ACSME Panel – Liz Angstmann, First Year Physics Director, UNSW

Moving large first year physics courses online

Physics 1A is a large course that runs three times a year for ten weeks. It has over 600 enrolments in Term 1, over 500 in Term 2, and usually around 300 in Term 3. Halfway through Term 1, face-to-face teaching was suspended. Ordinarily, Physics 1A would have four hours of lectures a week (or students could opt to take these online with carefully designed “web-stream” lectures), a two-hour lab, and a two-hour problem-solving workshop. Problem-solving workshops are usually run in the lab space, where students would collaborate in small groups on problems designed to make them confront and work through common misconceptions. Another aim of these workshops is to foster a sense of community among our students. Physics 1B, a follow-on course from Physics 1A, also runs problem-solving workshops and labs in a similar manner to 1A, but only in Terms 1 and 3. Before COVID, we had already planned to introduce web-stream lectures to Physics 1B for Term 3, but this has become even more important now. Fundamentals of Physics also runs in Terms 1 and 3, but has traditional tutorials instead of problem-solving workshops and face-to-face lectures.

Moving lectures online for Physics 1A was not a problem. The web-stream lectures are designed as short videos followed by questions to ensure that students have understood the content. These are set up as quizzes, which allows us to track completion and reach out to students who are falling behind. We have previously studied the learning gains of students taking the web-stream lectures and found that they were comparable to the learning gains of students who attended face-to-face lectures. However, Aesha Bhansalli has a poster showing that the emotional engagement of our students in the web-stream lectures is not as high as for the face-to-face lectures and is even worse when all components of the course are online. For the other courses in Term 1, lecturers pre-recorded lectures and uploaded them to our School YouTube channel.

Moving problem-solving workshops online was a little more of a challenge. Our group had some animated discussions about the advantages of synchronous (more interactive) versus asynchronous (more flexible) learning. In the end, we decided to run the problem-solving classes asynchronously, with optional synchronous drop-in sessions where students could ask lecturers when they needed clarification on course material.

Students had many opportunities to practice answering questions on course material. Prior to changing from traditional tutorials to problem-solving workshops in 2012, we developed a series of solution videos to all the tutorial problems in the course. These were made available to students, with relevant problems identified in each of the lectures. Students also have unlimited attempts at weekly untimed quizzes; each of the quiz questions include detailed feedback and are pulled from a large bank.

UNSW Global delivers our Physics 1A course to international students as an alternate pathway into UNSW. In contrast to our approach, they ran the problem-solving workshops synchronously using breakout rooms in Blackboard Collaborate but found it difficult to get students to participate and engage. This led us to stick with our fairly asynchronous option in later terms.

One positive that came out of moving 1A online was the use of online drop-in sessions. In pre-COVID times, we usually ran drop-in help sessions face-to-face for a few hours in the middle of the day. During these sessions, students could ask a tutor for help with any aspect of the course, but attendance was usually quite low. In Term 2, we ran these from 8-10 PM (we have an academic who is in the UK), which worked well for students. Our students tend to be active much later in the day, so synchronous sessions had much higher attendance in the afternoon than the morning. We plan to permanently move these drop-in sessions to an online evening format.

Our greatest challenge was moving our labs online. Our lab exercises are well-aligned with the content covered in lectures, and aim to 1) give students an appreciation that the theory covered in lectures really does apply physically, 2) develop their understanding of the theory, and 3) develop an appreciation for the importance of accounting for uncertainties. Although challenging, we have experience running online labs. In 2013, we developed an online physics course with at-home experiments using common household equipment. In 2019, we converted all labs in the Graduate Certificate in Physics for Science Teachers to an online format, and students in this degree could request equipment be posted to them if they were unable to source it.

During the pandemic, our approach to running online labs has been significantly different from term to term because of the challenges that we faced, including the short timeframe to develop materials, students’ expectations, budgets, and rules around face-to-face delivery. Our terms are very compacted: UNSW recently moved from two semesters to three terms, so many of our courses feel rushed in this new format. During Term 1, we had to move labs online overnight. Our casual budget was slashed, so there was a lot of uncertainty and we faced the possibility of having zero budget by the end of the term. Luckily this did not come to pass and we managed to retain a reduced budget. This budget reduction did feed heavily into our decisions on how to run the course.

In Term 1, the students already had a lab manual and videos of the experiments (usually they watch these and complete a pre-lab quiz before attending the lab). In light of this and the short turnaround time, we chose to supply students with data that they analysed in their lab book and submitted to Turnitin (Turnitin was chosen because it has a good rubric function, not for similarity checking in this case). Demonstrators then marked these. Students had access to a laboratory discussion forum on Moodle where they could ask questions asynchronously, as well as daily synchronous sessions on Blackboard Collaborate with a demonstrator. Demonstrators were provided with solutions and communicated with course staff through Microsoft Teams. Missing out on the opportunity to perform experiments was a concern for students. In the course evaluation survey, one student commented “The labs were extremely difficult. To see and participate in a lab, in–person, is so much more beneficial for a student as they are able to visualise and understand concepts by seeing them in action. Being able to record data themselves, and make mistakes is a key learning experience that the online format has dramatically disrupted”.

In Term 2, we chose not to run the Physics 1B course for physics majors as we were hoping that laboratory classes would be running in Term 3. We could not come up with suitable at-home experiments to replace the face-to-face ones. For Physics 1A, we designed a series of four at-home experiments based on ones we had previously used in our online courses. These were aligned with the content and developed students’ skills in analysing uncertainties. Students completed reports in a PDF form. In an attempt to reduce incidences of plagiarism, we required that students include a photograph of themselves with the equipment. Similarly to Term 1, students could talk to a demonstrator synchronously during a daily Blackboard Collaborate session or post questions to a forum asynchronously. The reports were marked by demonstrators using a rubric.

Face-to-face labs are resuming in Term 3 with strict rules around social distancing and sanitizing equipment. We had to calculate how many lab classes we could run with our floor space and decide which experiments could be conducted at home and which required proper laboratory equipment. Physics 1B students will complete eight face-to-face experiments with an option to do these online if they are unable to attend. Physics 1A and Fundamentals of Physics students will complete four at-home experiments and three face-to-face experiments. Fingers crossed this goes smoothly!