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[R5] Eckert et al. (2009)

11 March 2012

Review of Distance Education in Physics via the Internet

In their Distance Education in Physics via the Internet, Bodo Eckert, Sebastian Gröber, and Hans-Jörg Jodl (2009) described three physics projects. They are:

(1) a very successful course at the university level; (2) a collection of several thousand multimedia materials, its status and evaluation, and its dissemination; and (3) Web experiments — experiments that can be operated remotely from a distance via the Internet. (Eckert et al., 2009, p. 125)

Distance Learners

The first project described by Eckert et al. (2009) was FiPS, a series of physics courses offered face-to-face as well as at a distance and asynchronously. The program proved popular enough that over 1000 students took part in the distance portion over the time period of 1999-2009. The authors felt that there were several details contributing to the success of the program. A curriculum was adopted that matched the face-to-face classroom experience and in fact was accepted in Austria, Germany and Switzerland for transfer on a credit by credit basis. Various multimedia resources via the Internet were made available to distance students to replace the typical demonstrations that occur in a lecture hall. The program also established a means for the students to converse online on subject matter and off-subject related matters, and their learning was guided by tutors who closely monitored the work of groups of students. There was also a requirement that before being able to take a final exam, students had to attain at least 50% of the points possible in smaller units of the course (Eckert et al., 2009).

Multimedia

The second project described by Eckert et al. (2009) was their collaborative effort with physics instructors in the United States and Europe in identifying good multimedia materials for instruction and learning. The collaboration resulted in the identification of many sources. “As a result, we know of several thousand multimedia materials worldwide at all kinds of students’ level (ages ten to twenty-five years) for teaching and learning physics. However, the major fraction is of poor quality” (Eckert et al., 2009, p.129). Because of the low quality of most of the available programs:

A group of educators and researchers in the field of computer-based learning in physics decided to solve this problem in general and to offer a service for their colleagues. This group collected multimedia products, evaluated them, and made recommendations for those people involved in the teaching/learning process who do not have the time to search by themselves whenever they need a multimedia item. (Eckert et al., 2009, p.129)

The group works on a different area of physics subjects in multimedia, on a rotating basis, yearly. As an example, in 2003 the group reviewed and gave their blessing to multimedia on the subject of optics, which they came back to in 2009. Although the underlying science does not change most of the time, there are new animation techniques and better portrayals of the underlying physics that deserve a periodic review.

Remotely Controlled Laboratories

Despite the extreme importance of experiments in physics many colleges can not offer an in-class demonstration of several classic experiments that promote real learning, not only of the physical principles on display, but also of experimental technique and analysis. The authors explain:

Some teachers at their schools/universities do not have the proper equipment; the real experiment is too expensive to perform only once per year; to conduct the experiment quantitatively consumes too much time in class; to evaluate data from one specific experiment one would require the collection of exceedingly large amounts of data; the performance of the experiment is somehow dangerous.(Eckert et al., 2009, p.133)

To paraphrase, the authors describe eight criteria that help determine a good Remote Control Laboratory (RCL):

  1. Select a good topic, even one that can display problems, problems are part of physics
  2. Allow the user to view the apparatus in real time via web camera when changing parameters like the position of objects
  3. The use of the RCL must be intuitive, enough so students are not forced to use a manual to interact with the RCL
  4. The user must be able to observe and record data from the experiment
  5. The experiment must be robust enough to be used continuously, 24 hours a day, for many stretches of days
  6. The experiment must be autonomous—that it, without reading further texts. Include didactic material on the web site.
  7. Make the experiment interesting by allowing a wide range of variation in physical parameters.
  8. The use of the RCLs must be free of charge, available to the public and displayed in a variety of languages, and not be dependent on any specific operating system at the client side (Eckert et al., 2009, p.133).

The intentions of the RCL are described in brief at the project’s website as, “Set up experiments, which encourage play, to excite curiosity, and to stimulate motivation…[and]…to realize important experiments of physics teaching” (“Rcl-Portal”, n.d.).

End notes

Throughout the article Eckert et al. (2009) made references to several end notes. In their fifth, they describe how many of the early challenges in their distance learning went away as a result of computers getting faster and more bandwidth becoming available. The authors also note that many of their current “students manage these modern technologies with a kind of naturalness, such as the application of LaTeX for formulas” (Eckert et al., 2009, p.135). It was also encouraging to see that the distance classes taught at the University of Technology Kaiserslautern accepted weekly work from students “by any means (e.g., paper, fax, or email)” and that “the submissions are typically in electronic format, ranging from scanned handwritten solutions to word processed by means of LaTeX and pdf format, for example” (Eckert et al., 2009, p.135). This policy allows students to concentrate on content rather than format.

Criticism

Eckert et al. (2009) wrote this article as a description of three related physics education projects that took place over the span of ten years. Given that these projects were successful, as measured in the graduation rates and continued high enrollment figures, the authors wished to impart what they observed and learned over the last decade. I was not aware that there was such a rigorous and well established group of physics educators who reviewed various teaching materials. I am now very curious about finding similar groups in other disciplines. The kind of experiments that are made available to remote students can point the way to developing additional interactive remotely controlled apparatus for distance learners. The eight criteria which the authors developed for what constitutes a good RCL were excellent and would prove useful to a team of educators, designers and engineers who might wish to create more RCLs. I am starting to see commonalities in successful programs offered at distance: Rapid feedback on student work; course content designed to be delivered via distance, and to take advantage of the computer/internet medium which it is delivered across; and the establishment of a group of learning peers who can discuss their learning, again using asynchronous methods.

References

Eckert, B., Gröber, S., & Jodl, H. -J. (2009). Distance education in physics via the internet. American Journal of Distance Education, 23(3), 125-138. doi:10.1080/08923640903076735

Rcl-Portal. (n.d.). [Web page]. Retrieved from http://rcl.physik.uni-kl.de

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