Board of Governors Chair Lautenbach responded to my Orlando Sentinel op-ed about online science instruction. Here is my response to him.

My Orlando Sentinel critique of the State University’s System’s drive to expand online science instruction prompted a rebuttal from Board of Governors Chair Ned Lautenbach.  Here I respond to the arguments he made in his piece.

According to the Board of Governors web site, Lautenbach is Lead Director of the Independent Trustees of the Equity and High Income Funds of Fidelity Investments, and a member of the Council on Foreign Affairs.  He is also very active in cultural affairs in Naples.  Lautenbach earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of Cincinnati and an MBA from Harvard University.

Dear Chairman Lautenbach:

Thank you for your response to the concerns about the future of science instruction in the State University System that I expressed in my Sentinel piece.  The decisions that we make about how we teach our state’s students in engineering, science and health professions will determine not only how well we meet the needs of our state in these fields, but also whether we will provide the best possible opportunities for all of the state’s students to enter these careers.  We are presently struggling to bring students from disadvantaged backgrounds into these fields.  And even now in 2018, only about one-fifth of the students receiving bachelors’ degrees in engineering, computer science and physics are women.  As I’m sure you recognize, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to address these situations.

I’d like to start this response with an assertion that I hope we can both agree on:  Every decision we make about the future of science teaching in our state’s public universities should be based on the best research available about how students learn.

Given the arguments you made in your Sentinel piece, I’d expect you to answer that assertion by pointing out that a student can’t learn physics if she or he can’t access a physics course, and that the online physics courses that the Board of Governors is presently featuring will make it possible for students who can’t come to a university campus to take the physics course they need.  I would agree with that, and the practical implication is that the State University System should include the best possible online physics course in its offerings.  That’s what Dr. Weatherford at the University of Florida is working on.

But we have to be realistic about what such a course can accomplish.  MIT published a study in 2014 (Colvin et al. in the September 2014 issue of International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning) that demonstrated that their online physics course gave student learning gains in Newtonian mechanics that were actually a bit better than those in traditional lecture classes.


The above figure shows the MIT online course student learning gain result and compares it (as was done in the MIT paper) with results from a large-scale study of traditional lecture classes and another type of class – Interactive Engagement – that was published in 1998.  I have every confidence that Dr. Weatherford’s work will be just as good as the MIT work, and that he will get student learning gains that are comparable to those MIT achieved.

But if we are really going to base decisions about which learning opportunities will be available to the students in the SUS on research about how students learn, then we have to draw our attention to the bar on the right side of the graph – the one labeled “Interactive Engagement”.  Interactive Engagement classes provide the largest learning gains and the very best opportunities for students to learn.

What is Interactive Engagement?  It is a classroom environment where students learn through hands-on experiments performed collaboratively and problem-solving exercises that are also performed collaboratively.  We don’t lecture very much in these classes.  As much as possible, we allow students to “discover” the laws of nature and techniques for understanding them.  The fuel that drives the learning gain improvements is the conversations that students have with each other and the exchanges that students have with instructors like me.

One of our interactive engagement classrooms at FSU is shown below.  You can see students having conversations about the subject of the lab that day – kinetic and gravitational potential energy.  They are facing each other at round tables and the instructors are circulating from one conversation to the next.  This particular physical configuration, called SCALE-UP, was developed at North Carolina State University several decades ago.  About 250 postsecondary institutions – including MIT (yes, where the online experiment I described above was done) – have adopted this classroom model.  Here at FSU, we call it “Studio Physics” and it serves 250 students per semester.

Class Panorama

A physical classroom purpose-built for Interactive Engagement classes provides the best way for students and faculty to have the intense personal interactions necessary to drive high learning gains.  At present, there is no way to provide the same level of interaction among students and between students and faculty when they are not in the same physical facility.

If you don’t like that answer, think about this:  Most of the Board of Governors meetings you convene are in-person meetings.  Why?  Because you recognize that so much of the communication between individuals that drives progress on the BOG is non-verbal – there is a great deal more “bandwidth” between individuals when they are face-to-face than when they are looking at each other on computer screens.  The same principle applies to a learning environment.

A recent Harvard master’s thesis – in the Department of Architecture of all places – addressed this issue and came up with a scheme that maximized the quality of interpersonal interactions in remote learning environments.  If you’re interested, I’ll get you in touch with the author (who happens to be my middle child).

I should mention a few other things about the SCALE-UP instructional model.  It provides an especially advantageous learning environment for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and women for two reasons (remember that only about one-fifth of the students in such classes are women).  First, it provides a tool that we as instructors can use to combat the isolation that students from these groups often experience in lecture classes (and that would be compounded in online classes) because the numbers of these students are relatively small.  Second, we can see with our eyes when a student needs a bit more encouragement – I had a conversation like that with a student earlier this week.  The research on how the SCALE-UP model results in better outcomes for minority and women students is reviewed in this paper commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences and written by North Carolina State University’s Robert Beichner, who led the development of the SCALE-UP design.

Cottle-Capstick Lab Photos-6133

And the costs of an Interactive Engagement class like ours?  The personnel cost per student is about the same as it is for a traditional lecture class.  As for the facility, the cost of the SCALE-UP classroom is about the same per student as what is necessary for a traditional lecture class – not just a lecture hall but also a laboratory and a smaller classroom for recitations.

Therefore, if we genuinely base our decisions about teaching on the research about how students learn best, then we are forced to the conclusion that we should make Interactive Engagement courses – in physical classrooms purpose-built for such courses – available to every SUS student who can access a campus.

So the most reasonable conclusion based on research is that the SUS should provide online courses like the ones Dr. Weatherford is developing for students who cannot access our system’s campuses and physical Interactive Engagement classrooms for every student who can.

And I fear I’ve lost you here.  Do you really believe that the online courses being developed in the SUS are equivalent to all physical learning environments, including the Interactive Engagement environment I’ve described here?  That’s what you said in your Sentinel op-ed.  There is no research to support such a belief.

And worse:  Do you believe that the need for physical classrooms has passed and that all in-person science instruction can be phased out in favor of online courses?  Once again, there is no justification in the research on learning for such a conclusion.  The only way to reach such a conclusion is to decide that the cost of providing facilities for Interactive Engagement classes is not justified by the dramatic improvement in learning gains or the improvement in the learning environment for women and students from disadvantaged backgrounds that such classes provide.  Do these things matter?  If not, then cheap online is the way to go – exclusively.

But perhaps I’ve changed your mind on these issues.  Even if I haven’t, make it a point to visit one of our Studio Physics classes next time you are in Tallahassee.  Consider this an open invitation.  That experience will be an eye-opener for you.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.