User:Guy vandegrift/Why this physics professor will not join the strike

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There is no simple explanation for my decision to teach during the strike at Wright State University. Considerations include personal issues, obligations to my students, and dissatisfaction with how both sides are negotiating this dispute. But one reason is worth sharing:

I see a third way: Offer higher education at a much reduced cost.

The rising student loan debt is a menace to our future because such borrowing is unsustainable and because the debt inhibits the education that might help resolve the challenges we face. I came of age in the 1960s, dreaming of attending U.C. Berkeley and hearing of my mother's student loan problems at that same campus many years earlier in the depths of the Great Depression, circa 1936. She worked her way through college, borrowing her tuition from the university every semester and working part time to pay back the loan before the next semester began. The loan would would not be extended unless the previous semester's loan was paid off. The relative cost of most things go down with time, so what happened with college education? The answer is simple: Education is labor intensive and must be provided by highly trained specialists. Such costs are not expected to drop.

The solution to this is equally as simple: Use computer technology to reduce the costs. Such cost-saving measures are limited in two ways: First, pre-college education (at and below middle and high-school) cannot be easily computerized because at that level teachers are also surrogate parents. Second, many skills, especially those needed for professional degrees, can only be taught in a simulated workplace. My position is not that we eliminate human interactions from higher education, but that we adopt a strategic approach to organizing such interactions.

This strong belief in a reform that is not being implemented puts me in a bind: Instead of negotiating to freeze faculty workload, I would prefer that my union negotiated how to increase the workload. On the other hand, I get the distinct impression from the administration that their intent is to "bust" our union. I would prefer that we just "bend" the union.

My effort is an online exam bank[edit]

I am attempting to create an exam bank for physics and astronomy. It is currently hosted on Bitbucket:

To see a listing of my current bank, visit:

Not every question in this bank is of the highest quality. My policy is to never delete "bad" questions in order to allow the good ones to "hide in plain sight".

Other projects[edit]

Although most of my focus on my personal effort to "automate" higher education, my effort is not the best or most promising available, and most readers will benefit more from a survey of the many parallel efforts that need more support. Just a few of these efforts include:

Calibrated Peer Review[edit]

Calibrated Peer Review (CPR)[1] is a system developed at UCLA as a means by which students are instructed on how to conduct anonymous peer review. This serves not only to instruct them on the concept of peer review, but also assess both their peer reviewing skills, as well as their ability to write content that will pass peer review.

In this system, students first write and submit an essay. Then, they are given guidelines for judging similar essays, and must prove their competence in this peer review by correctly judging three essays that have already been evaluated. Only then, are students tasked with assigning scores to three essays written by their peers (all articles and student peer reviews are anonymous to the students).

One of my concerns is that the cost of this service has evolved from zero to a fee that Professor Cavanaugh tells me is too high for him to continue using it at Wright State University. For more information about CPR, visit An informal variation of peer review already exits on a number of websites associated with I am not arguing that such "shortcut" approaches can be used to access all student writing, or even that the transition to automated assessments will not degrade the quality of such assessments. But I am arguing for balance.

OpenStax College[edit]

OpenStax offers textbooks at zero cost. While this is an important step, the cost of textbooks is only a small fraction of the total cost of higher education. Also, while the textbooks are adequate for the task, they are difficult to use without ancillary materials.[2] Fortunately, OER has begun to offer chapter summaries for OpenStax textbooks. For example, these presentations can be used for OpenStax Astronomy: Presentations: 01-- 02-- 03-- 04-- 05-- 06-- 07-- 08-- 09-- 10-- 11-- 12-- 13-- 14-- 15-- 16-- 17-- 18-- 19-- 20-- 21-- 22-- 23-- 24-- 25-- 26-- 27-- 28-- 29-- 30

Chapter Titles: 1 Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour    2 Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy    3 Orbits and Gravity    4 Earth, Moon, and Sky    5 Radiation and Spectra    6 Astronomical Instruments    7 Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System    8 Earth as a Planet    9 Cratered Worlds    10 Earthlike Planets: Venus and Mars    11 The Giant Planets    12 Rings, Moons, and Pluto    13 Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System    14 Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System    15 The Sun: A Garden-Variety Star    16 The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse    17 Analyzing Starlight    18 The Stars: A Celestial Census    19 Celestial Distances    20 Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space    21 The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside    22. Stars from Adolescence to Old Age    23 The Death of Stars    24 Black Holes and Curved Spacetime    25 The Milky Way Galaxy    26 Galaxies    27 Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes    28 The Evolution and Distribution of Galaxies    29 The Big Bang    30 Life in the Universe

Almost everything you need for college physics[edit]

In the process of writing this page, I checked and discovered this amazing set of lessons:

  1. College Physics Part 1
  2. College Physics Part 2

Many other efforts[edit]

More thoughts[edit]

Students should be able to learn online and demand that their college gives them credit for mastering it. Of course, the college could and should request a project, lab, or some sort of report to supplement the online effort. But that could be provided at a much reduced cost. I have observed many college and pre-college teachers in my lifetime. Most of the effort is spent on teaching "facts".

There is no reason for a college professor to teach "facts". There is no reason to allow a college student into a classroom until that student has already demonstrated a basic knowledge of the facts and skills that are so inefficiently being taught in today's colleges.

In the past 32 years of being a physics professor I have attended several hundred hours of seminars, meetings, mini-courses, and conventions on mathematics and physics education, and have been exposed to many ideas on how to teach. Not once have I ever heard a speaker discuss the need to reduce the cost of higher education.

My proposal satisfies both the progressive desire for universal access to low-cost higher education, as well as the conservative’s penchant for “small government”. It should be noted that there is validity to both positions: Almost all agree that we need post-high school education, and that governments need to control spending and/or increase revenues.

On any political issue, a democracy is blind if its citizens cannot evaluate both sides of an argument. I am not suggesting that we can “educate” the public into resolving an issue such as climate change, because complete mastery of the subject is beyond the scope of even the experts. But consider the following questions about of climate change and global warming:

  1. Can we trust temperature measurements made by orbiting satellites?
  2. Can we trust the technicians and bureaucrats who report those measurements?
  3. Are modern computers up to the task of converting those measurements into reliable predictions?
  4. How well does scientific peer review resolve questions like this? Insight into that important question can be gleaned from the study of Astronomy

Even I cannot answer all these questions with 100% confidence, so there should be no expectation that a college student could know the answers to these questions after only a few courses. But, a modest amount of knowledge could allow a discerning citizen to distinguish between commentators and other advocates of a political position who are attempting to disseminate the truth and those bent on fraud.

I believe that Astronomy should be taught in college because it gives insights into science and its history that can be useful in analyzing today's scientific questions. I believe humans should teach Astronomy. I just think the humans should use computers in a way that costs no more than a simple app.

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  1. special:permalink/1967406
  2. My understanding is that at least one college (Harper College) will not adopt a physics textbook without an online homework service.