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Professor Lewin goes on-line with web-based Physics 8.01 help

Many a survivor of 8.01 (Physics I) has wished that Professor Walter Lewin, legendary for his dynamic lectures and helpful explanations, would materialize at 3am to answer the perplexing questions that tend to crop up in late-night studying sessions.

Thanks to an anonymous $735,000 grant, that fantasy can become a reality -- of sorts.

With the anonymous gift plus $250,000 in matching funds, the Center for Advanced Educational Services (CAES) will create a first-of-its-kind web site featuring a virtual Professor Lewin, available around the clock to those stumped by static equilibrium and flummoxed by force.

"The web-based learning environment will allow students to feel like they have Professor Lewin as their personal desktop tutor," said Professor Richard C. Larson, director of CAES and principal investigator on the project.

"I've always wanted to expand the usefulness of my TV help sessions," said Professor Lewin, who provides videotaped physics help sessions over MIT's campus-wide cable TV network and is the only faculty member featured on the official Class of 2001 T-shirt. "Students need direct help when they're doing problem sets and studying for exams. These new digital technologies allow a 'virtual me' to be with them as a teacher and a friend during these critical times. This is an incredible new approach to teaching."

"In a sense, the project is exploring whether new digital multimedia technologies can increase by an order of magnitude (or more) the extent of 'face-to-face' contact that a student has with his or her professor," Professor Larson said.

Professor Larson and Professor Marc A. Kastner, head of the physics department, said the gift and its required matching funds will result in an unprecedented $1 million for this unusual two-year project.

They hope that the result will significantly enhance the learning environment for the 700-plus freshmen who take 8.01 each year. The class is taught by Professor Edmund W. Bertschinger as well as Professor Lewin.

The web-based learning environment will simulate a question-and-answer session that might occur during Professor Lewin's office hours. The student would select from a menu of frequently asked questions or submit a new question.

Not simply a FAQ video archive, the site will also store second-level ("follow on") questions to simulate a conversation. Professor Lewin's videotaped, digitized answers (stored on a terabyte videoserver donated by IBM) to existing questions will appear on the student's computer via compressed streaming video, while new questions would be fielded on-line by teaching assistants. (Answers to the most frequently asked new questions will be used to enhance the archive every few months.)

If a student needs still more help, the program will point to indexed segments of Professor Lewin's videotaped 8.01 lectures and relevant sections of an on-line physics textbook.

The web pages also will contain written solutions to problem sets, solutions worked out by Professor Lewin on video, student-created animations and simulations, and links to related physics sites on the web.

"This project may create the most advanced on-line tutor for Newtonian physics," Professor Kastner said. "We are delighted to be a part of this and to support Professor Lewin over the next two years while this project is ongoing. So as not to deprive incoming freshmen of Professor Lewin's teaching skills, we and CAES will be supporting Professor Lewin's 8.01 video help sessions over MIT Cable TV."

Professor Lewin has been providing help sessions for MIT cable for more than 15 years. Students who need help with homework can access specific videotapes through the physics reading and reserve rooms, but the tapes wouldn't necessarily help students if they were having trouble with concepts while studying for an exam. The web site is designed to fill that gap.

Kastner also announced that Lewin will be teach 8.01 in Rm 26-100 during the 1999-2000 academic year, during which his lectures will be taped for the web-based archive.

Professor of Physics Thomas J. Greytak, associate department head for education, is enthusiastic about the project. He said he hopes the 8.01 project will challenge others involved with freshman teaching to undertake similar initiatives.

"This is an example of the type of investment we hope to be making in more of our undergraduate subjects," said Professor Greytak, who is responsible for examining the entire freshman curriculum. "It is an exploration of ways new technologies can engender new learning styles and enrich the learning environment."

The physics department and CAES already have proposals under review to work with Professor John Belcher on applying web-based animation, simulation and visualization to teaching tools for his 8.02 course on electromagnetism--the other possible course open to freshmen seeking to meet their first-year physics requirement.

Once the 8.01 web-based system is completed and tested at MIT, Larson said CAES plans to offer it, possibly for a fee, to high school Advanced Placement physics students, as well as physics students at other universities who feel they would benefit from this kind of supplement to more traditional means of physics teaching and learning.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 6, 1998.

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