$750K Awarded To Physics Professor To Improve Online Ed

A UCF assistant professor’s reimagined approach to optimizing online physics education has landed him a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

The NSF award to Zhongzhou Chen, Ph.D., lasts for five years.

In collaboration with the Center for Distributed Learning at UCF, Chen is developing a series of new online learning modules optimized for data collection and frequent learning measurement. Through the data collected from those online modules, Chen can analyze patterns in student learning behavior and create new opportunities for data-driven educational research.

“If you properly design an online course and analyze the data, you get very detailed information on what is working and what is not working for the students,” Chen said. “That is how online learning resources can be continuously improved.”

Textbooks can only be improved upon when publishers make new editions, and most of the improvements are not based on data about students’ learning process, since reading a textbook won’t produce any data. However, Chen said that by blending active problem solving with instructional contents within the online courses, it would allow researchers to collect large amounts of both behavioral and performance data on student learning.

In Chen’s project, online courses are designed for students to study instructional content and solve problems in a sequence of online learning modules. This would allow researchers to measure how much time the student studies before answering related questions and measure their performance. If a student spends insufficient time studying and then performs poorly on the problem, data would suggest that the student is not engaged with the learning process. If most students could solve the problem after spending adequate time on the content, then the instructional content needs to be improved.

“Think of this as building a 3D model of the student interacting with the material,” Chen said. “It will show a detailed picture of how students as a group interact with learning materials and show how effective the materials are.”

Chen said the student STEM population has been growing more diverse and the “one-size-fits-all” approach of lecturing faces increasing difficulty meeting the needs of different students. With students at different academic readiness, professors are incredibly dedicated to teaching but only have limited resources to teach students differently.

The goal: create an online course that would provide each student with the opportunity to create a unique learning pathway that meets his or her own learning needs.

With an online environment that provides each student the opportunity to self-assess their own progress, those who still need to master fundamental skills and concepts can have access to the necessary training, while students who are already proficient can quickly move on to more sophisticated topics.

“Professors would no longer have to wait for the rest of the class to catch up” Chen said. “For those who are ready, we could give them the opportunity to interact with material at a much higher level than they’re interacting with now.



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