Thursday, April 21, 2016

Online Students - Are They As Good?

This is essentially a follow-up to my post on Education Technology.

So, after doing this for a while and trying to put two-and-two together, I'm having a bit of skepticism about online learning and education. I know it is in-fashion right now, and maybe in many other subjects, this is effective. But I don't see it for physics.

I've mentioned earlier on why students who undergo online learning via the online interface that they use often lack problem-solving techniques, which I consider as important as understanding the material itself. However, in this post, I also being to question if they actually know what we THINK they know. Let me explain.

My students do their homework assignment "online", as I've mentioned before. They have to complete this each week. I get to see how they perform, both individually, and as a group. I know what questions they got right, and what they got wrong. So I can follow up by going over questions that most students have problems with.

But here's the thing. Most students seem to be doing rather well if I simply base this on the online homework scores. In fact, just by looking at the HW statistics, they understand 3/4 of the material rather well. But do they?

I decided to do some in-class evaluation. I give them short, basic questions that cover the material from the previous week, something they did in their homework. And the result is mind-boggling. Many of them can't answer the simplest, most basic question. And I let them open their text and notes to answer these questions. Remember, these are the topics that they had just answered in the HW the previous week that were way more difficult than my in-class questions.

For example, a HW question may ask for the magnitude and direction of the electric field at a particular location due to 2 or more charges located at some distance away. So for my in-class question, I have a charge Q sitting at the origin of a cartesian coordinate, and I ask for the E-field at a distance, say 3 cm away. And then I say that if I put a charge q at that location, what is the force acting on it that charge? Simple, no? And they could look at their notes and text to solve this.

If the students could manage to solve the more difficult HW problem, the question I asked should be a breeze! So why did more than half of the class gave me answers as if they had never seen this material before?

This happened consistently. I will ask a very basic question that is way simpler than one of their HW question, and I get puzzling answers. There appears to be a huge disconnect between what they did in the online HW, and their actual knowledge of the very same material that they should have used to solve those HW problems. They performance in completing the online HW has no correlation to their understanding of the material.

All of this becomes painfully obvious during the final exam, where they have to sit for it in class, and write down the solution to the questions the old-fashion way. The majority of the students crashed-and-burned. Even when the questions were similar to the very same ones they solved in their HW, some did not even know how to start! And yes, they were allowed to look at their notes, texts, and their old HW during the finals.

So what are the reasons for this? Why is there such a disconnect between their performance online, and what they actually can do? While there might be a number of reasons for this, the only one that I find most plausible is that they had some form of assistance in completing their online work. This assistance may be in the form of (i) previously-done HW from another source and/or (ii) another person who is more knowledgeable or had taken the course before. The online performance that I see often does not accurately reflect the level of knowledge the students actually have.

So this led me into thinking about all these online courses that many schools are beginning to offer. Some even offer entire degree that you can get via online courses. I am well-aware of the conveniences of these forms of learning, and for the right students, this may be useful. However, I question the quality of knowledge of the students, on average, that went through an online course or degree. If my haunch is correct, how does one know that the work that has been done online was done purely by that student? Sure, you can randomize the questions and insert new things in there, but there is still the question on whether the student had an external assistance, be it partially or entirely.

I asked on here a long time ago if anyone have had any experience with students in physics who went through an online program, either partially or for an entire degree program. I haven't had any responses, which might indicate that it is still not very common. I certainly haven't encountered any physics graduate students that went through an online program.

Like I said, maybe this type of learning works well in many different areas. But I don't see how it is effective for physics, or any STEM subject area. Anyone knows how Arizona State University does it?



shelvia wongso said...

Hi. I'm a physics undergraduate student from Singapore. Some of my physics courses have weekly online quizzes which test us on the concepts we have just learnt the week before. I agree that most students will seek assistance from others to do these quizzes. Also, all our lectures are recorded. Hence, students can afford to not go to lectures and instead, choose to watch the online lectures at their own time. Most of my friends who do not attend the lectures, either do not watch the online lectures at all or watch the lectures with twice the speed. As a result, I feel that they could not grasp the concept as strongly as if they were to attend the physical lectures. Online learning is effective if the students themselves are self-motivated to learn the concepts well. For example, if I forget some concepts taught during lecture, then I could always watch the online lecture to help me recall those concepts. Personally, I think online learning is a good complement to physical learning, but not a good substitute to it.

Bernard Kamau said...

my opinion is online studies makes the student lazy