APS/AAPT Conference on Distance Education and Online Learning
College Park, MD, June 1, 2013

Universities in an Era of Technological and Economic Flux -
Radical Change in Higher Education: Will Physics lead, follow, or get out of the way?;

<PowerPoint talk>

-Jack M. Wilson, President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Higher Education, Emerging Technologies, and Innovation, the University of Massachusetts. (jwilson@umassp.edu)

While Physics has been at the forefront of the development of many innovations based upon the 3 C’s of Computer, Communication, and Cognition, physics has not been transformed by the 3 C forces and has not even seen mainstream physics education give those forces significant attention.

The history of technology enhanced education has often been led by physicists applying technology (computers, internet communications, cognitive sciences, etc) to the teaching and learning of physics.  One of the earliest such examples was at the University of Illinois in the early 1960’s where the physicists Chalmers Sherwin and Daniel Alpert began discussing ideas for computer tutorial systems and stimulated laboratory assistant, Donald Bitzer, to build one - PLATO -Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations.   The resulting partnership between the University of Illinois and Control Data Corporation was either a stunning success or a dismal failure.   Conventional wisdom would deem it a dismal failure since so much money and university talent were used and the system was never widely deployed and eventually disappeared.  A closer look reveals that PLATO actually created most of what we see today in distance learning and online educational programs.  They invented (or at least integrated) online testing, chat rooms, forums, message boards, e-mail, picture languages, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, and even multi-player games!

When microcomputers began to be widely used, they were certainly widely used by physicist and physics educators.  The TRS-80, Commodore 64, Apple II, and eventually the IBM PC all became platforms for Physics learning.  As Steve Jobs was creating the NeXT computer he worked with many of us in the Physics community to get some good educational demonstrations for the computer which eventually filed, but became the heart of today’s Apple computers.

Another group of Physics Educators, led by Joe Redish and I at the University of Maryland, but including Priscilla Laws (Dickinson), Ed Taylor (MIT), Ron Thornton (Tufts), Dean Zollman (Kansas State), and others partnered with IBM, the Annenberg Foundation, and others to create the Comprehensive Unified Physics Learning Environment which included content materials organized much like todays MOOCs, but also interactive exercise built around microcomputer live data acquisition and sophisticated video tools.

Physicists also led the way in understanding student learning through physics education research with Arnold Arons perceived as one of the earliest leaders.  Lillian McDermott followed in his wake and Halloun and Hestenes created a conceptual test that informed us (to our chagrin) that students were NOT learning what we thought they might.  Use of that test at Harvard both surprised Eric Mazur and led him to develop the concept of Peer Teaching, which he wrote up in a book of the same name –helping many others to follow his lead.  More recent projects like the MIT Open Courseware Initiative, Carnegie Mellon Online Learning Initiative and even the very recent MOOCs feature Physics learning applications among their first offerings.

How could it possibly be then that the recently released report of the National Academy of Sciences, Adapting to a Changing World--Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education, could assert that:

“Evidence indicates that the physics community remains in a traditional mode where the primary purpose of physics education is to create clones of the physics faculty.”

“Over the past several decades, active research by physicists into the teaching of their subject has yielded important insights about what can be done to heighten the quality of students understanding of their universe, at all levels. But this new knowledge is slow to find significant adoption, nor is it fully understood by physics faculty.”

That is the paradox facing physics education, but there is another paradox facing higher education:  more and more is being expected of higher education, and fewer and fewer resources are being made available.

For physics and undergraduate physics education to have a successful future, those two paradoxes will need to be untangled.  As a community, we will have to excel in deployment as well as in innovation –and that will be a relatively new role for most of he community.

Online education has been a juggernaut in higher education -with relentless, and surprisingly uniform and uninterrupted, growth to nearly seven million enrollees last year.  While most of that growth has been at the public land-grants and a few private proprietaries, the prestigious privates have discovered online education with a vengeance – in the creation and deployment of a myriad of MOOCs.  These Massive Open Online Courses adopt a very different strategy even as they use many of the same pedagogies and technologies.  “Traditional” online education approaches courses through complete curricula that are most often created by faculty in departments and deployed with the usual admission, tuition, and faculty – in fairly close parallel with campus based traditions.  You get admitted, pay, take courses from faculty, get evaluated, and then get credit and degrees.  MOOCs turn this on its head.  There is no admission process and no up-front tuition or fees.  Taking the “course” is “free.”  Interaction with faculty is negligible and evaluation is often done by peers, computers, or self-evaluation.  Those few who actually complete the course (less than 5% at Stanford’s Coursera) receive a certificate of completion.  The fine print at the bottom of the certificate points out that this certificate does not imply that the student has actually taken a course at the university, has not been admitted to the university, has not received credit from the university, and other disclaimers.   In a few cases, students can take this certificate to some other community college or four year college, and present the certificate, pay the tuition and/or fees, and get the credit.

In both “traditional” online courses and in MOOCs, physics has often been a first mover, but has rarely been a significant player!  Some leaders, from Clayton Christensen at Harvard, Andrew Ng at Stanford, Anant Agarwal at MIT,  to Tom Friedman at the New York Times think this is the future of higher education.  What does this all mean for physics?

ABSTRACT:   Online education has been a juggernaut in higher education -with relentless, and surprisingly uniform and uninterrupted, growth to nearly seven million enrollees last year.  While most of that growth has been at the public land-grants and a few private proprietaries, the prestigious privates have discovered online education with a vengeance – in the creation and deployment of a myriad of MOOCs.  These Massive Open Online Courses adopt a very different strategy even as they use many of the same pedagogies and technologies.  “Traditional” online education approaches courses through complete curricula that are most often created by faculty in departments and deployed with the usual admission, tuition, and faculty – in fairly close parallel with campus based traditions.  You get admitted, pay, take courses from faculty, get evaluated, and then get credit and degrees.  MOOCs turn this on its head.  There is no admission process and no up-front tuition or fees.  Taking the “course” is “free.”  Interaction with faculty is negligible and evaluation is often done by peers, computers, or self-evaluation.  Those few who actually complete the course (less than 5% at Stanford’s Coursera) receive a certificate of completion.  The fine print at the bottom of the certificate points out that this certificate does not imply that the student has actually taken a course at the university, has not been admitted to the university, has not received credit from the university, and other disclaimers.   In a few cases, students can take this certificate to some other community college or four year college, and present the certificate, pay the tuition and/or fees, and get the credit.

In both “traditional” online courses and in MOOCs, physics has often been a first mover, but has rarely been a significant player!  Some leaders, from Clayton Christensen at Harvard, Andrew Ng at Stanford, Anant Agarwal at MIT,  to Tom Friedman at the New York Times think this is the future of higher education.  What does this all mean for physics?

Bio:

Jack M. Wilson, President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Higher Education, Emerging Technologies, and Innovation, the University of Massachusetts, served as the 25th President of the five campus 68,000 student University of Massachusetts system from 2003-2011.   He founded UMassOnline which now serves over 70,000 enrollees. He previously served Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as The J. Erik Jonsson Distinguished Professor of Physics, Engineering Science, Information Technology, and Management as well as a research center director, Dean, and interim Provost.  Prior to that he taught at the University of Maryland and was the Executive Officer of the American Association of Physics Teachers.  He served on the Board of the American Institute of Physics and founded the Physics Department Chair conferences.  He was also the Founder, Chairman, and CEO of the ILINC corporation, which he spun out of his Center at RPI.   He has served on two Physics Decadal Survey committees of the NAS/NRC, the recent NAS/NRC task force on Research in Physics Education, and other NAS/NRC studies –including one on digital libraries.