Keys students (primarily those from disadvantaged backgrounds) from access to careers in engineering, computer science and the physical sciences. It wouldn’t take a professor from MIT to lead such a course. It could be done by any of the instructors from Florida’s studio physics programs at FSU, UCF or FAMU.

This model could also provide high quality physics instruction to high school students in Florida’s rural districts, about ten of which do not presently provide access to physics courses. It has long been argued by the state’s reform activists that expanding access to physics instruction will require an online component. In an interview on Florida Public Radio in 2011, Foundation for Excellence in Education CEO Patricia Levesque said, “unless we change the way we think about online learning and what types and how teachers are hired and how student takes courses, we won’t be able to offer physics to every student in the state.” It’s certain that Patricia was not thinking about the highly interactive learning environment proposed at Harvard, but instead was arguing for a broadcasting recorded lectures, a model with limited instructional potential.

The problem with the proposal presented at Harvard is that it is not as cheap as just planting a student in front of a computer screen in a random classroom or at home to watch recorded lectures. But the old saying that you get what you pay for is certainly relevant here.

The specific classroom design proposed in the project used D-shaped tables, with one table per highly-wired room. Furthermore, the primary focus of the project was not on the dynamics inside the classroom, about which there is a tremendous amount of research. Instead, the project focused on the importance of what goes on just outside the classroom. The facility in which the classroom is embedded plays an important role in inviting students to talk among themselves before and after class, and for convincing students that the learning in which they are engaging is important to them and to society – even though they are in a remote location.

The primary obstacles facing such a distance learning proposal are those that always obstruct proposals to improve the quality of and access to effective STEM career preparation – culture and priorities. On culture: One member of the panel of critics for the thesis presentation questioned whether there are enough people interested in learning with understanding – rather than doing the minimum to earn a credential – to make the construction of this distance learning facility worthwhile. The opposition to interactive engagement pedagogies is actually much broader than that critic realizes. Not only do many students resist such pedagogies, but large segments of the communities of educators and policy-makers do as well. In fact, that battle occurs within individual classrooms, including mine.

And then there are priorities. There are Florida school districts like Seminole and Brevard Counties in which providing strong preparation for STEM careers – including health careers – is a high priority. But then there are many more Florida districts in which physics, calculus and even chemistry are considered specialty courses needed only by a few students.

Nevertheless, there is tremendous value in thinking about how to provide the highest quality learning environment in rural locations so that the broadest possible range of career options can be available to students who live there. Allison’s project was well-received by the panel of critics, who bought into the premise of the project and then focused on architectural issues that were well beyond the limits of my expertise. Now we will see if anyone beyond the Harvard Graduate School of Design is interested.

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