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Physics 107: Physics for Poets

Professor Bernice Durand
Department of Physics, UW-Madison


Professor Durand is utilizing technology in the classroom to its fullest. Her effort to improve teaching through technology began in the 1980's, when she decided to create a way for students to take her class without actually having to attend the live lecture. The solution was to tape her live lectures and make them available to students through cable television and video tapes, a form of distance education. With this in mind, Professor Durand did her first taping in 1989, which was shown in the spring of 1990. Lecturing to students via video and cable TV wasn't necessarily a new idea. However, the lectures had always been taped in a controlled studio environment. Professor Durand was unique in the way that her taping was done in the classroom, during live lectures.

There were several problems with this version of the taped class. Firstly, whenever Professor Durand needed to alter her course, she would have to also alter the video tape. This became a project of "cut and pasting." Also, it was very tiring to do this every semester.

The tapes, after several years, needed a lot of revamping. Not only did they need to be updated, but they were also in need of a facelift in general. Professor Durand wanted to make the students more involved, more interested in what was being taught. Therefore, she went beyond the act of taping new lectures in a classroom setting. Firstly, she added new graphics to the video lectures, to better illustrate the points she was making. Secondly, she took illustrations out of the classroom setting and exemplified them through the "real world." For example, she taped the moon in its different phases in her own backyard. She interviewed physicists and visited other lab sites. The purpose of this was to increase human interest for the students. The new and improved video version of Physics 107 was completed during after the spring semester of 1995 and the class was taught, TV only with the new version, the next fall.

There was only one problem with this version of this video lecture being used - her interaction with the class was considerably reduced. In fall of 1995, Physics 107 was shown TV only. Professor Durand, in order to have as much interaction with the students as possible, took all the discussion sections, which was incredibly time consuming, even with an hourly helper.

Professor Durand had to change the format of her class several times in order to make sure her students received the maximum learning experience possible. When she first taught the class TV along with live lecture (she taught 2 classes that semester), she found that the TV students were "B" students as a majority. She set up separate discussions for them, which they seldom attended. Then she decided to do something different, and the next year she integrated the live discussion section with the TV discussion section. The grades improved some for the TV audience, and the discussion rate went up a bit.

Now the grades for the TV students are just as good, if not better than, the live students. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, when a student is in a live lecture, if he or she misses class, there's no way to go back and attend it. However, for a student watching the lectures on video tape, there is no excuse to "miss class." The video is always available to be watched, any time of the day. Therefore, the video class misses less lectures than the live class.

Also, when doing a video tape as a lecture, the professor is truly directed at the student watching the tape. It's as if the student gets one-on-one time with the professor. There's something personal about the student being able to receive lecture from the professor on tape. The students have commented to Professor Durand that, even though they don't see her in live lecture, they feel they know her due to the fact that she's seen in so many different settings. Students see her in the work setting, wearing jeans in her garden, watching the moon change phases late at night, and with other physicists. Students in live lectures usually don't get this personal feeling from professors.

This sounds like a wonderful, effective way to teach a class. It is excellent, but there are stresses involved with video teaching. Firstly, Professor Durand felt like she had zero control over some situations. For example, when she wanted to make an announcement to a class, she couldn't just change the video tape to make that announcement. She tried to send out emails to students, but there are quite a few students who never utilize their email account (10-15%). With this problem in mind, Durand received funding from the Outreach program and worked all summer to create a Web site. This site lists all the lectures for students to reference to, makes announcements, gives due dates for assignments, and has an email address to click onto in case you want to ask her any questions. This is an extremely effective tool for the professor to be able to communicate with the students. Also, it is the student's responsibility to get the information - not the professor's.

With all this going on, what's in the future for Physics 107? Firstly, all materials will be retrievable off the Web next fall. Secondly, she would like to make her Web site less static - more interactive. For example, Professor Durand would like to set up an interactive discussion group on-line for students, which would be attached to her Web site.

Just as a side note, it is important to recognize that there is a lot of technical support involved in creating a distance ed course. Professor Durand stresses the hard work and efforts of Ron Cramer of Learning and Support Services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was key in formatting the course as a distance ed course, along with the development of her Web site.

If you would like to take a look at the information for Bernice Durand, and the Web site for Physics 107, the site address is:

Take a look and see what "Physics for Poets" is doing in and out of the classroom!