Second in a series. First is here.
The first MOOC I started, Mechanics ReView, was originally developed at MIT as a short three week course for students who didn’t do well in their regular introductory Newtonian Mechanics Course (generally the first college physics course). The instructors devised a method to teach physics problems solving, which they said was proven to work, based on the student improvement in the on campus course and grades in subsequent physics courses. The online course was ten weeks, with eight required units and an optional three more units, and an expectation of about ten hours per week of work.
The course included short readings with explanations and solutions that could be expanded or collapsed and “checkpoint” problems interspersed throughout. Some of the problems were multiple choice and some required calculations, most allowed multiple attempts. Each problem also included a discussion board right below, which was initially hidden, but could be expanded.
For each unit (or sometimes pairs of units) there was a homework assignment of about fifteen problems, with similar formats to the checkpoint problems, but towards the end, a lot more difficult questions. Each of these problems also had a discussion board. Finally, whenever there was a homework assignment, there was also a quiz, which was similar to the homework assignment, but with no discussion board and fewer attempts.
There was another message board for “Office Hours,” where students could ask questions, and vote on the top three questions we wanted to instructors to answer during a weekly video. There was also a place to check your progress with graphs of what percentage of questions you got right in each checkpoint, homework, and quiz and what percentage of the course you had completed (with checkpoints worth 10%, homework 55%, and quizzes 35%).
The course was designed for people who had already taken at least one mechanics course and was described as going from “hard to easy:” their problem solving method would allow students to organize our thinking to solve very hard physics problems (and of course, also easier ones). One audience for the course was high school physics teachers; those who passed the course (60%) could pay to receive a continuing education certificate. The course also seemed to include many physics-loving high school students from all over the world.
The last time I had taken a physics mechanics course was AP physics, during my junior year of high school in 1978. I did well in the class and got a 5 on the AP exam (the highest score), but I thought my physics understanding was never really a 5; my 5+ math understanding carried me. I thought I might have more of a genuine student experience in this class than in a math class that I’d taught many times (all of the math offerings for the summer), but that the emphasis on problem solving was close enough to my own math teaching to help me think about how I might use new electronic resources in my classes.
The course included many really good problems. By “really good,” I sometimes mean really hard, sometimes really clever, and sometimes just expertly chosen to force the student to think about a particular concept. At the beginning of the course, I got far more immersed in these problems than I’d anticipated.
I was intrigued by the course’s use of multiple choice questions; I’ve never been a big fan of them, but I’d also never seen many multiple choice questions with ten choices and four attempts allowed. I could check my first gut impulse, even if I thought it might not be correct, and then move on after that feedback. It was often clear to me what assumptions different choices involved, and hence both right and wrong answers helped me understand the material better.
The homework and checkpoint problems that had open entry answers (numerical and also symbolic) generally allowed ten attempts. There was one problem in the first homework assignment about a block of mass m1 on top of a block of mass m2, which was linked by a rope over a pulley to a block of mass m3, with a coefficient of friction involved. The goal was to find the minimum value of m3 that would make m1 fall off of m2. I solved the problem on my eighth attempt, after several days, making use of a few hints. It felt good.
The discussion boards had a strict policy of not giving the answers, only hints and general direction. Students took the policy seriously and policed each other, with many posts including phrases like, “I hope this isn’t saying too much” or “I can’t say any more or else I’d be over the line.” There were many students in the course who had a strong understanding of the material, not surprising since many were physics teachers themselves; after a few weeks, some were designated as “Community TA’s.”
Many students raised questions that went beyond the problems; for example, in the problem about the block falling off the other block, I noticed that if the coefficient of friction (mu) was greater than 1, then the answer would come out as a negative mass, which doesn’t make sense. I had to look up whether it was possible for mu to be greater than 1, but it is, but I wasn’t sure what the numerical result meant physically; was it impossible for the block to fall off? Or was there something “illegal” about the assumptions?
I was pretty clear, however, that a course like this wouldn’t work for most of my students, and as I engaged myself, I also relaxed thinking that a class like this was not going to take away my job just yet. You had to be very proficient in algebra and trigonometry to do this class, had to be able to figure out how to enter the symbols, and more importantly, had to have a lot of problem solving skills already to integrate knowledge from the feedback from the right and wrong answers. Of course, many students would also struggle with the in-person version of the course.
Being in the student role gave me additional empathy and insight into a few things that happened with my students last year. One of my classes was a senior seminar, where we spent the whole semester on open ended questions that students asked themselves. A few weeks into the course, the students were all quite dejected and thought they were failing, because sometimes they worked all week on their problem and didn’t get a single “right answer.” To them, doing well in math had always been about consistently getting right answers, and they missed that.
I was able to reassure the students that they were doing well, and we moved on, but at the time, my thoughts were, “So sorry that in your sixteen plus years of education, we failed to mention to you that most problems in the world don’t have simple solutions that you can find before the next class.” However, taking the physics MOOC, I was conscious of just how satisfying it was to get that green check mark (especially after several red X’s) and how not having something like that was in fact a loss for students (although an important one to confront, at least sometimes). I am somewhat embarrassed that I did the whole unit on motion, even though it’s material that I know well from teaching it many times in calculus classes; there was little learning involved for me, but many green check marks (and a few of the problems were interesting). I breezed through the whole unit in one day, and I did enjoy that.
Another way I found new empathy for students was in confronting just how hard it was to not look something up when I was already online and was frustrated with a problem and knew that a quick Google would provide guilty relief. I had some issues with casual plagiarism in my classes last year, where the student didn’t realize it wasn’t OK to look for a hint when s/he got stuck in one place, even though most of the work was his/her own. At the time I was angry, and how much internet to allow is still a tricky issue, but I see how possible it is to bend the rules without thinking when you’re already online and in the middle of something.
The physics course is still ongoing, but I am not likely to finish it. Right now I am at 45% and I’d only need 60% to pass. I got behind because the programming MOOC became more compelling (more on that tomorrow), because I was resting my arm, and also because I started to get bored with blocks, inclined planes, massless ropes, springs, and equations of motion pulled from thin air. The class was helping me remember how to solve textbook physics problems and giving me some fun and challenging ones to explore with others, but it was not deepening my understanding of physics in contexts that I cared about, and I felt I had gained all the ideas I was going to gain about new uses for the internet in my classes.
I am out of time for today, but will expand on these issues later.