Skip to main content

How will COVID-19 change how we teach physics, post pandemic?

On 4 May 2020, the National Executive of the Australian Institute of Physics (AIP) and the chair of the AIP accreditation committee released a position statement entitled “Temporary replacement of face-to-face classes by online delivery in physics courses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic”. This statement, which incorporates feedback by AIP members, is intended to inform a constructive open debate on the longer-term impacts—positive and negative—of the COVID-19 pandemic on physics education. As it looks certain that the COVID-19 pandemic will have profound and financial impacts on Australia’s tertiary sector, it appears timely for the physics community to articulate clearly what it values in its degree programs while also critically assessing the potential for positive change.

There can be little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic and its secondary effects (such as on university finances) will have both immediate and also long-term implications for physics education. The sudden change to online delivery—expertly implemented by physics academics and teachers around the country—has sustained learning and student progression through the crisis. Yet it throws up questions, opportunities, and risks that will affect our educational practices long-term and thus warrants reflection.

The National Executive of the Australian Institute of Physics (AIP) and the chair of the AIP Accreditation committee believe that these questions are of significance and urgency for our physics community, and have formulated a position statement, released in final form on 4 May 2020 [1]. The executive summary and the full statement are reproduced below.

This article provides a brief description of the member consultation process and a call for members to continue to engage in this immensely important discussion about the future of physics education in Australia.

Consultation process and feedback

On 9 April, the National Executive released a preliminary position statement and circulated this to all AIP members for consultation and feedback [2].

In response, we received 77 emails with feedback. The vast majority of respondents offered unqualified endorsement or agreement or strong support (61) or were supportive (6). Three respondents were expressly opposed to the statement, and a further 7 made comments but did not indicate agreement or disagreement. The position statement presented here incorporates the response to the feedback received, while maintaining the key themes that received such resounding endorsement from a very clear majority of the members who responded.

We summarise the most common suggestions for improvements: All up about a dozen respondents commented that the draft statement appeared somewhat dismissive of the positive changes that may come out of the COVID-19 pandemic or of innovative teaching methods more generally; or that the expectation to return to best practice implied a too rigid adherence to the pre-pandemic status quo; or that the statement lacked an expression of recognition for the academics’ and teachers’ efforts in transitioning online at short notice. The final statement has been revised in response to these suggestions.

The AIP Executive expresses its gratitude to all members who submitted detailed and carefully presented feedback. All members are invited to contribute further and in detail to this debate, through letters to the editors of the Australian Physics, see below.

Continuing the conversation

The key purpose of releasing this statement is for it to act as a catalyst for a broad and open debate on this important topic.

The physics community, and hence the AIP, needs to be central to this discussion. It is a safe assumption that the majority of our members are graduates, alumni or current students of a physics degree, from Australia or overseas. That is, on an individual basis, we have first-hand experience about what worked (or works) for us in our physics degrees and what did (or does) not. Because of this experience, we should assert our voice—or rather our multiple voices—in this debate, loud and clear.

The prepared statement reflects the view of the AIP National Executive and the Chair of the Accreditation Committee that physics degrees and education are, as they stand, generally of high quality and fit-for-purpose. Our degrees succeed in educating graduates that meet the demand for highly capable, analytical and independent thinkers with solid technical and computational skills. Of course, we need to constantly review the teaching and learning of Physics in Australia with respect to educational innovation and opportunities. But we also need to identify and articulate clearly the positive elements of our current (pre-COVID) practices—those pillars that ensure its ongoing success—and ensure that these are preserved in times of change and times of tight budgets.

One theme that has been given a stronger voice during the discussion of the “COVID-19” position statement for physics education was with us already as a quiet murmur. It is how do we continue to establish and re-establish the value and benefit of a degree like a physics degree, for students, education funders, and employers; in a nation such as ours; in an education system where the majority of students cannot devote their time and attention to their studies in the way that would best serve their higher education. We can continue to look to nations like the UK, with envy, for the value that physics and related degrees hold there, or, is it time for a “bang” or at least a “meaningful whimper” on such issues here in Australia, from our community. Is the pandemic an opportunity to reassess, renew, rebadge, and redeploy our physics values.

Over to you! We would like to see some good solid debate on the statement and related physics education issues. Whether you are a student, an industry professional, an academic, a teacher, a professional scientist, an employer, an emeritus, a hidden physicist, a physics aficionado or otherwise, we would like to hear your opinions and arguments, both for and against the statement. We would also like to hear your suggestions as to what further steps the AIP could take to protect or enhance the high quality of Australia’s physics degrees throughout and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and how to promote the appreciation of this beyond our community.

Feedback for publication is encouraged in the form of letters to the editors of Australian Physics (aip_editor@aip.org.au). Alternatively, feedback can be submitted by email to feedback@aip.org.au.

References

  1. The final statement released on 4 May 2020 can be accessed here: https://aip.org.au/covid-19-teaching-position-statement

  2. The preliminary statement released on 9 April can be accessed here: https://aip.org.au/covid-19-teaching-preliminary-statement/

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Gerd E. Schröder-Turk or Deb M. Kane.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

This article is a reprint of the article with the same title published in Australian Physics, the magazine of the Australian Institute of Physics (Volume 57, Number 2, Apr-May 2020, p 8-10), reproduced with permission by the authors and the editors of Australian Physics.

The statement is a joint statement developed by the AIP National Executive and the Chair of the AIP Accreditation Committee. It should be attributed to these committees rather than individual authors.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Schröder-Turk, G.E., Kane, D.M. How will COVID-19 change how we teach physics, post pandemic?. Phys Eng Sci Med 43, 731–733 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13246-020-00896-x

Download citation