Dear Colleagues: Those of us on university faculties who insist on sticking with traditional lectures may be replaced by online recordings.

Dear Colleagues,

The Florida Board of Governors, which is (in case you didn’t know) the governing body for the State University System, has set a goal of delivering 40% of the system’s undergraduate credit hours online by 2025.

If you think the Board is just kidding, read on. For the 2015-16 academic year, the State University System was already at 24%. And it’s not just happening at the regional universities. The University of Florida tied for the system lead at 31%. Yes, 31% of UF’s undergraduate credit hours in 2015-16 were in online courses. UF’s online courses include CHM 1025, the first chemistry course for science majors who have “weak yet satisfactory backgrounds in high school chemistry and algebra” that do not pass the entrance exam for CHM 2045, which is General Chemistry 1.  Student suitability for the online version of a course is determined in part with a “Self-Assessment” in which it appears that an average student would be steered toward the online (I tried it myself).

The university with which UF is tied for the lead in online undergraduate credits at 31% is the University of Central Florida. UCF’s most famous undergraduate taking online courses is Florida House of Representatives member Amber Mariano, who is working toward a bachelor’s degree in Political Science this semester while taking all of her courses online (because she’s in Tallahassee, of course).

The reason I am writing is to suggest that you think hard about why your course can’t be fully replaced by an online version. Let me say that a different way: What are you doing that is instructionally more effective than a course that consists mostly of online recorded lectures?

If you think that a student automatically learns more by physically being in a lecture hall watching you lecture than by watching recorded lectures, there is research – at least in my narrow field (physics) – that suggests you are wrong. A study of online and traditional introductory mechanics courses published in 2014 by a team led by MIT researchers concluded that students in the online course had a learning gain “slightly higher than typical values for a traditional course.”

Of course, it would be a mistake to generalize this result for physics to other fields. But the result should give all university faculty members a reason to stop and think about what they are doing in class. How would you defend your instructional practices to a member of the Board of Governors, or to a legislator who sees online learning as an opportunity for significant cost reductions in higher education?

For advice on this, let’s go back to the MIT paper about online learning. I didn’t quote the entire sentence from the abstract above, but now I will:

The students [in the online course] had a normalized gain slightly higher than typical values for a traditional course, but significantly lower than typical values for courses using interactive engagement pedagogy.

So what does this “interactive engagement pedagogy” look like? Instead of lectures, class time is spent primarily on laboratory exercises designed so that students can build their own understanding of physics concepts and on group problem-solving exercises. In the MIT Physics Department, the classrooms in which such courses are taught look like this:


And for an action shot, take a look at this New York Times article about MIT’s interactive engagement pedagogy physics course.

The MIT course format, called TEAL, was actually originally developed at North Carolina State University by a Physics Education Researcher named Bob Beichner. Beichner called his instructional model SCALE-UP and it has been adopted at more than 300 postsecondary institutions and even some high schools. Ironically, UCF was an early adopter. FSU followed, teaching its first SCALE-UP physics classes (known locally as “studio physics”) in 2008. Last summer, Beichner visited FSU, where several members of the Board of Governors staff attended a talk he gave to an audience consisting mostly of architects.

Of course, the regular readers of this blog (both of them) will recognize the picture of one of FSU’s studio physics classrooms below. The picture was taken in 2011, and if you look very, very carefully, you can see then-President Eric Barron and his wife, Molly, in the back left corner.


FSU’s present President, John Thrasher, visited a studio physics class last December. Since the 2011 picture, FSU has added a second studio physics classroom to its inventory by renovating an old lecture space in Carothers Hall. Another Carothers renovation project is now underway to add a third studio classroom. The studio physics program presently serves about 250 students each semester.

The studio physics program has been well supported by FSU’s administration. In return, the studio program has delivered a steady stream of data on student learning gains, which are measured in every studio physics class every semester. The learning gain results have been as strong at FSU as they have been nationwide.

The strong learning gains in SCALE-UP classes – and in other interactive engagement pedagogies – are driven by the face-to-face social interactions among students and between students and instructors. If this sounds expensive, it’s not. In FSU’s studio physics program, a class of 72 students is staffed by one professor, two graduate teaching assistants, and one undergraduate “learning assistant”. Personnel costs are about the same as they are for the equivalent lecture classes.

The bottom line? Interactive engagement courses in physics have much stronger learning gains than traditional lecture courses and online lecture courses and cannot presently be reproduced online. That might not be enough to convince a Board of Governors member or legislator that interactive engagement courses in physics should be supported, but at least a faculty member would have a shot.

It’s worth noting that some people have started thinking about how to translate the interactivity of a studio/SCALE-UP physics course to an online environment. And that’s a good thing. For example, Florida Keys Community College does not presently offer the calculus-based physics course for aspiring engineers and scientists that is required for transfer to a university programs in engineering or physics. That is, students living in the Keys who need to pursue their first two years of college at home are locked out of engineering and physics careers. An interactive engagement pedagogy course that uses an online environment to connect several students at the Key West campus with several others at the Marathon campus and several more at the Upper Keys campus might make it economically feasible for the college to offer the calculus-based course and open new career opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Many policy-makers are convinced that higher education should be mostly online in a decade, and that the construction of university teaching facilities has become inherently wasteful. In particular, one former legislator told me recently that lectures should be banned. It’s time for us as university faculty members to find out what works best for improving student learning in our disciplines and then implement it in our own classrooms. Of course, that’s what would be best for our students. But now there is an element of self-preservation, too: If we don’t adopt the interactive teaching strategies with which students learn best, we may be replaced by a library of recordings.


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