Furtak Research Projects

Enhanced Learning in Online Education

I have a strong commitment to effective teaching. I helped to develop studio learning on the Mines campus, creating the early version of the teaching method that is now used in Physics 100 and Physics 200. You can visit my teaching philosopy page to find out more.

I wondered if it would be possible to adapt effective classroom methods to online learning. These strategies rely on active engagement and social interactions. I and my partners developed a prototype that we call Physics 100 Online. The course design employs an authentic context under which teams of students work on complex tasks, presented to them as if they were technical consultants to the motion picture industry. Other learning materials include exercises that involve simulated discussions, with realistic student responses delivered from a filtered database. We used a pre-post test to evaluate gains in understanding of one unit of instruction. The average gain was higher, compared to students a control group in the face-to-face class, indicating that effective classroom strategies can be adapted to web-based instruction.

To encourage collaboration and maintain student interest, Physics 100 Online uses a metaphor based on the physics that can be found within motion pictures. This provides a framework for engaging situations with which any learner can identify. The Physics 100 Online home page shows the work room of the motion picture consultant team. Students in the course are assigned to work as a member of the team. Course information is located through links from this room. Assignments are found at the IN box. Interactive tools under are reached through the Work Group bulletin. Completed projects are submitted to the OUT box. Learning materials are accessed through the notebook on the table. Graphics and diagrams associated with the Team Projects are "projected" on the screen at the back of the room.

To gain competence in the background and skills needed to complete the team assignments, students study the notebook, thus following a pattern that is similar to what would occur in an actual technical consulting firm. The notebook contains engaging materials that focus on key concepts through programmed learning, animations, simulations, examples, and content summaries. In order to simulate social interactions for the self-paced component of the course, we employ a database of student responses to provide authentic feedback to each student. In a simulated social interaction the student:

  • considers a question and makes a commitment to an answer
  • justifies the answer with a typed response
  • considers a gallery of justifications from other students
  • reacts to the new information
We use ranking exercises (shown), multiple-choice questions, paradox discussions, and diagram analysis (using a special drawing tool)

A particular promising strategy that we developed was based on the classroom ConcepTest. In the online version students interact with the database to provide their justification of an answer to a question before receiving a gallery of justifications contributed by other students asynchronously. The responses are correlated with each possible answer. So, the student is able to engage in a virtual discussion.

The primary outcome of this study suggests that online instruction in physics can be as effective as high-quality on-campus learning. Additionally, our study suggests that active-engagement teaching methods can be successfully adapted to online education through explicit strategies that:

  • provide an interesting context that promotes student-to-student communication,
  • present materials under authentic conditions,
  • encourage higher-order thinking through simulated social interactions.
These principles can be employed in the further development online learning in physics, as well as in other subjects.

This project was supported by the Department of Education through the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) and is a partnership with Joanna Dunlap at the University of Colorado at Denver and our External Evaluator, Susan Tucker.