The aims of the PPLATO Consortium are:
To develop, evaluate
and disseminate resources and strategies for the diagnosis, improvement and
assessment of student competency in the use of mathematics and its application
to physical problems at a level appropriate to the interface between school and
university and in a manner appropriate to the widest range of students.
To enable wider
participation and retention in undergraduate physics courses and other physics
training opportunities through the development, evaluation and dissemination of
enhanced foundation entry routes and support mechanisms.
To increase the
effectiveness of teaching and learning in relation to Aims 1 and 2 by developing
and disseminating evaluated strategies to enhance the skills for independent
learning, problem-solving and group work.
These aims address FDTL subject
priorities under skills, curriculum design, teaching methods and student support
and generic priority areas under access and student progression, independent
learning and student diversity.
There can be little doubt that
the two central challenges facing the physics HE community are the teaching of
mathematics to physics undergraduates and widening participation in
undergraduate physics. These are
identified as QAA subject and generic priorities and in the Institute of Physics
(IOP) report, Physics Ė building a
flourishing future (IOP, 2001). These
challenges are coupled since mathematics presents a serious barrier to wider
participation in physics and threatens retention.
PPLATO will build on previous
successful work across the whole sector in these two areas, including good
practice as identified at Subject Review, linking these where possible and
developing an extensive range of new resources and good practice.
Dissemination of these is a key feature of PPLATO.
One specific focus is the creation of an on-line generic foundation year
programme, broadening access to undergraduate physics and engineering.
The expected impact of PPLATO is
improved competence in physics and mathematics and enhanced access to and
retention in undergraduate physics. It
is likely that these benefits must be delivered within existing departmental
resources and require increased effectiveness in teaching and learning.
This will involve new approaches such as computer learning technologies,
independent learning and peer group learning.
PPLATO will engage with these in delivering its aims.
While the bulk of the PPLATO proposal fits within existing boundaries of
knowledge there are some aspects at the cutting edge.
These include pedagogic features such as mastery learning and disability
access and technical features such as random question generation with
intelligent feedback for tests.
The project outcomes will be
measured in terms of:
Improved student competence in physics and mathematics.
Enhanced access to undergraduate physics and to other physics
Higher student retention in undergraduate physics.
The PPLATO Team
Consortium partners have an
established expertise in the area and represent a wide cross section of the
physics and service mathematics communities.
At Subject Review Reading scored
a maximum 24/24 and in the reportís conclusions received the highest number of
special commendations, including teaching mathematics to physicists and widening
participation through its Foundation Year programme.
Both these were based on its use of the Flexible
Learning Approach to Physics (FLAP)
resource. Other innovations
commended included the teaching of problem-solving skills through peer-group
The FLAP project, led by the University of Reading and the Open
University, received £779K of funding from HEFC between 1992 and 1996 under the
TLTP initiative. FLAP spans A-level (Level 0) and the first year of undergraduate
physics (Level 1), including both physics and mathematics. The PPLATO Project
Director, Dr Tinker, was General Editor of FLAP
during its production and subsequently has acted as Co-Director with Dr
Lambourne of the Open University, who was the FLAP Project Director during production. Dr Lambourne is Head of the Department of Physics and
Astronomy at the Open University and is a member of the PPLATO Advisory Group.
FLAP has been described in the
educational research literature [Lambourne and Tinker, Phys. Educ. 28
1993, 311-316 and Int. J. Sci. Educ. 21,
2, Feb 1999, 213-230 Taylor & Francis].
The FLAP project is ongoing and
is producing Hyperflap, a new digital
resource based on the original paper text.
In 2002, Drs Lambourne and
Tinker were jointly awarded the Bragg Medal and Prize by the Institute of
Physics for their contribution to physics education.
Dr Greenhow at Brunel has
considerable experience in the production of CAL materials, including authoring
two Mathwise modules and developing an
extensive set of on-line diagnostic tests, called Mathletics. It has been
used widely at Brunel (last year some 600 students took over 23,000 tests) and
in universities, colleges and schools elsewhere. Dr Greenhow also has special
expertise in accessibility issues.
The Open University has
expertise in the production of high quality teaching and learning materials and
has produced a short course, Maths for
Science S151, to develop and consolidate the maths skills required to study
an introductory physics course that has been co-published with the Institute of
Physics. The S151 Course Developer,
Dr Sally Jordan, is a member of the PPLATO Team.
Dr Horan and Dr Lavelle at
Plymouth have considerable experience in the production of high quality
web-based mathematics support material for engineers and chemists.
These are at Level 0 and are equally appropriate for physicists at
foundation level. Professional level typesetting of the mathematics and an
uncluttered presentation produces a particularly student-friendly output.
This work has been funded by LTSN Physical Sciences as a Development
Project for 2001/02 and presented and described at conferences organised by LTSN,
LMS and the RSC.
Dr McDonald at Salford has
considerable experience of teaching mathematics to applied physics students over
the whole degree programme. He has
developed a wide range of resources targeted at encouraging learning through
practice. His methodology has a
strong student focus and has been very successful at raising competence in
mathematics and increasing motivation.
Dr Turton at Newcastle has a
special interest in forming strong links between PPLATO and the sector, ensuring
that the project addresses the problems as seen by practitioners and draws in
existing good practice from a wide sector base, easing the task of dissemination
of PPLATO deliverables. Close
liaison with PPLATO implementation sites is an important element of this
strategy to embed these deliverables widely.
The Consortium has a broad base
of educational, technical and management expertise and is well placed to deliver
its aims. It represents a wide
cross-section of the HE physics and service mathematics communities and has the
strong support of all the institutions involved and both LTSN and IOP.
The PPLATO Advisory Group
The PPLATO Team will be guided
by an Advisory Group that is drawn widely from the sector and includes
acknowledged experts in the area and representatives from the major stakeholders
in the projectís outcomes. Members
Professor Michael Fulford
(Chair), Pro Vice-Chancellor (Teaching) University of Reading
Dr Mike Tinker, Project
Director, University of Reading
Mrs Silvia Bragaglia-Pike,
Project Co-ordinator, University of Reading
Dr Mike Steel, External
Evaluator, Heriot-Watt University
Dr Tina Overton, Director, LTSN
Physical Sciences Centre
Mr Philip Diamond, Manager,
Higher Education and Research, Institute of Physics
Dr Robert Lambourne, Head of
Department of Physics and Astronomy, Open University
A comprehensive sector survey to identify problems associated with
improving the mathematical competency of physics undergraduates and widening
participation in undergraduate physics and the current responses to these
A comprehensive flexible resource for the support of mathematics
teaching for physics undergraduates. This will be based on the five existing resources produced by
the Consortium Partners but will incorporate other appropriate resources from
the sector. It will include aspects of teaching, testing, diagnostics and
An integrated foundation programme involving physics and its
associated mathematics. This will
be based on the successful foundation programmes at Reading, Brunel and Salford.
This may be presented face-to-face or on-line and full-time or part-time. The programme may be used by an institution within its degree
courses or with ad-hoc students as a free-standing qualification, in either case
accredited by the institution.
Creation and support of a community of users of the resources
through dissemination, implementation sites, training days, annual reports,
meetings and a web-site.
Sector staff training in evaluation at a number of implementation
These deliverables will be made
available at nominal cost to all HEFCE and DEL-funded institutions.
Development of resources for the teaching of
mathematics for physics
The project builds on previous
successful developments, including Mathletics
at Brunel, Mathematics for Science at
the Open University, Interactive
mathematics at Plymouth, FLAP and Hyperflap
at Reading and Tutorial modules and Example
data-base at Salford. These
resources fit well together and provide mutual support.
We describe them briefly, along with developments planned with FDTL4
funding, indicating how they are to be integrated.
Mathletics is an extensive set of on-line diagnostic mathematics
tests developed at Brunel. It
currently spans 175 topics and skills from GCSE to second year undergraduate
level. Web-based question templates
with much enhanced functionality have recently been developed. With FDTL4 funding the present bank of 4600 questions will be
considerably extended and new tests linked to physics topics will be produced. Question
Mark Perception and MathML equations with random parameters, random
tables and dynamic diagrams will be used to generate an unlimited range of
runtime questions of various generic forms.
Intelligent feedback on student responses to these random questions will
be by linking responses to Ďmal-rulesí
that embody common misconceptions.
Maths for Science S151 has been developed by the Open University to
consolidate the maths skills required to study introductory physics. The course
includes printed distance-learning materials, a wide range of practice questions
and an innovative on-line e-assessment. The e-assessment is used both
formatively and summatively to provide immediate feedback to students on all
answers and allows students to attempt questions for a second or third time for
reduced credit following feedback on incorrect answers. These materials are
tailored to OU distance-learning students but FDTL4 funding will allow them to
be adapted, extended and made available for the whole sector and for their
effectiveness in face-to-face contexts to be compared with their effectiveness
Interactive mathematics at Plymouth consists of high quality
web-based mathematics support material in the form of interactive linked files
containing questions and quizzes. Resources
may be used on any PC without special software.
The software to produce the packages, LaTeX, is future proof.
For example, MathML output can be generated and the materials
disseminated via the web. FDTL4
funding will allow the production of about 20 to 30 new packages in a similar
format, with graphics where appropriate. A wider range of mathematical topics
will be produced, allowing better differentiation of levels and including
applications within physics.
The FLAP resource spans Level 0 and Level 1 physics and mathematics.
It was produced in 1995 as a paper-based text resource with supporting
audio, video and software components. It
is modular, flexible and uses supported self-study to encourage independent
learning. The mathematics is
introduced thoroughly but presented within a physics context.
The physics and mathematics form two strands that may be studied
separately, but they share a common notation, have dimensional integrity and are
mutually supportive. New materials
include further physics and mathematics modules, an electronic copy of the text
and a developing hyper-linked version, Hyperflap.
Salford has developed a wide
range of resources and strategies for teaching mathematics for applied physics
students throughout the degree course. These
include self-contained Tutorial Modules
that target key problem-solving skills and develop competence through
confidence. FDTL4 funding will
allow the further development, testing and computerisation of 30 tutorial
modules and supporting materials, targeting Level 1 with some bridging into
Integration of these materials into a single
The present resources include
materials for teaching, testing (formative and summative), diagnostics and
tutorial support. They span Levels
0 to 2 but work in isolation. PPLATO
will extend and integrate these, allowing mutual support.
Teaching and learning,
particularly in physics and mathematics, requires teaching materials to be
supported by copious examples with feedback.
Further, the teaching materials may need to be comprehensive, as in a
textbook, or more informal, as in tutorials.
Summative testing is required to measure progress and achievement and
provide feedback to teacher and learner. Diagnostics
is needed to determine an effective programme of study and to measure learning.
A comprehensive integrated resource must provide all these aspects and be
sufficiently flexible for use by students from a wide range of abilities and
backgrounds and by institutions in many contexts and situations.
This is the plan for PPLATO. The variety of teaching styles in the
original resources adds value through flexible learning, allowing student choice
of preferred learning styles.
Flexibility extends into how
departments use the resource. For
example, at one extreme the use might be for testing alone, with the teaching
within the resource being peripheral Ė giving students an option of additional
help. At the other extreme the full
resource could be used as the main teaching and testing vehicle, in supported
independent learning. Current
practice is for staff to spend much time on assessment and it is likely that
between these two extremes most departments will welcome the resource into their
teaching and learning programmes. This
flexibility is one of the strengths of the resource, easing dissemination and
embedding it into departmental programmes in whatever way those departments
Computer generated questions and feedback
A particularly attractive
feature is the ability to generate an unlimited set of random questions of a
particular type at run-time, with random tables, dynamic diagrams and
intelligent feedback. Such tests do
not depend on extensive question banks, laboriously created.
This not only frees staff time for more effective support but enables new
strategies to improve student mastery of basic skills such as algebra,
trigonometry and basic calculus.
Widening participation in undergraduate physics
through a new foundation programme
Successful foundation programmes
for physicists or engineers, such as those at Reading, Brunel or Salford,
require physics and mathematics and impact on both PPLATO target areas. PPLATO
will draw on successful foundation programmes, integrating its new resources to
establish a generic foundation programme that may be offered face-to-face or
on-line and full-time or part-time; it will also develop good practice for its
use. Institutions with or without
undergraduate physics provision may use this with staff support for their local
students, enabling wider access to physics and with the programme accredited by
the user institution. The programme can also be made accessible to mature
students and those with special needs and to schoolteachers for in-service
training and career development, increasing the interaction between HE and
As part of its dissemination
strategy PPLATO plans to create 6 new Implementation Sites in each of the three
years of the project. These will
trial the deliverables and produce feedback to the Project Team through annual
reports and evaluations. In return
for this the site costs will be met, up to £500 pa, and travel costs for a site
representative to attend a sector training day will be covered. Additionally, a
named member of the Project Team liases closely throughout the collaboration (1,
2 or 3 years), as does the Project Co-ordinator. Training days share expertise on effective evaluation
strategies and best practice in the use of the resources.
This plan calls for development
and support of a strong and growing community of PPLATO users through annual
meetings and a user web-site. The
web-site allows rapid feedback and the sharing of good practice.
The annual meeting cements the community and provides further
opportunities for training and shared experiences.
The expected PPLATO outcomes are
improvements in student competency in physics and mathematics, widened student
participation and increased retention. Any
evaluation must measure these quantities to assess the impact.
The External Evaluator of PPLATO is Dr Mike Steel from Heriot-Watt
University, an acknowledged expert in this area.
He will be involved with the planning and implementation of the project
from the start and will liase closely with the Project Team.
The External Evaluator is a member of the Advisory Group and will provide
two interim reports each year and a final report to this Group and to the Team.
The project is keen to maximise
accessibility to its resources and to work actively with host institutions to
conform with their disability access strategies. The PPLATO digital resources form a test-bed for
accessibility issues. At its most
simple this will mean that general style, navigation, target icons and colour
choices will conform to CAST (Bobby), WC3 and WAVE standards as far as possible.
There will be on-line instructions for browser configuration for disabled
students (e.g. override of font colours and sizes).
The material will include a dynamic background colour changer to
accommodate dyslexics. The www,
Perception-based tests and pdf pages will be trialled with the JAWS screen
reader; this will take place at Brunelís Disability Learning Resource Centre
that already has JAWS experience. The
mathematical questions will be based around a limited range of schematic
diagrams that will be ALT-tagged with the name/number of a braille schematic
figure. A similar tagging
arrangement can result in questions being read out to visually-impaired
students. Some of these issues
require development and we plan to involve the LTSN Generic Centre in this.