Wittenberg University Physics Professor Dan Fleisch put his toe into the virtual classroom five years ago by including audio podcasts in his book “Student’s Guide to Maxwell’s Equations.”
He went in a little deeper two years ago when Cambridge University Press, his publisher, asked him to make and post a YouTube video to promote his “Student’s Guide to Vectors and Tensors.”
That video “What is a tensor?” has passed 100,000 visits in time for the U.S. release of Fleisch’s third book, “Student’s Guide to the Mathematics of Astronomy.”
Co-written with Julia Kregenow, a Wittenberg graduate now teaching in the Astronomy Department of Penn State University, that 200-page book has 24 video podcasts — one for each section — and earned high marks after its release in England.
Along the way the former Ohio Professor of the Year has learned a lot about the future of education in a digital world.
“In physics and in a lot of science, working through is how you learn,” Fleisch said.
“We explained the material in the (latest) book,” he added, “but where we thought we could teach better with more detailed explanations. Those are in the podcasts.”
Fleisch and Kregenow’s podcasts show students the work itself, something they can return to and review as often as they need.
In some ways, it provides a rewind function students often would like to have in a lecture hall, so they can nail down one idea before moving to the next.
The author invites students to use the podcasts as they see fit.
“I tell them you can watch them before you do the book, you can watch them after you read the book. You can have the book open and use them as a supplement,” he said.
The videos also feature demonstrations to help explain concepts.
Like his student guides, Fleisch’s podcast “What is a Tensor?” is aimed at a fundamental topic in physics: vectors and tensors.
“Vectors are the bane of students,” he said, so to make them less intimidating, his video illustrates the principles using children’s blocks and wands. The result is something of a cross between MisterRogers’ Neighborhood and Bill Nye, the Science Guy.
“Meijer is my go-to place” for props, Fleisch said, particularly the toy department in the chain’s Springfield location.
As a result, toys purchased at the Hillcrest Avenue store have been seen all over the world.
“I’ve had (students from) every Middle Eastern country: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar” and “every country in Europe,” he said.
Columbia, Peru, Brazil and Argentina also are represented, and a recent email from an Italian physics professor seems to be leading a translation of “Vectors and Tensors” into that language.
Whatever people think of podcasts, Fleisch is certain their influence will increase, in part because of today’s students’ increasingly disdain for textbooks, despite the fact that many books are much improved over earlier versions.
Fleisch now uses video podcasts from his books as supplemental material in his Wittenberg classes.
“When (a subject) is first presented, I think you’ve got to be there to answer questions,” he said — questions that sometime are an indication whether the instruction is effective.
So he usually teaches the material, then runs the podcast, then fields additional questions.
He also uses technology to get feedback from students at the end of every class to see what they’re understanding and what seem to be sticking points.
Fleisch said he sees other practical uses for podcasts in education.
One place is at large universities, where hundreds of students sit in the same lecture hall for introductory courses and have virtually no contact with the lecturing professor anyway.
With students increasingly learning outside the classrooms, podcasts can do what they might also accomplish for students away on sports trips: keep them current with what’s going on in class.
“My teaching is absolutely sharpened by this. I really get what works and what doesn’t work.”
—Physics Professor Dan Fleisch