The school was at the forefront of a move to make virtual learning more commonplace with its decision to incorporate virtual learning in its physics instruction

How physics instruction moved online at Oregon State University


The school was at the forefront of a move to make virtual learning more commonplace with its decision to incorporate the approach in its physics instruction

The final piece necessary to make all of the course resources free to students was to drop the publisher’s homework system and develop a set of scaffold questions that tell the story of physics. The support from Ecampus enabled this development of nearly 1,000 pre-lecture, lecture, and post-lecture questions. As a result, in fall of 2019–the first year the sequence went online–none of the intro students (on or off campus) had to purchase a textbook or homework system. This OER project has saved OSU students nearly $1 million since the start of its implementation.

Supporting on- and off-campus learners

The initial reform and OER adoption work really set the stage for developing a modular curriculum that works for both on and off campus learners. In fact, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that resources and structure necessary for online learners are necessary for all learners. What this means is that the class–whether you are attending lectures in person, live online, or through asynchronous methods–is largely identical.

Students familiarize themselves with a new topic by watching pre-lecture videos and/or readings from the OER text. Afterward they answer a few pre-lecture questions that help solidify definitions and basic concepts. They can then attend the “lecture” in person (once the pandemic is over) or online in our “virtual classroom.” Live lectures are streamed from the Lightboard Studio, which enables the instructor to be immersed in the content through the use of professional green screen technology.

In place of traditional lectures during class, there are guided peer learning sessions where students work individually and in groups to solve a set of highly scaffolded questions. Students use Zoom breakout rooms and integrated digital whiteboards to work through problems together. Graduate Teaching Assistants (TAs), undergrad Learning Assistants (LAs), and the instructor also move between groups fielding questions. This puts experts in the (Zoom) room while the students are applying their knowledge.

There is real-time polling to measure the pace of the learning. The goal is to provide foundational knowledge and skills so that students are ready to apply higher-level critical thinking as soon as they leave the lecture. If they are unable to attend one of the live sessions, they can engage asynchronously by working through the same problems with video solutions presented after each question.

All students, online or in-person, can choose how they interact with this portion of the course, creating aspects of a HyFlex curriculum. This, along with a diversified set of study resources, increases the degrees of freedom allotted to students, providing more equitable access. After lecture there are a set of online post-lecture practice problems and hand-written mastery problems that are intended to address higher cognitive functions like evaluation, sensemaking, and synthesis.

Physics labs

Labs are the one part of the curriculum that isn’t identical for on-campus and Ecampus students. We used support from OSU’s Ecampus to develop a complete year of online physical labs. Recent work on modernizing physics lab learning outcomes has found that traditional lab activities, thought to reinforce theory learned in class, didn’t achieve substantial gains in that area. We decided to focus instead on experimental design, data collection and analysis, and communication skills.

Ecampus students purchase a lab kit each term that includes a host of materials to perform their experiments. We spent two years testing different equipment, trying to maximize learning while minimizing cost. In places where simple inexpensive equipment wouldn’t produce quality data, we opted for robust professional equipment. The best example is the Vernier Sensor Cart, which outperformed other similarly priced lab carts and generated substantially better data than cell phone apps.

This led us to partner with Vernier to create lab kits for the Ecampus course. Those kits include a nice combination of simple products, like wood dowels and strings, and more advanced equipment like sensor carts and pulleys. We even try to include fun and/or useful items in the kit that could have purpose beyond the lab, such as a kitchen scale and a gyroscope.

Students work on their labs both individually and with their lab group. The labs start off more prescribed, teaching specific skills like how to find derivatives and integrals using Excel. The group component is largely a metacognitive reflection during these early labs. As the term progresses, the scaffolding is removed, and students begin to work on more discovery-based labs, where they have to design the experiments and analyze their data with the help of the group.

During the term on mechanics, the lab culminates with a three-week project in which students test conservation laws. Little to no instruction is given, just a set of research questions to answer and some guidelines on desired outcomes and deliverables. The students overwhelmingly prefer the discovery-based experiments even though they express they can be more difficult without knowing what to do at first.

The Ecampus labs are one of the most successful aspects of the course, so much so that we intend to reform the on-campus labs to mimic much of the work and structure of the online labs. We are even considering allowing on-campus students to choose to perform their labs remotely–another step towards more flexible and inclusive practices.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series about OSU’s Ecampus program. Part 2 will look at the support OSU provides its students and key lessons the physics department has learned in its process.

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