Asynchronous and Public Lectures

This morning I came across a very interesting blogpost by Philip Moriarty which is mainly about teaching quantum mechanics but also includes some discussion of his ideas of how he plans to conduct teaching for the forthcoming semester at the University of Nottingham.

We are in a rather different situation here at Maynooth University with Covid-19 different rules, different numbers of students and different levels of resource in terms of teaching software and equipment, but I think the primary constraints are similar.

Here is is graphic Philip uses to outline the major elements of teaching he plans to adopt (copied without permission):

I think the University of Nottingham has, in common with many other UK universities, moved all its large lecture classes online. Here in Maynooth we’re restricted by physical distancing to have an absolutely maximum of 50 people in any lecture theatre at one time, so effectively the big classes will be online too. However, many of our smaller classes and tutorials will be on campus `face-to-face’ sessions. Since Theoretical Physics is a relatively small Department many of our modules will run pretty much as normal.

This are a bit different for the first year Mathematical Physics module which I teach (MP110) where the class last year was about 90 students. This class will have to be split, but I am still planning to deliver face-to-face lectures for all students in some form. There are three lectures a week in this class and I’ll probably have to have about one third of the students in each session: the other sessions will be streamed and recorded – assuming our newly-installed Panopto system works (!) – and made available to students not at the class. In addition students will get a tutorial per week, also in person.

I have thought a lot about this over the last few months and I’ve decided that the main `lectures’ (which will be with fewer than 30 students) will not be lectures but more like `workshops’ where I illustrate the main results that I would have given in a “normal” lecture using examples as well as getting students to work on problems in class.

Like Philip I plan to record videos of the “primary content” offline, probably in my office, so the students can view them at their leisure. I decided to record these primarily because I think the production quality of such lectures would be better. I’ve used Panopto before and it’s OK, but it has its limitations. I don’t have access to all the equipment Philip talks about, but at least in my office I can re-take and edit the video whenever I mess up (which will be quite frequently, I’m sure). These won’t be 50-minute lectures as I find that not having the interaction with the audience, going back over things when it’s clear they haven’t understood, giving them problems to try in class, etc, the time taken to cover the material in a video is far shorter.

Making these `asynchronous’ is, I think, extremely important. Timetabling teaching sessions looks likely to be extremely complicated for the forthcoming semester so I think it’s far better to make the content available for students to study wherever and whenever they want.

So my plan is that students will get each week:

  • A set of pre-recorded videos covering the material for that week
  • One interactive workshop on campus
  • Access to recordings of two other workshops
  • A full set of lecture notes
  • Coursework examples (assessed)
  • One tutorial on campus
  • A virtual office hour with the lecturer (me) for Q&A

It’s not the same “as normal” but I think it provides the best blend of learning approaches possible under the constraints we will have to operate. Note also that some students may be “at very high risk” for health reasons and consequently unable to come onto campus. The approach I have outlined here means that such students will miss as little as possible.

Unlike Philip, I don’t hate Moodle, so this will be where all the course materials will be made available. It will also be the principal channel of communication with the class.

Like Philip, though, I am in favour of putting all the primary content on Youtube so that anyone who wants to access it can do so. I have suggested this before and it received mixed reactions, but for me it’s more a point of principle. As my teaching is funded by the public purse, it seems reasonable to me that what I produce should all be in the public domain wherever possible. That obviously excludes some teaching activities (e.g. labs and tutorials) but I don’t see why I shouldn’t do it with lectures or other video content. I won’t make the workshop videos public, because they may accidentally identify students who do not wish to appear on a video.

I know many of my colleagues disagree with this, so here’s the unscientific poll I’ve been running to see what people think. Not that the voting will change my mind….




18 Responses to “Asynchronous and Public Lectures”

  1. I have a different approach. Feedback from students last semester indicated that they were a bit overwhelmed by videos. 3 lectures a week by video, multiplied by six subjects, plus innumerable tutorials, led to a large amount of viewing time. Too much video can be tough, much tougher than sitting in class, apparently .
    So, for several of my modules, I am going to revert to notes and materials online, and meet the students once a week over zoom for review. The bottom rung of remote learning, I admit, but that’s what they asked for. And not unlike the old Oxbridge system!

  2. Hi, Cormac.

    I guess I should clarify that in my case, the videos will not be of complete 50 minute lectures — I aim to have videos that last no more than ten minutes. This nonetheless could still lead to video overkill, as you suggest, and I will be very interested in student feedback on the module. I will aim to have the Student Evaluation of Teaching questionnaire “released” to the students relatively early in the semester (as compared to other years) to gauge their reaction and to get as much feedback as possible.


    • I find that if I do a lecture to camera, without any audience to interact with, a 50 minute lecture is no more than 25 minutes, and usually around 20.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Ah, THAT’S why it’s easier to understand in person – a slower information rate.

      • Just looking at the audience you can gauge whether they are understanding. If not you can try an alternative tack or go over it again. You can’t do that looking into a camera lens. Students can play a video over again of course but they always get the same thing…

  3. “I know many of my colleagues disagree with this, so here’s the unscientific poll I’ve been running to see what people think”


    What reasons do your colleagues have for not putting the material on YouTube? I’ve previously put tutorial videos and exam run-throughs on YT and have never had a complaint from students about this. Why do your colleagues think it’s a bad idea?

    • I don’t really know. Some I think may be worried that putting everything on Youtube might eventually lead to us making ourselves redundant…

    • I’m surprised that ~ 30% of the votes in the poll (as I write this) are against making material publicly available. It’d be great to hear from someone who voted “No” as to why they think there’s a problem in uploading material to YT…

      • jonivar skullerud Says:

        My problem is not with making it publicly available, but with giving it all away to a multinational, private, tax-dodging monopoly.

      • Why put it on youtube? Which audience are you trying to reach? Which adverts would you be willing to support?

      • Please feel free to suggest another platform…

      • wikipedia.. It aims at a different audience.

      • How do you put videos on Wikipedia?

      • Dave Carter Says:

        How about Vimeo

      • It’s not free to upload videos.

      • Dave Carter Says:

        If you are an individual you can upload 500 Mbytes for free. Probably not enough if you want an entire course online. But if you are an institution, for instance one which pays for Microsoft Teams instead of using Zoom, then Vimeo seems a good option. The stated advantages of YouTube over Vimeo are mostly the wider user base and better search facility (I know this, its quite hard to find a Vimeo video unless you have the exact link). But in this case you are producing material for a restricted number of users, and you will send them the exact link.

        Of course your IT department may have a bespoke platform.

  4. What is the problem with youtube (google). They seem to provide
    a fantastic facility at the cost of (possibly) watching advertisements.
    Why should physicists (or other academics) not use this?
    I understand the uploader has to share their personal data (which IMO is not a really big deal, because we share most of that information with some entities anyway, but I can get people have
    other opinions). But for listening, even this is not necessary.

    • I agree entirely. For one, there is a YouTube option to switch off adverts. Second, many platforms — even Moodle! — allow for YT videos to be directly embedded very easily. YT is by far the simplest and least expensive route to embedding video.

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