Archive for the Education Category

Assessment at a Distance

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on April 4, 2020 by telescoper

In the light of the Covid-19 restrictions currently in place, Maynooth University has issued updated guidance to students about the rest of the Semester.

Of particular concern to students is what will happen to their examinations, usually held in the second half of May.

Here the guidance begins:

The university examinations will not take place this semester in the usual format. The examinations will be replaced by remote assessments, including assignments, timed remote assessments and in some cases video interviews. As far as possible assessments will be completed by the scheduled dates. We plan to have resit examinations in August as usual.

There has been a lot of work and discussion going on behind the scenes to come up with ways of doing without the usual in situ examinations and the solutions proposed will no doubt vary considerably from discipline to discipline.

In the case of Theoretical Physics the vast majority of our examinations will be in the form of a timed assessment as mentioned above. What this means is that a test of similar format to the usual examinations will be made available in the form of a pdf file for students to download at home at a specific time. They must then scan and upload their answers, within a given time limit, extra time being added to formal duration of the assessment to allow for doing this.

There are two main potential difficulties with this approach.

One is that the students will not be invigilated and may cheat, either by referring to notes or other material (e.g. online) or by colluding with others. I believe the former risk can be mitigated (a) by the time limit and (b) by designing an assessment that emphasises problem-solving rather than rote learning (which, frankly, is what we should be doing anyway). Collusion is more difficult to deal with but we can at least require students to make a declaration that the submission is their own and reserve the right to interview afterwards.

The second (and, I believe more serious) source of difficulty is on the side of the student. This approach will require students to have somewhere at home where they can do the test, as well as access to the Internet and a scanning device of some sort. They will only have to download a relatively small pdf but the upload may cause problems. A scanned pdf would be easier to upload than, for example, pictures taken using a phone camera (which may be rather large files).

Still, given that there is a period of six weeks before these assessments are due to take place, I hope the vast majority of students will be able to put appropriate arrangements in place. We can also provide a dummy test so they can check that everything works satisfactorily.

These proposals are not ideal, but few things can be in the situation we are in. I do think this is a reasonable approach for our students because at least it means they can prepare using past examination papers knowing that the timed assessment will be similar in form. I think dumping an entirely new and unfamiliar kind of assessment on students now, at a time of already high stress, would have been grossly unfair.

Winging IT

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on April 2, 2020 by telescoper

The current restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 outbreak have forced many of us academics to adapt to using IT in ways we hadn’t even imagined just a month ago. It’s not only remote teaching via virtual learning environments with live and/or prerecorded video lectures, but also meetings held by videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Few of us have had much training in the use of these things, so when it comes to Information Technology we’re all winging it. Still, necessity is the mother of invention and we just have to get on with it.

I’m gradually getting used to Microsoft Teams, for example. I’ve even got proper kit to wear.

Incidentally, yesterday I learned that the expression ‘to wing it’ actually comes from the Theatre, where it alludes to an actor studying their lines in the wings (at the side of the stage) because they haven’t had time to learn their part before the performance (usually because they are replacing another actor at short notice).

Nowadays ‘winging it’ means generally improvising or making it up as you go along. I’m finding winging it to be rather hard work but quite fun, actually. While we’ve been trying to flatten the Covid-19 curve the learning curve has definitely been getting steeper.

The Appliance of Science

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on March 25, 2020 by telescoper

Well, today is another beautiful sunny and surprisingly warm day in Maynooth. It’s just a pity that owing to the additional measures announced yesterday people aren’t really able to get out and about to enjoy it.

I know some people are experiencing a lot of anxiety over this disruption to normal life. I have experienced severe anxiety and panic attacks in the past, but they have almost always been triggered by the presence of large crowds of people around me. There’s not much chance of that happening these days! I do wish I could sleep a bit better though. I don’t want to be dealing with insomnia again on top of everything else.

I did however have some anxiety yesterday. Rather irritatingly, the washing machine in my flat chose to conk out a few days ago. I didn’t fancy the idea of being able to do my laundry for the best part of a month so was thinking of getting a new one. I suddenly thought yesterday that the shops I might buy one might be closed so dashed around to a little store just around the corner from me. The guy in charge got a reasonably priced model for me ready last night and today came around and plumbed it in and took the old one away for recycling. Emergency over, almost before it started.

In any case it seems there in an exemption from the special measures for businesses deemed essential because they involve selling “products necessary to maintain the safety and sanitation of residences and businesses”. I presume a washing machine counts under that!

Anyway, apart from that little flurry of excitement, we’ve been busily trying to conduct online teaching sessions as best we can. It has become apparent that the mathematical work we do in the Department of Theoretical Physics really requires drawing tablets and pens so we’ve had to purchase a few of those for tutors who didn’t have them already. Apart from that it seems the staff at least are adapting to the new regime, and perhaps even enjoying the novelty of all this technology. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and maybe when (if) this is all over we’ll carry on using some of the new gadgets and software in the future.

Now that we’re rolling with the teaching, though, we have to give some thought to how we’re going to do the end-of-term examinations. I have a cunning plan..

A Longer Haul

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on March 24, 2020 by telescoper


To nobody’s great surprise today we received official confirmation that there will be no face-to-face teaching for the rest of the semester at Maynooth University; teaching had been go on until early May. This news also made it into the Irish Independent. The previous announcement was that classes would not resume until 29th March (this Friday), now they won’t resume until the next academic year begins, in September. There will also be no in situ examinations, with all assessments being switched either to homework or remote assessments. We were pretty sure this was coming, as there is no sign yet of a reduction in the spread* of Coronavirus in Ireland, so we are as prepared as we can be for this contingency, although we now know we’re in it for a longer haul than originally announced.

Today I’ve been setting up a laboratory session for my module on Computational Physics. Instead of working in our computer lab under supervision, the students will have to work through a set of Python coding problems on their own. They’re doing numerical integration this week, by the way: being a bit old-fashioned I like to call this quadrature. The demonstrator and I will however be available (via Microsoft Teams) to deal with queries. This isn’t ideal of course but the software does allow participants to share screens, as well as audio and video chat so, I’m quite optimistic that it will work out reasonably well. I’m planning to deliver a lecture to the students on this module on Thursday which, given that the group is reasonably small, should also work reasonably well.

Update: I had a big problem uploading files to Microsoft Teams, which I couldn’t fix. I need to get that sorted out or it won’t be possible to share plots, graphs, etc. Hopefully it’s just a temporary glitch, but it’s very annoying.

My early experience with Microsoft Teams wasn’t marvellous, which led me to tweet:

I have to say though that it is perfectly functional (so far), once you get used to it. I still prefer Zoom, though.

My only other gripe is that working from home seems to have made some colleagues a little bit trigger-happy with the `ReplyAll’ button on their email.

Anyway, it seems that last night, on the wrong side of the Irish Sea, Boris Johnson finally got around to reading out the statement Emmanuel Macron dictated to him last week and the United Kingdom is finally having some form of discipline imposed. We await possible announcements of further strengthening of the restrictions already in place here in Ireland, but for the time being we carry on pretty much as before. There are few people around and about in Maynooth and many of the shops and all the pubs are closed, but it’s still possible to shop without experiencing a feeding frenzy.

On top of all that, it’s a lovely sunny day!

*I’ve put a page here tracking the daily increase in number of COVID-19 cases in Ireland.

On Virtual Meetings

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on March 19, 2020 by telescoper

We’ve now had almost a week of campus closure here at Maynooth and it has now become clear that there will be no more face to face teaching for the remaining half of the Spring Semester. That does not mean that everything stops, just that all teaching from now on will be delivered remotely.

There probably won’t be any in situ exams in May either: these will have to be replaced by assessments to be submitted online.

During this ‘working from home’ period I’ve been experiencing a few Google hangouts, but that’s just because I was trying to work while still in my underwear.

More relevantly, I have been gradually discovering new ways of holding virtual meetings, which is just as well because we’ll be doing teaching sessions that way starting on Monday.

I’ve been participating in regular videoconferences to do with Euclid using Zoom for a whole now. That seems quite a good easy-to-use platform which can cope with 100 participants.

Yesterday I took part in a virtual meeting using GoToMeeting which is also quite good, although it did remind me of watching Celebrity Squares

(without the celebrities of course).

My video feed kept freezing but that was probably a bandwidth issue at my end rather than a software problem.

This morning I had another new experience, using Microsoft Teams. That wasn’t great to be honest, but it comes with Office 365 so I suppose we should use it on the grounds that we’re paying for it anyway.

I’m not all that experienced at virtual meetings but one tip I can pass on is that if you’re not speaking it’s a good idea to mute your microphone (and probably your video too). Otherwise any noise from shuffling papers, coughing or dropping things gets broadcast to everyone. If you’re presenting something it’s likewise a good idea to ask the audience to mute themselves.

Another point of etiquette is to exercise a bit of self-discipline in not talking over other participants. One should do that anyway, of course, but it’s even more vital in a virtual meeting, otherwise it quickly becomes unbearable. Even if you’re not using Microsoft Teams..

Anyway, if any among you has any further tips to pass on about virtual meetings or remote teaching (including other software platforms worth thinking about) please feel free to make remote use of the Comments Box below.

A Note from Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 18, 2020 by telescoper

I’m indebted to colleagues from Maynooth University Special Collections & Archives for sending out the following bit of history.

It is now over 100 years ago the 1918 “Spanish ‘flu” influenza pandemic came to Maynooth College. It was officially closed from 8th November until 7th January and 60 students remained in the infirmaries. Over 500 students went home and sadly 11 of these did not survive the pandemic. More details below.

One difference between 1918 and 2020 is that the Spanish flu mainly affected the young. Covid-19 is remarkably different, as these grim mortality statistics from Italy demonstrate:

Nobody at all under the age of 30 has died (so far) of Covid-19 in Italy. It’s the mortality rate for those over 70 that is terrifying. This is just the rate so far. Many of those currently in intensive care won’t make it, so these figures will probably change significantly.

Last night the Taioseach Leo Varadkar gave an unusual address to the nation, which pointed out the gravity of the situation facing Ireland and indeed the world in genderal, which is even more serious that a century ago. In particular he stressed that the COVID-19 emergency would probably last well into the summer.

I don’t agree with Varadkar on many political issues but I think his speech last night was very good. He praised Ireland’s front line medical staff, but also found time to mention the teachers and lecturers who trying their best to deliver remote teaching. Above all, though, he was honest.

I feel very lucky right now, not only to be so far unaffected by Coronavirus but also to be living and working in a small University town in Ireland right now.

There are no obvious shortages of anything and my local (small) supermarket has put out hand wash and wipes for people to use on baskets and trolleys.

We’re also in a Study Week that has at least given us some time to figure out how to move to online teaching by next Monday when we are supposed to start again.

We are probably going to be in this for months rather than weeks but aat least we academics are in no imminent danger of losing our jobs. The same is not true for the folk working in local shops, restaurants and other businesses. We owe it to them to do what we can to support the local community and its economy as much as possible.

In particular, I’ve often remarked that we are lucky in a small town like Maynooth to have quite a few nice cafés and restaurants. Some of these have switched to takeaway or delivery mode during the emergency. I wouldn’t normally use a takeaway service but I will do now, and I suggest my colleagues and friends in Maynooth might do likewise. If we don’t support these establishments now we might lose them for good.

That goes for other local businesses too!

Business (Cards) as Usual

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on March 15, 2020 by telescoper

One of the things that happened just before Maynooth University closed down last week was that I received delivery of my new business cards:

I’m sure they will prove useful at some point in the future, but I can’t see myself handing any out for a while!

I have subtly removed the telephone numbers from the above image because I was warned that people could use my number to do nefarious things, such as trying to contact me. They are my work numbers, of course, so I never answer them anyway, but you can’t be too careful.

Incidentally, today the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced that pubs and bars in Ireland should close down until March 29th, which will include the St Patrick’s Day holiday on Tuesday. I don’t know why this wasn’t done earlier and wonder how many people have been infected with Coronavirus because of the delay.

Anyway, after a weekend of not working, tomorrow we resume working from home. Fortunately it’s Study Week so we don’t have to try doing remote teaching until next week.