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Going the distance: Successful algebra-based physics courses go online

Following the tremendous success modernizing the curriculum in the Introductory Algebra-based Physics series, instructor KC Walsh and a team of faculty members and students have designed a fully online version of the flipped classroom curriculum. The sequence went live this fall.

Five years ago, Walsh transformed introductory physics classes at Oregon State by reversing the traditional learning environment. In flipped classrooms, students receive course content online outside of the classroom, freeing up “precious classroom time” for active learning. Research shows active learning to be a far more effective way to learn and understand the material.

“The flipped classroom model is a student-centric classroom model where the attention is on the students rather than the instructor,” Walsh said. “Much of physics education research for the past 30 years can be summarized into two major statements: Students learn best by actively engaging in problem-solving and critical thinking; and they learn physics best by talking with peers, guided by experts.”

The results of the flipped classroom model were dramatic, leading to a marked increase in course satisfaction and a change in the drop-fail-withdraw rate from 36% to only 12% – all without decreasing learning gains. “That’s a huge difference. That means that we’re passing 25% more students,” he said.

Now Walsh and his team are bringing the whole course online, broadening the reach of accessible physics education. As in the campus classes, distance learners receive course content on the class website via links to high-quality recorded lectures, practice problems, open-source textbooks, educational websites, simulations and more. Their work is directed by the course’s Daily Learning Guide on the class website.

Vitally important, the active engagement component of the flipped online classroom is robust – with distance students applying key concepts guided by peers, just as in the physical classes. In the live online “virtual classroom,” students work in groups on problem-solving and critical thinking using real-time polling, video and shared digital whiteboards.

Walsh’s team addresses some of the major hurdles students experience in distance learning, such as lack of community engagement, by creating opportunities for students to connect in real-time online. Distance learners receive unprecedented real-time help from teaching assistants, learning assistants and supplemental instruction in a new virtual “Worm Hole” tutoring center that parallels the physics on-campus center.

Labs focus on experimental design and data analysis, progressing from “prescribed labs” where students follow instructions, to inquiry-based labs in which students design the experiments themselves.

This project is an exciting opportunity to satisfy OSU’s land grant mission of providing access to higher education to the public. Walsh and his team aim to address students’ challenges and to continually innovate new curriculum and learning technologies.

OSU’s Physics Department, recognized as one of the country’s most pioneering undergraduate physics programs, was one of three in the country to win the American Physical Society’s award for Improving Undergraduate Education in 2018.

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