I’ve been on the FSU Physics Department faculty for 31 years, but my colleagues can still surprise me.
I shared with several of them the fine article by Jessica Bakeman (formerly of Politico and now at WLRN in Miami) comparing online course programs at FSU and UF. To me, the most striking part of the article is the opening picture (shown above) which shows several of our UF Physics colleagues drinking the online teaching Kool-Aid.
The course our UF colleagues are introducing in the picture is the first semester of the two-semester sequence most often taken by students who are planning careers in the health professions and life sciences. At FSU, about half of the students in this course did not take physics in high school, so the quality of this course is of central importance for opening opportunities in these careers to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Consider this: Thirteen rural school districts in Florida didn’t offer physics at all in 2016-17, including nearby Gadsden and Jefferson Counties.
I thought my colleagues would be outraged by Jessica’s article, but they were not. Disappointed? Maybe a little. Outraged? Nah.
But it’s time for my colleagues to make a decision, because the FSU Physics Department is at a crossroads.
As is the case for the rest of FSU’s science departments, our undergraduate teaching infrastructure in the Physics Department is basically the same as it was thirty years ago, when FSU was much smaller. The only addition has been the three science studio classrooms that host the studio physics program and the recitations of some of our large introductory lecture courses. And the Physics Department has to compete for the use of the studio classrooms with other academic units on campus.
FSU is about to encounter a space crunch. It now appears possible – perhaps likely – that no more teaching laboratory space (including studio classrooms) will be built for the use of the Physics Department. Ever.
We are expecting the numbers of undergraduates majoring in computer science, engineering and pre-health to rise significantly (maybe dramatically) during the next five years. All of those students will be required to take physics.
How will we provide those students with the physics courses they need? If we are locked into our present teaching facilities, then the only option we will have to meet our obligations to these students is to offer our courses online. As my regular readers (all four of them) know well, the best online physics courses presently available have student learning gains about half of what our studio physics classes achieve (although online courses have learning gains a bit higher than traditional lecture classes).
I could shout curses at the higher education gods for putting us in this situation. But that will not do any good if my own Physics colleagues are indifferent to this situation. In other words, if FSU’s Physics faculty is as willing to drink the online teaching Kool-Aid as the UF Physics faculty has been, then I might as well keep my frustrations to myself.