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Education and outreach

Physics lab for the YouTube generation

13 Mar 2014

This short film looks at how digital technologies are changing the face of physics education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 2012 MIT joined forces with Harvard University as each invested $30m in the launch of edX. This digital platform hosts what are known as massive open online courses – more commonly known as MOOCs – which are short courses free to anyone in the world with a suitable Internet connection. The courses are presented by some of MIT’s most charismatic lecturers and they typically combine online teaching with assignments such as problem sets and extended projects. edX has proved to be a big success and the organization has since teamed up with several other leading US universities.

Having developed the edX hosting platform, MIT is now exploring ways in which this new technology can be incorporated into existing degree programmes. This film looks at one case study of this “blended learning” approach within the MIT physics department: the major revamp of a module known as Junior Lab. This long-standing practical course is usually taken by third-year students specializing in physics, and has been described by Krishna Rajagopal – MIT’s associate head of physics education – as “the centrepiece” of the undergraduate physics programme at the institution.

In the traditional incarnation of Junior Lab, students attend a series of introductory lectures and are given a selection of reading assignments before they begin the practical work. Rajagopal and his colleagues have been running a trial where this is replaced by pre-course activity with a suite of online activities and resources, including videos and interactive exercises, based on the edX technology.

In this film, you will meet some of the educators at MIT who are excited about the new opportunities emerging through online learning. You also meet some of the students, who explain that Junior Lab has always held something of a reputation for “making one’s life a living hell for about a semester and consuming all of your time”. The big question now is what do the students make of the new version of Junior Lab?

“Physics lab for the YouTube generation” was produced in conjunction with the March 2014 issue of Physics World, which is a special issue about education. For a more detailed story, you can read this feature article about the rise of MOOCS in recent years and the benefits and drawbacks of these courses compared with those traditionally offered by universities. You can also download a free PDF copy of the entire March special issue of Physics World.

And don’t forget that if you want to read Physics World each month, then you can do so through our digital edition, which can be accessed online or via our Apple and Android apps simply by becoming a member of the Institute of Physics. You can join the Institute as an IOPimember quickly and easily online. This membership includes an annual digital subscription to Physics World for just £15/€20/$25 per year.


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