With students at nearly every college and university in the nation now taking their courses entirely online, it’s worth asking the question: Are students learning less, the same or even more than they would have in the physical classrooms they were occupying only a week ago?
The answer may be more complicated than you think – and it is informed by our experiences with MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) and recent Physics Education Research.
An MIT team that implemented a MOOC version of a first semester introductory physics course that covered mechanics concepts measured student learning gains by pre-testing and post-testing using the Force Concept Inventory (FCI). The FCI is the gold standard among the conceptual inventories developed by the Physics Education Research community over the last several decades to measure student learning gains. The MIT team reported their results in a 2014 publication in The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. Colvin et al. said that “The [MOOC] students had a normalized gain slightly higher than typical values for a traditional [lecture] course, but significantly lower than typical values for courses using interactive engagement pedagogy.” That is, the students in the massive online class learned a bit more than students in traditional lecture classes but much less than they do in an “interactive engagement pedagogy” course like our Studio Physics courses (shown above).
In fact, a recent paper in Physical Review Physics Education Research shows that what many students consider the highlight of lectures – lecture demonstrations – can actually be more effective learning tools when they are presented online instead of “live” in a classroom. Furthermore, not only did students who watched online videos of lecture demonstrations learn more than students who watched them live, but also “their self-reported enjoyment was just as high.”
Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do online for my second-semester calculus-based interactive engagement Studio Physics class during our COVID event that will be as effective as what we could have done in our physical classroom during the last five weeks of class. The “magic” in an interactive engagement environment like the Studio Physics classroom comes from taking advantage of the fact that human beings are designed to do challenging things like learning in social environments. The collaborative learning that takes place in laboratory exercises performed together or in group problem-solving exercises depends on all of the bandwidth that interactions among the members of our three-student groups involve – not just the words they say to each other but also the gestures and facial expressions and subtleties in the tone of voice. Nothing presently available for online interactions can reproduce that.
That is not to say that such rich personal interactions will never be possible when distances separate collaborating learners. Advances in virtual reality may someday make it possible for educators to reproduce the quality of the learning environment in our Studio Physics classes for students separated by many miles.
But not yet. For the remaining weeks of my course, I will look for the highest quality learning resources I can find to share with my students – including recorded lectures and demonstrations. The students who are most motivated and equipped to learn may be able to take some advantage of those resources. Others will get little or nothing out of them.
Perhaps the next time we are driven out of our physical classrooms by a global pandemic we will be equipped to provide a learning environment of the highest quality without a physical classroom using future advances in virtual reality.