Back to Returning to Campus Again

Three weeks ago I was writing about our plans for returning to campus at Maynooth University only to be rudely interrupted the very next day by new restrictions that forced us to put those plans on ice. Now we have about four weeks to get everything in place so we have to crack on.

Today the University wrote to all students outlining the general approach we are taking at Maynooth, but the details vary enormously from subject to subject. That is because the capacity of lecture theatres and laboratories and seminar rooms is reduced considerably to maintain the proper distancing between students. Classes will inevitably be smaller but we haven’t got any more rooms, so the number of face-to-face sessions will have to decrease. This affects every subject but hits very large courses much harder than smaller ones.

I will be in at the deep end on September 28th as I am teaching our first-year Mathematical Physics module, MP110. That is in Physical Hall, which has a normal capacity of 90 reduced to 27 by physical distancing requirements. Last year I had about 85 students in the class so it was full every time. This term I can fit only about one-third of that number in any session. There are three lectures per week in that module which means that if I have up to 81 students then each will be able to attend one lecture. Those unable to attend a lecture will be able to view recordings. Over the summer the University has been installing Panopto, a lecture-capture system we used to have when I was in Cardiff, so recordings of each session can be made. I also intend to record offline supplementary material for the class.

In addition to lectures each student on MP110 previously had a weekly tutorial. For the tutorials the students were split into 4 groups, but this year the reduced room capacities will probably require us to have more, smaller groups or to move to bi-weekly tutorials.

All of this is very sensitive to numbers, and we won’t know those until very close to the start of term. If we get more students than last year we will to revise the plans. The start of term is likely require quite a lot of last-minute adjustment.

For returning students on more specialist modules the classes are smaller and the impact less severe. I will also be teaching a second-year module MP201 Vector Calculus and Fourier Series next term. Not everyone who does Mathematical Physics in Year 1 continues with it to the second year so we expect roughly 50 on MP201. With that number we may be able to run lectures as normal (which means two a week) but may have to switch to bi-weekly tutorials. We expect third and fourth year classes to run quite close to normal. At least we will know the numbers of returning students fairly soon and can lock those plans in, leaving the 1st year to be dealt with last.

On top of all this we do have to have contingency plans in case the local or national Covid-19 situation deteriorates so far that we have to close the campus again. We will be in a better position to deal with that than we were back in March, as we have learned a lot very quickly and now have better equipment.

This afternoon the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan, sent a message to all students that included the following:

Most of the large modules will use streaming of lectures so that you will receive some of the lectures on-line, and will be invited to attend less frequently than usual. Tutorials and practicals will also have reduced capacity, and in some cases the frequency will be reduced. The content of each module will remain largely unchanged, so you will be introduced to the same ideas, concepts and challenges. What will change is the format of delivery, and you will learn through a combination of live classes and on-screen material. We will publish more information, and details of the contact time in sample modules on the COVID page of the university website.

This reduced time on campus will mean that you will need to take more responsibility for your own learning, and ensure that you keep up with both the on-campus and on-line teaching.

Some of you are wondering if you need to attend at all, and whether you could complete your studies remotely. We are not a distance teaching university, and most of our courses are designed for on-campus delivery. So there will be times when you need to be on campus, and you will need to make sure that you can get to the campus when you need to.

I’ve seen some of the draft plans for other departments and it seems that the Department of Theoretical Physics is probably going to be one of the departments whose students will spend the most time on campus, with about 50% of the normal contact time. That’s primarily because we are small(ish) so can be a little more flexible. I also think that mathematical physics is a subject that needs students to take responsibility for their own learning anyway because much of it is problem-based. You can do physics problems at home or on the bus just as well as sitting in a room on campus.

I know some students are questioning the need to come on campus at all if they have so few contact hours and material is made available via recordings anyway. I can only speak for my own Department when I say that we think there is a huge value attached to in-person teaching, which is why we are trying so hard to maximize the on-campus experience for our students. It won’t quite be business as usual but will be the very best we can do under the constraints we have imposed on us. We’re doing the best we can but we do need students to play their part too!

P.S. I note that, for example, Waterford Institute of Technology is taking a quite different approach, with all lectures and tutorials going online for the whole academic year 2020/21.

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