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Leading the Way to Virtual Learning: The LAA Physics Laboratory

"This is just like being back in lab!" said one recent student tester of the LAAPhysics online virtual laboratory. "If I had to choose between this and a lecture course? No contest—LAAPhysics!" said another, echoing the sentiments of the testing group. "The graphics are terrific!" was another common response.

Perhaps the most important reaction—from the developers' point of view—was from a student who said, "I really appreciated not being told I was wrong but rather being led to another [laboratory] investigation that let me see things correctly." And finally, "I finished the whole module in two hours and I had no idea I was working that long!"

Unique Online Learning
These opinions were among the early testing results of Learn Anytime Anywhere Physics (LAAPhysics), an online virtual laboratory learning environment being developed at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Although student response so far is positive, a more thorough road test is coming during the next academic year when the project begins extensive external beta testing with nearly 100 faculty and institutions signed up to participate.

Supported in part by the Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) program, LAAPhysics is designed to replicate the experience of taking a real-world, highly interactive laboratory immersion class. The project is creating a unique, online learning instrument that can be used by faculty in many disciplines. The environment includes virtual lab equipment, instruments, and associated curriculum modules. Real-time assessment and feedback, as well as virtual students who collaborate with their real-life counterparts, are integrated into each learning module.

The online system is designed to create a laboratory-based physics course that incorporates both open exploration and guided investigations that can be used either as a stand-alone distance learning course or as an enhancement of existing, conventional lecture courses. The courseware architecture is not limited to a physics curriculum. Faculty will be able to use the LAAPhysics platform as the "lab" component of any distance learning science course or as a tutorial for remedial work. Other possible uses include acquiring credit for missed lab work, interactive and open-ended student investigations, and student assessment using model-based deployment activities. All this in a 24x7 asynchronous mode.

But the key advance of LAAPhysics is philosophical rather than technical. The platform supports an environment where students are actively engaged in their learning. This g'es beyond current interactive simulations where students can manipulate variables but where independent decision making is constrained. In "naked" simulations, the amount of interaction and the level of student engagement fall far short of a real lab experience. In contrast, the central idea of LAAPhysics is making a virtual lab environment that allows students to make mistakes, measurement errors, and much more—conditions very similar to those confronted in real labs.

The Software Platform
From the student standpoint, using LAAPhysics consists of three main activities: receiving course content and answering questions in the Tutor window; performing experiments and generating data in the Laboratory window; and recording data and conclusions in the Notebook window. These components are designed to work together, but they can also be used independently of each other.

The Tutor component serves as the central hub of the system. It connects the student's machine to the central server, receives, formats, and displays course material, sends student responses back to the server, and configures the Laboratory and Notebook as the course requires. The Tutor may pass instructions to these applications and change which lab setup is available for the student to use. When asking questions, the Tutor supports a variety of answer types, using unique visual tools we have developed.

The Laboratory includes a series of lab "setups," each designed to support a particular educational objective. The majority of these setups take place inside a virtual laboratory classroom and are designed to prepare students for real-world labs. One of the goals of LAAPhysics is to develop skills that are transferable to other venues; thus, care is given to the detail of various instruments and pieces of apparatus. But "outside situations" are also possible. As shown in Figure 1, an LAAPhysics mentor has told a student that a group of unruly freshmen plan to march up to the science building with mischief on their minds. Armed only with her knowledge of kinematics models, a water bag, a launcher, and the height of the building, the student calculates how to fire the bag in order to hit and disperse the rowdy crowd. That done, she lets the scenario play out and the result unfolds before her eyes.

Figure 1: An "outside situation" presented to a student in the virtual laboratory. (Graphic courtesy of Rob S. Furr.)

The Notebook is a simple drawing, word processing, and graphing analysis application designed to provide students with all the tools necessary for a laboratory notebook. Content created in the Notebook is automatically stored in the central server, making it possible for a student to move from machine to machine, and permitting the teacher to easily examine the student's work.

All material generated by the student reside in a server database. The LAAPhysics project is seeking additional funding to develop extensive data analysis and mining tools to use with this unique data set.

Build Your Own
In order to maximize usefulness generated per dollar spent, the LAAPhysics project is designing all the tools used in the creation of the course to be modular, flexible, and extensible. With the LAAPhysics platform, it should be possible to create, distribute, and run a chemistry course that is similar to the LAAPhysics course, and only marginally more difficult to create a course in the humanities or the fine arts.

To ensure maximum extensibility, LAAPhysics course content is not built into any particular part of the program. Instead, it is written and formatted in a markup language much like HTML. The LAAPhysics Markup Language (LPML) and the associated editor, now under development, will allow the easy creation of course content by non-technical users.

However, the laboratory setups cannot be created through markup language development alone. Instead, they must be built in more complete programming environments. But if a new laboratory application listens on the right port, and responds correctly to messages passed to it by the Tutor, any technology, programming language, and tool may be used. LAAPhysics has developed prototype lab applications in a variety of languages, including Java, Objective C, Visual Basic, and Macromedia Director.

Cost Versus Benefits
Extensive physics education research has demonstrated that students best learn scientific concepts when they have the opportunity to arrive at conclusions through exploration, experimentation, and feedback in a laboratory setting rather than through lectures or textbook exercises. This method of learning dramatically improves concept retention.

Faculty wishing to implement a research-based pedagogy in the classroom face two major obstacles. The cost of equipping a lab with the apparatus necessary to teach a single introductory physics course of this nature can exceed several thousand dollars per student workstation. That d'esn't even take into account the cost of dedicating precious building space to exclusive laboratory use or the problem of different students at different levels using the same station. In addition, relatively few faculty are trained in these pedagogies and fewer have the time to implement them appropriately.

We tackled two online course barriers described by others: cost and time effectiveness. Could a standard, one-thousand-dollar computer provide a similar laboratory function as a several-thousand-dollar lab workstation? The Internet is available continuously. Could it be used effectively for laboratory work? Would it be cost-effective? And, most importantly, would it be learning-effective?

The answer to online cost-effectiveness initially seems to be yes, when taking into account economies of scale. However, early experience with an online astronomy course quickly uncovered a fatal flaw. Faculty time spent effectively communicating with students in a reasonably interactive Web course quickly exceeds the time, effort, and energy required for a traditional course. Cost-effectiveness therefore depends on reducing faculty time investment.

This led us to the LAAPhysics solution. It is initially expensive, because developing a stand-alone laboratory software product can involve up-front costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars. But these are one-time costs—once the software exists, replication of that software can be essentially free.

Even so, creating a "learning-effective" online laboratory environment presented a difficult challenge, more daunting than raising the needed funding. Traditional Web tools such as e-mail, chat rooms, and streaming video can be used, but they are basically data transfer tools: one participant has detailed data, and other participants receive it. This is an excellent paradigm, where the goal is the efficient transfer of information. But it introduces serious limitations when the objective is high-level scientific learning, where models must be experientially developed.

In LAAPhysics, students are guided along answer-dependent paths to reach their own conclusions. Students actively participate in the decision about what apparatus is needed, how to set it up, and how to refine an experiment to better achieve a goal. The built-in guide agent's "intelligence" is based on a large body of research on how students learn particular concepts in physics. This body of work significantly reduces the need for complex artificial intelligence systems because content developers can predict student responses at each of the various assessment branching points.

The guide agent is particularly important for schools without access to lab-based physics courses. Additionally, the difficulties of training teachers in a scientific pedagogy can be reduced by using an integrated agent that can take over some or all of the task of guiding students through the learning process.

The LAAPhysics platform offers an alternative to previous educational paradigms. The importance of any instrument depends on its design features, as well as on the imagination and skills of those who use it for different purposes, many of which were never imagined by the creators.

[Editor's note: Jerry Meisner and Harol Hoffman will participate in a panel on interactive labs and simulations on Wed., July 30, at Syllabus2003.]

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