Plenary at #perc2014: Carl Wieman and the future of PER

by Stephanie Chasteen on August 1, 2014

My mentor Carl Wieman was called upon to synthesize some of the main themes of the physics education research conference (PERC) this year.  Here are some of the things he discussed.  Note, he had a hard job, to try to draw some meaning from a lively conference with a short preparation time!photo

Talking to some of the old timers at PERC, he got a sense that there is a convergence, and a moving forward, in what we are doing. We used to do some active learning strategy, compare to lecture, and see that active learning was an improvement. Now we are going beyond that. Why do some active learning elements work? How do we understand them from a cognitive level?   How do we optimize what we are doing?

There is also a sense of optimism; we see that things are starting to spread, there is hope for making a real impact, and we’re doing research on broader impact. In the olden days, we used to grumble about why faculty aren’t paying attention to this. We still complain that the old curmudgeons are teaching the same way, but not all of them are, and we have some understanding of the factors at play.

Consider MOOCs – they are the latest educational fad, but they are also an opportunity.   It’s an opportunity to change the thinking about teaching and learning undergraduate science. We know a lot about learning, how can technology help us achieve these? For political leaders, however, learning is considered to be listening to lectures; so if we put the best lecturer online, then we get a great education at little cost.

So, MOOCs are a great opportunity to have our voices heard, but realize who you’re speaking to. These people aren’t stupid, they’re just ill-informed, so we need to consider how to communicate with them. MOOCs have led to a lot of discussion about post-secondary teaching than perhaps ever before. My first reaction to MOOCs was that they were a silly fad, because watching lectures is not good, and as soon as we have real data MOOCs will disappear. His wife Sarah helped him come to a more nuanced approach – MOOCs wont’ eliminate universities, but they can help facilitate flipped classrooms, and we can use their popularity to create greater focus on active learning.   MOOCs are giving us data on how people watch video lectures, for example, and they are broadening the discussion about blended learning and flipped classrooms, and about research and data on learning.

There is also a strong cultural and psychological belief that students can’t learn without a lecture. So perhaps having an online lecture available will allow us to focus more on real learning in the classroom.

Another opportunity related to MOOCs and other new technology is that they offer new modes for teaching and gathering research data. Many of the new technologies are to extend the capabilities of the instructor in a more interactive way – e.g., clickers, scale-up, online homework. These are a natural continuation of what we have been doing already, rather than a new direction.

It’s important to remember, however, that technology shouldn’t drive the pedagogy. Don’t find a tool that you like and then look for a use of it. Find the tool that fits your pedagogical need.

Some notes on broader reform and the spread of transformations:

  1. Research has to address efficiency – the time that it takes for faculty to adopt these methods, compared to the gains in student learning. These are issues for wider adoption and sustainability.
  2. Data on learning is necessary, but not sufficient. If people don’t want to change, they can always poke holes in it.   If you have information on how much more fun the teaching is, that makes a big difference. Faculty typically pass this information in the hallway, or through observation of classes. That may be a more powerful reason to change.
  3. There is a lack of urgency and systematic driving forces to change. Adoption is often accidental and due to individual champions.
  4. Incentive system is a giant barrier. We need a better way to measure teaching quality and create accountability. For example, he has developed a teaching practices inventory to evaluate the extent of the use of research based practices.

Questions included:

  1. There is a set of lower administrators who know a lot about active engagement, but they think that faculty need to be forced to change. They don’t tend to be aware of the existence of PER. How can we let administrators know that they have partners on campus who are willing to be engaged and have expertise to provide? Carl says: Send them a note that there is a lot of discussion around MOOCs and educational technology; this is my area of research, I’d be happy to come talk to you about what we know.
  2. How can we get more funding? Carl says: In AMO, we realized that we were doing nanotechnology, because there was a lot of money in nanotech. So, if there is money in educational technology, frame your work that way. It’s annoying and shameless, but this is how the system works; there is political attention in this area, so look there.
  3. If data is necessary but not sufficient, is this primarily a marketing issue? Carl says: You’re selling it to the faculty members, not to the dean. The Dean won’t tell the physics department how to teach. The fundamental lesson from the Science Education Initiative is that if someone doesn’t want to believe in something because of deeply held beliefs, they’ll find a reason not to believe the data, just like with climate change.   But science faculty respond in just the same way. They behave just like humans (!). (Note: I’ve often felt that the area of behavioral economics has a lot to tell us about faculty change).
  4. We need to get the word out more broadly about our work. At what level do we do this as individuals, versus a coordinated voice from societies like PERLOC? Carl says: I’m not sure, there are opportunities on both sides. You need to get a voice within your institution, but I’m not sure how to leverage this in a collective way. This is a nice grand challenge to think about how to do that.
  5. What might the next educational fad be, and how can we proactively avoid it? Carl says: You fight fads by making evidence a key aspect of the discussion. We should do that with MOOCs. They’ve gotten a lot more attention than other things in the past, and if we focus on evidence, people will be more sensitive to asking those types of questions before adopting. (But, I ask, how does this connect to the idea that people don’t pay attention to evidence?)

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