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By Eric Brewe and Adrienne Traxler
March 13, 2020 was right around the time that universities made a rapid transition to teaching classes online due to COVID-19. Many schools extended their spring breaks to give faculty an extra week to plan for how to teach online. This challenge, among the many challenges presented by COVID, was particularly daunting because the majority of faculty lacked any experience with online teaching. Based on our own experiences and our social media, we planned a research project to investigate how physics faculty dealt with this transition—and to what extent it had lasting effects on their teaching. We sent electronic surveys to physics faculty from across the country, ultimately receiving 662 responses from people teaching physics during the spring of 2020 (Brewe, Traxler, & Scanlin, 2021).
Additionally, we did follow-up interviews with 15 faculty members who graciously donated their time. The survey and interviews focused on what tools and technologies faculty adopted, how they drew on informational resources about online teaching, and how they responded to this crisis transition—particularly how they made instructional decisions during the pandemic.
Credit: Wright State University
On March 17, the term “asynchronous” hit an all-time high according to Google trends (a new all-time high corresponded with the beginning of instruction the following fall). At this point in time, schools were extending spring break and shifting from in-person instruction to remote. Part of this shift led instructors to investigate new tools for teaching classes. We asked faculty about the tools they chose to utilize during the spring of 2020. Overwhelmingly, and not surprisingly, faculty reported using Zoom or other video conferencing software (89%).
The pandemic dramatically disrupted teaching and learning, and disruption is critical to educational change. Kurt Lewin theorized that large-scale institutional change required a three part process, first an unfreezing of the status quo, followed by change, and ultimately ending in refreezing. The pandemic's impact on teaching is akin to what Lewin (1947) describes as an unfreezing because so many established practices became impossible in online settings. To better understand how faculty in physics changed, we also asked about additional tools that were newly incorporated into online teaching. Among the most popular were features of institutional learning management systems—such as Blackboard, Moodle, or Canvas which can be used to assign and collect homework assignments or administer quizzes and tests (LMS, 42%), online demonstrations and simulations—such as PhET or Physlets (21%)—and pre-recorded lectures from external sources such as YouTube and Kahn Academy (16%).
One of the biggest challenges faculty faced was remotely administering assessments, such as tests and homework. Some faculty used test administration systems that monitor or lock students’ computer screens during exams, such as Respondus (19%). Faculty also incorporated online homework systems such as Mastering Physics or ExpertTA (14%). Online grading systems, such as Gradescope, were somewhat prevalent (9%). While not clearly represented in our dataset, it is likely that much of the new use of institutional LMS functionality also was for the purposes of assessment.
Finally, as faculty begin to return to classes and in-person teaching, a pervasive question arises of whether new approaches employed while teaching remotely will have staying power. Will the tools continue to be used, or will instruction largely return to pre-pandemic approaches? In a follow up survey, we returned to faculty for insight about how their teaching had changed during fall 2020, when they had a summer to prepare for new instructional conditions. We compared themes in open-response data from the spring 2020 survey to fall 2020. In the spring of 2020, instructors were simply trying to figure out the basics of what online instruction requires, focusing on technologies. As instructors became more familiar with online learning themes included laboratory instruction, cheating, and how to optimize the use of technology in teaching. Further, longitudinal work is needed in order to better understand long-term impacts of the changes in tools, informational resources, and practices.
When asked what resources they drew on to help with online teaching, faculty overwhelmingly reported talking to others in their departments (79%), then to teaching centers at their schools (43%), then consulting their institutional learning management software (33%). Next are non-physics faculty at their institution (24%) or physics colleagues at other schools (19%), who were roughly as popular as Google (19%). Initially, we had expected internet resources to be much more popular. Despite the large number of education-related Facebook groups (e.g. STEM Faculty Blundering through Online Teaching in a Pandemic) and other online education communities, such as those using the #Iteachphysics hashtag on Twitter, few faculty reported these as resources (about 5% each for Facebook and Twitter). Instead, faculty mostly looked for guidance with their immediate circle of peers. This makes good sense in several ways, as nearby faculty will be the most familiar with the student population and course requirements. However, most of these colleagues had little experience with online instruction, so many of these conversations may have lacked access to key information about teaching and learning in this environment. This may be why campus teaching centers with dedicated faculty development staff were such a popular second choice. Familiar with local student needs, but also more likely to have expertise in online tools and pedagogy, teaching centers are a valuable bridge between familiar and new educational approaches.
Groups like the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and PhysPort sent curated lists of resources that could be used to take courses online while preserving active learning as a goal. Though these guides were distributed widely via email, they did not figure large in survey responses (9% for AAPT and 6% for PhysPort). Despite being physics-specific and rooted in research on teaching and learning, these resources were either unknown to or unused by many of the faculty they were intended for.
Because this pandemic has been challenging for a huge proportion of the population, we asked about the levels of anxiety experienced while teaching. The majority of respondents reported greater levels of anxiety about teaching online versus in person. Though the anxiety we measured was related to classroom practice, we believed that out-of-class factors were highly likely to creep into the classroom setting. Particularly, we anticipated that faculty were experiencing anxiety related to job security as the impacts were not yet clear (and remain unclear). We found that the bulk of the respondents did not have job security based anxiety, but that the anxiety around teaching during spring 2020 was greater for remote settings than in person.
This work was done in the context of a global pandemic, to study one small part of the effects of that pandemic. A week after the survey was sent, George Floyd was murdered. About half of the survey responses came after that event, during the ensuing protests and unrest. It’s impossible to say exactly what effects this had on the anxiety of respondents, though we did separate the pre- and post-May 25 data to check for differences and found none. We are deeply appreciative of all the faculty who took the time to respond, many in the midst of stressful personal circumstances.
One of the themes that emerged from the qualitative data (where analysis is ongoing) is empathy. Many faculty expressed concern for their students, reflected on the possible tradeoffs of instructional choices, and changed their courses or grading schemes to support student success. This concern for others, while not a stereotypical trait of physicists, is a very human response. In the coming decades, there are likely to be more global pandemic events, as one of the predicted consequences of climate change.
Thus, while we can hope that the 2020 crisis transition to online teaching was an isolated event, there is a real chance that lessons from this period will be directly applicable in the near future. We may all have to draw on our nearby colleagues, trusted online resources, and our concern for those around us to weather these changes in the educational landscape.
Based on the foundation of this work, we are continuing to explore the lasting impacts of the pandemic on physics faculty and their teaching. Of particular interest is the question of how faculty’s teaching changed when they had more than the average two weeks to prepare for the fall term of 2020, and what tools they continue to use as they return to the classroom.
Brewe, E., Traxler, A., and Scanlin, S. (2021). Transitioning to online instruction: Strong ties and anxiety. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 17, 023103. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.17.023103
Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in group dynamics: Concept, method and reality in social science; social equilibria and social change. Human Relations, 1, 5-41.
Lombardi, D., Shipley, T. F., & Astronomy Team, B. T. (2021). The curious construct of active learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100620973974
Eric Brewe is an Associate Professor of Physics and Science Education at Drexel University. Adrienne Traxler is an associate professor of physics at Wright State University.
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Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine