Physics takes tutorials to web

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By Heather Travis
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Managing eight tutorials for 900 first-year students was a logistical nightmare for Physics professor Martin Zinke-Allmang, but he is now using technology to his advantage to get more students involved and giving his teaching assistants more independence.
 
 
Peggy Xu draws formulas and interacts with 131 students during a Physics 1028a online tutorial, which allows students to participate from home or on campus.
 
Zinke-Allmang teaches Physics 1028a – Physics for the Life Sciences – at The University of Western Ontario, the largest physics class in the department and one of the biggest in the Faculty of Science.
 
Over the years, students weren’t showing up for tutorials unless there was the promise of a quiz at the end, he says. This created more preparation and marking for his teaching assistants. As well, many students complained about differing instruction styles among teaching assistants.
 
“We discontinued the tutorials at the time because we expected no one would come. But, students like tutorials because it is an effective means of learning things.”
 
Zinke-Allmang’s dilemma was creating a tutorial system that was useful for students, without having burnt-out teaching assistants, who were managing about 115 students eight times a week.
 
As well, finding a classroom to repeatedly house such a large number of students was becoming increasingly challenging.
 
The solution came in the form of Wimba Live Classroom, an interactive online education application accessed through WebCT Owl, which allows teaching assistants to conduct real-time virtual tutorials. And, the two teaching assistants don’t even have to be in the same room during the tutorial.
 
This kind of bedroom tutorial was demonstrated on Sept. 18, when 131 students in potentially an equal number of different locations sent questions through instant messaging and watched formulas magically appear on their computer screens as a male voice boomed out of their computer speakers.
 
From the Instructional Technology Resource Centre in the Support Services Building, Physics graduate students Peggy Xu and Matt McAlpine conducted one of their first tutorials using the Wimba system.
 
McAlpine (the omnipotent male voice) gave instructions for physics formulas over a microphone at his computer station as Xu worked through the problems and drew them on her screen.
 
“I like it,” says Xu, adding the program allows her to teach from home or at school. “We don’t have to be here. It’s more flexible.
 
“It’s the first year we are trying this. I’m sure in the near future, when everyone is used to it, they’ll see it’s a great system,” she says.
 
Zinke-Allmang says the Wimba Live Classroom benefits teaching assistants as well because they prepare one lesson and the same pair repeat it eight times during the week so that each tutorial receives an equal amount of information. Using this method, teaching assistants use up all of their required tutorial hours in just two weeks, he adds.
 
“The T.A.’s were really interested in it,” he says. “This is a tool that will increasingly be in the workplace … They can put it on their resume.”
 
If students feel they missed something during the tutorial, they are able to watch ‘reruns’ of the broadcast on WebCT Owl. Zinke-Allmang is also able to record student participation by checking the WebCT Owl login report.
 
“It addresses all of the problems which I don’t like about the traditional tutorials,” he says, adding because of the enrolment size, he is always looking for new technologies to make classroom management easier.
 
“How do you respond to having 900 students and provide the best student experience?” he asks.
 
His answer, “I always look to new technologies … I try to be innovative and find other people who are innovative.”   

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