Last summer, a group of scientists from Georgia Institute of Technology initiated one of the few Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) of its kind. Their approach has inspired other physics educators locally and internationally.
Michael Schatz, a professor of physics at Georgia Institute of Technology, along with a group of colleagues is now nearing completion of the third class of their MOOC on introductory physics. The course, called “Your World is Your Lab” and offered through the education technology company Coursera, offers its fair share of recorded lectures, discussion boards and problem sets, but in order to pass the class students must also complete a series of lab assignments.
|Logo for the MOOC "Your World is Your Lab." Credit: Michael Schatz|
Most professional scientists can recall their undergraduate days and the many hours spent with Bunsen burners, microscopes and diffraction gratings. However, many who enroll in MOOCs do not have the same access to lab materials in a safe environment compared to students on a college campus.
This can pose a major challenge when it comes to establishing curriculums for science MOOCs like the classical mechanics course Schatz’s group coordinates. But Schatz sees the challenge as a key opportunity to reimagine traditional educational practices.
“People say you can’t do hands-on activities in an online course,” Schatz said. “In some sense what we typically think of as the lab on campus isn’t such a great experience at all, anyways. [MOOC] now allows us to say, ‘Let’s rethink what we mean by what a lab should be.’ One of the things we argue … is it should be something that’s relevant and immediate in one’s own surroundings.”
|Example of the computer code students use in the class. Credit: Michael Schatz|
Schatz said traditional cookbook labs repeat old experiments and do not necessarily offer a way for students to connect what they learn indoors with what they experience every day. “The World is Your Lab” takes a different stab at the lab.
The labs account for 65 percent of students’ overall score in the course and are completed at home with minimal equipment. Students record video of objects in motion with their iPhones and then use open-source motion tracking software to analyze and understand that behavior in terms of Newton’s laws of motion.
They then write computational models that reproduce the motion and compare the results of their models with their observations. The final project involves a 5-minute video that explains in detail the motion of an object of their choosing. Below, is a video from a student explaining his favorite hobby, diving.
The first time Schatz and the group offered the course was the summer of 2013 and they had nearly 20,000 students enroll. Even though about 100 of those students completed enough of the course material to pass, Schatz said that there is more to MOOCs than simply passing the course.
For example, one of the students, Claribel Perez, currently taking the spring course is a teacher of physics at the high school level in Puerto Rico. She has incorporated some of the MOOC's methods that use cell phones to record motion and applied it to her own classroom.
“I have a Bachelor’s in biology and because of the lack of teachers in physics I have five years with the company of forces, vectors and waves,” said Perez who teaches at the Academia Santo Tomas de Aquino High School in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. “This course allowed me to clarify concepts, including misconceptions that [I] had not even noticed that I was passing on to my students … the professor, TA’s, peers [have] made me a better teacher for my students.”
|Picture of Claribel Perez with some of her students at Arecibo Observatory courtesy of Claribel Perez.|
“Spreading the news of physics to broader audiences is a good thing,” said Schatz who met with educators in Latin America earlier this month. He and his colleagues eventually hope to translate some of their lectures and material into Spanish and other languages to make them more accessible.
In addition to helping educators in other countries, the MOOC’s influence has also hit closer to home on the Georgia Institute of Technology’s campus. Schatz’s MOOC is just one of the physics courses he is involved with – he also teaches courses in person and has used some of what he’s learned from developing the MOOC with his students on campus.
“This effort allows us to rethink the way we do business on campus and we’re using those MOOC materials to offer a blended learning on campus that started in Fall 2013 and continued into Spring 2014,” Schatz said.
Blended learning is a form of teaching that involves both in-class and online content. For example, students might attend lectures in person and then submit assignments online. Schatz is currently collecting data to compare students’ performance in blended learning courses and traditional courses that do not include any online content.
Schatz presented his work earlier this month at the APS April Meeting in Savannah, Georgia.