Physics teacher retraining through flexible delivery

Leah Moore, Jim Woolnough, Andrew Cheetham, John Rayner


The Graduate Certificate of Physics (GCP) described in this paper is a response to two recent educational phenomena. The first is the escalating shortage of teachers in the physical sciences, and the second is the rapid development of increasingly sophisticated platforms for online delivery. A particular requirement of this retraining course was the capacity to cater for science teachers in rural areas of NSW, where secondary schools had a need for trained physics teachers. Distance education has, traditionally, been used to fulfill the needs of isolated students but has been regarded as a less desirable and more expensive alternative to more traditional models. The advent of computer-based learning has led to the possibility that flexible delivery modes may become as effective as traditional, on campus courses. In a recent review of the effectiveness of online education Jung and Rha (2000) suggest that reduced costs and increased revenue have been major factors in the drive towards online education, but many studies purport to show that online delivery modes produce educational outcomes that are generally as effective as more traditional face-to-face modes. Some observations (Inglis 1999) suggest that online education may produce improved educational outcomes through wider access to a variety of multimedia resources and information combined, surprisingly, with increased opportunities for interaction with other students and instructors.

It has often been assumed that missing out on traditional experiences such as lectures compromises the quality of the learning by distance experience. Biggs (1999; p.113) describes how, at the institution where he taught, parity between internal and external students was maintained by denying the internal students access to the external lecture notes, to make up for the advantage the internal students had in being able to attend the on-campus lectures. In fact, numerous studies suggest that distance education often seems to be as effective and sometimes more effective than traditional modes (Jung and Rha 2000). Some recent studies of courses that have been delivered online suggest a high level of acceptance by students (Chang and Fisher 1999; McConnell and Shoenfeld-Tachner 2002). The latter study involved a science course (in histology) in the USA. Students in this course judged it to be ‘readily accessible and at least equal in academic rigour to comparable on-campus courses.’ One of the main issues in the development of the course described in that paper was the incorporation of appropriate laboratory work. Our belief that a substantial laboratory-based experience was needed was the main reason for incorporating a residential component into the GCP. This paper explores the tension between flexible/distance teaching modes of delivery and the more traditional teaching and learning environments provided during the residential component of this course.

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