“Can’t we do this as well online?”: Why it matters what policy-makers believe about how students learn


If you are member of the Florida Board of Governors and you think the above picture is what my physics class looks like, you might be wondering why we can’t do as good a job (or better) at a smaller cost to students and taxpayers by offering the same course online.  The online course wouldn’t require a big, fancy, expensive lecture hall.  And it wouldn’t require me – you could just find the best recorded lectures on the market and have the students watch the slick recordings instead of having to sit through miserable hours of me droning on and on.  And then you could save my salary as well.

If that’s what my physics course looked like, you’d be right.  In fact, there is research from MIT researchers to back that up:  An MIT online mechanics course gave slightly better student learning gains than those typical for traditional lecture courses.

But that’s not what my physics class looks like.  Instead, my class (seen below) is a beehive of activity as students do experiments or work through problems together.  They are not always enjoying themselves.  They sometimes (or maybe often) pine for the simplicity of the traditional lecture class, and many say I’m “not teaching”.

And maybe I’m not teaching.  But the students are learning a helluva lot better – student learning gains are about twice as large in my class and in other “interactive engagement classes” as they are in traditional lecture classes.  And we blow out the MIT online course as well, as the MIT researchers were only too happy to admit.


But don’t education policy-makers know enough about how students learn to know that interactive learning environments like my studio physics class beat traditional lecture classes and their more modern online-recorded-lecture successors?  And that it is interactive engagement that gives students from disadvantaged backgrounds the best chance of learning physics (or related subjects) with the deep understanding necessary to make a career in a STEM field?

In short:  No.

A few years ago, I had a meeting with two people at the top of the education policy-making pyramid who had been educators themselves for decades.  I was flabbergasted when they asked me to record my lectures for broadcast to rural high schools in what some would call a “course access” program.  After a few moments’ pause that I used to recover my poise, I explained (alright, I “lectured”) to the two educational leaders about how students learn physics best, and how I hadn’t given a real lecture in years (at least more than the five-minute “mini-lectures” we sometimes use to open our three-hour studio physics classes).

If two experienced professionals and leaders didn’t know any better than that, why would we expect that the volunteer members of the State Board of Education and the Board of Governors would know better?  And legislators?  I know of one former legislator who is an expert.  That’s it.

A member of the Board of Governors, State Board of Education or Legislature who believes that our science classrooms look like the one at the top of this post would probably not support state-of-the-art interactive engagement teaching facilities – either through renovation or new construction.  And that’s something we really need to address.

I’m not allowed to invite legislators to visit our studio physics classes.  But I have arranged for visits by several journalists, one school board chair, and two FSU Presidents.  And I’m going to keep trying to get the word out about what an effective science learning environment looks like.  After all, what our state’s leaders don’t know can hurt our students by denying them the best opportunities to access STEM careers.


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One Response to “Can’t we do this as well online?”: Why it matters what policy-makers believe about how students learn

  1. Pingback: Will FSU’s Physics faculty be teaching courses online in the near future? | Bridge to Tomorrow

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