Lectures by Video

I spent a short while this morning sitting in on a lecture from one of our fourth-year modules, on Quantum Field Theory. Nothing obviously remarkable about that, except that the lecture was in fact delivered by Prof. Graham Shore of Swansea University and I was sitting in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University with a group of twenty or so Cardiff undergraduates.

This was the first lecture our students have received from Swansea as part of an arrangement to share some teaching. There was a plan to do it last year, but it fell apart owing to technical problems. When I took over as Director of Teaching and Learning earlier this year I was determined to make it work. I have long felt that many of our 4th-year students were losing out on some advanced topics, especially in particle physics, owing to the lack of expertise in that area here. Indeed, the lack of expertise in particle physics here in Cardiff is so extreme that our students have had to put up with being taught by me! Likewise Swansea’s undergraduates have missed out a bit on some topics we do here, especially astrophysics and gravitational physics. This division of labour dates back to the old federal University of Wales where it was decided for strategic reasons not to compete in these two areas of “big science” but to allow Cardiff to do astronomy, astrophysics and gravitational physics and Swansea the particle stuff. It was a sensible decision from a research point of view, but it meant that the two relatively small physics departments here in South Wales could offer their undergraduates more restricted choices of advanced topics  than at bigger universities.

Not for the first time, the web has furnished a solution. After a few technical problems – not entirely sorted out, to be honest – we’ve finally established a video link. The initial setup is temporary, but we will (hopefully by next week) have a permanent, high quality videoconferencing suite for future use. It will probably take some time for lecturers and students on both sides to get used to it, but sitting in this morning I found it more than satisfactory from the point of view of audibility and legibility. The only problem really is that the static camera shot makes it a bit claustrophobic. I’m not sure whether there’s a way around that without spending a fortune on multiple cameras.

Anyway, to mark this historic occasion I thought I post another video lecture on Quantum Field Theory just to give you a flavour of the content and the experience. This is by David Tong of Cambridge University as seen in a lecture recorded by the Perimeter Institute in Canada.


Anyway, in the spirit of openness, and because I couldn’t stay for the whole session,  I’d be interested to hear what any Cardiff students thought of the experience either in private or through the comments box..

18 Responses to “Lectures by Video”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    “the static camera shot makes it a bit claustrophobic. I’m not sure whether there’s a way around that without spending a fortune on multiple cameras.”

    Can be done at no cost if the present system involves a permanently present camera operator.

    Amusing to see all that hi-tech coming together for a talk in which the lecturer uses chalk and a blackboard!

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      It was hard to beat the OHP because then the lecturer faced the students all the time.

      • I also liked the OHP for this reason. I recently gave my first talk with modern equipment, a PDF (produced on VMS of course) file displayed via a laptop connected to a video projector. I felt like Neil Diamond in a sequined jumpsuit in Las Vegas in the late 1960s, but it was not as difficult as I expected. It shouldn’t be a problem to have an additional screen (perhaps that of the laptop itself) situated between speaker and audience and facing speaker. In that case, it would be nice to have an electronic pointer, rather than a laser pointer for pointing at the wall (which means one has to face the wall, which is what is to be avoided). I had an instrument which paged back and forth and also had a laser pointer. Except that I had to occasionally face the wall, it was OK. My strategy was to go to a corner of the room so that the angle between wall and audience wasn’t too large, but this is not ideal.

        I had transparencies with me, just in case, as I was told there would be a traditional overhead projector. Actually, it was a digital camera, mounted where the lens on an OHP is, connected to the same video projector. So, it just shows whatever is there. I would have had to put white sheets behind transparencies—no problem, but of course I could have just used cheap paper printouts. This is actually quite nice, since one can put anything in front of the camera, such as a book. No need to make copies, scan things, download images etc. The laptop is there on the same projector if one needs it. So, it provides all the advantages of the OHP but doesn’t require stuff like transparencies, just normal paper stuff, copies or originals.

      • telescoper Says:

        There is that advantage, but there’s also the problem that the lecturer is often rooted to the spot when using an OHP.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, but I like blackboards and chalk even over whiteboard and marker. This morning’s lecture was given using a large digital tablet on which the lecturer could write with an electronic pen. It all seemed unnecessarily complicated….

      We can’t afford to have a camera operator there all the time, but I think a lecturer who’s an experienced user of the equipment could switch camera shots during the lecture, e.g. to get audience reaction when a question is asked…

      • “This morning’s lecture was given using a large digital tablet on which the lecturer could write with an electronic pen. It all seemed unnecessarily complicated….”

        There is the untrue but well told story how the US spent millions to develop a zero-g pen for space flight while the Soviet Union just used a pencil. :-)

  2. As an undergrad I had some lectures over videolink in my final year (2000-2001). It was a “sophisticated” system with electronic whiteboard and switchable camera angles and so on, like you describe in your comment Peter.

    How this worked out was massively dependent on how familiar the lecturer was with the technology. We had one lecturer who kept pressing the wrong buttons, she obviously found the whole experience quite bewildering and couldn’t focus on the actual lecture (her lectures in person were much better). That was a bit of a waste of time for us….

    Other lecturers did a good job with it though.

  3. I typically give one or two lectures a year via a video conference system. I don’t particularly like it as it is difficult to engage with the students when they’re not in the same room. You’re also restricted to using a smart board or a powerpoint presentation, or some combination of the two. For a few years I was presenting 4 lectures of Honours-level Computational Astrophysics using the video conferencing system. It was decided to make it a local course a couple of years ago and so I reverting to using chalk on a blackboard. What struck me was how much more material I was going through when using the video conferencing system. Without the interaction I was clearly just steaming through the lectures. With the students in the room, there was much more interaction and I ended up presenting about three-quarters of what I had done when using the video conferencing system.

  4. Monica Grady Says:

    Get with it! We give all our undergraduate lectures via a system called elluminate. I sit at my pc, students (all over the country) sit at theirs. They can see a ppt presentation, and the lecturer, and at the end ask questions, either by speech or e-mail. Works really well, just need the correct software.

    • telescoper Says:

      The biggest problem with installing the software for our system has been various firewalls and security issues. I thought it would be just like skype, but it seems much more complicated for reasons I don’t understand at all.

      • Richard Frewin Says:

        Thanks should be expressed to the “Baker Boys” for turning Peter’s determination into reality.

      • telescoper Says:

        Exactly so. Hats off to the excellent technical support staff in PHYSX for doing all the hard work.

  5. theoreticalminimum Says:

    Solution: tablet notebook. The screen of the tablet can be easily duplicated, and questions can be asked over Skype for instance. Lecture notes are producible through a single click. I use Windows Journal & PDF annotator to do absolutely everything nowadays on my tablet notebook: prepare & give lectures, prepare & give talks, write up notes, write up calculations, annotate pdfs (preprints, ebooks – I have every single book/textbook/ref I could ever need on my tablet). I’m saying all of this because the lecturer not only can deliver great lectures on a tablet, but his whole way of dealing with material will change.

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    For the historical record, the University of Wales instituted a series of video lectures in physics for postgraduates in the mid-1990s using live streaming. I am told that it worked reasonably. So this has all been seen in Cardiff and Swansea before, but for postgraduates, not undergraduates.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      The University of Wales postgraduate lectures in physics were begun in 1994 or 1995 and involved, of course, students at the University of Wales College of Cardiff, University College Swansea and the University College of Wales Aberystwyth. There were also residential courses for PhD students at Gregynog.

      Oh, and I’d love to know who the awful lecturer was.

    • I was one of the students who in 1999 had an entire lecture course via 3 way video conference (Cardiff, Swansea and Aberywstwyth). It worked really well except one of the lecturers was god awful, and I don’t really think the ‘Advanced statistical mechanics’ was actually terribly advanced.

      The late Leonid Grishchuk was one of the lecturers. I always felt sorry for him because he gave 4 lectures but had to sit in on the whole term. He even agreed that the ‘bad’ lecturer was really bad.

  7. […] One of my colleagues when I worked in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, Steven Baker, has won an award for being the best STEM Technician in the category of Physical Sciences in the whole country! This is an new award set up by the Higher Education Academy, so Steven is the inaugural winner of it.  Although I suspect he won’t enjoy being the centre of attenti0n very much I’m very pleased that he won this award. Among many other things he was central in setting up the  gear that enabled current 4th-year Cardiff MPhys students to have a much wider selection of modules, by accessing lectures from Swansea University by video link. […]

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