Archive for Covid-19

Teaching after Covid

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 26, 2021 by telescoper

I know it’s a Business lecture, but at least there is a periodic table on the wall to remind students of the time when Universities used to care about science.

Near the end of a planning meeting this morning I was asked to give my thoughts about any long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on teaching and/or research. That also echoed a discussion I had with staff in the Department of Theoretical Physics on Teams a while ago, which touched on the same question.

My own view in general is that although we find ourselves constantly saying things like “When we get back to normal…” I think we have to accept that the pandemic is going to change many things irreversibly. We’re going to have to get used to new ways of working in both teaching and research. Some changes will be made to make financial savings owing to loss of income over however long the pandemic lasts, and some of those will no doubt be painful and sad. Others will be opportunities created by us learning how to do things differently and a number of these could be very positive, if we seize the initiative and make the most of them.

One specific thing in the latter category is that Maynooth University installed a system of lecture capture to help deliver teaching when access to campus was restricted (as it is now). The hardware and software installed is fairly basic and isn’t by any means perfect, but it has worked pretty well. The main problem is that the cameras that have been installed are very limited webcams and are not capable of capturing, e.g. a blackboard.

One thing I hope will happen in the long term is that we include lecture capture as a routine way of augment students’ learning. That will require additional investment in infrastructure, but I think it would be well worth it.

Some years ago I blogged about this at another institution, which had facilities allow lecturers to record videos of their own lectures which are then made available for students to view online.

This is of course very beneficial for students with special learning requirements, but in the spirit of inclusive teaching I think it’s good that all students can access such material. Some faculty are apparently a little nervous that having recordings of lectures available online would result in falling attendances at lectures, but in fact there is evidence that indicates precisely the opposite effect. Students find the recorded version adds quite a lot of value to the “live” event by allowing them to clarify things they might not have not noted down clearly. In my experience they rarely watch the whole video, instead focusing on things they didn’t get first time around. And if a few students decide that it’s good enough for them just to watch the video, then so what? That’s their choice. They are adults, after all.

I’ll add that I do feel we should still make the effort to return to doing live lectures in some form and not rely entirely on recordings. I think that what you can do in a lecture is fairly limited part of the overall educational package, but that’s not the same as saying that they should be scrapped. Many students do enjoy lectures and find them very helpful. I just think we should make the best of the available technology to offer as wide a range of teaching methods as possible. No two students are the same and no two students learn precisely the same way. Let us offer them a variety of resources and they can choose which serves them best.

Another important, but perhaps less tangible, aspect of this is that I think education is or should be a shared experience for students. Just having everyone sit in the same room “enjoying” the same teaching session is a great benefit compared with having them sit in their room watching things on a laptop screen. I think that’s one of the worst issues with remote teaching, and wish we had found better ways of dealing with that over the past year.

There is a benefit for the lecturer of having a live audience too, in that actually seeing the people you’re trying to teach helps you gauge how well you’re getting it across.

Anyway, I started a poll on lecture capture a while ago before the pandemic. Feel free to add your opinion. It will be interesting to see if opinions have changed!

Thought For The Year

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on January 13, 2021 by telescoper

In the midst of the January examination period I’ve been thinking about how tough this year has been nd will continue to be for all students in third-level institutions, but especially the cohort currently in the first year of their course. I think it’s now fairly clear that nearly all their study this year will be done remotely. We on the teaching side have all tried to make the best of this situation but there’s no question that the learning experience we have been able to offer is not as good this year as in other years. On top of that the students – especially in the first year – have been denied the chance to get to know other students through personal interactions, clubs & societies, or through joint interests. Those of us who went to University in more normal times know that many of the friendships we made when we first arrived at college stayed with us for the rest of our lives.

Thinking about this I want to make a suggestion. It is that every student currently in their first year of study at a third-level institution should be offered the chance to start again in the autumn and repeat the whole academic year, regardless of how well they do this time round. Not all students will want to do this, and not all will be able to because of personal circumstances, but I feel we should at least offer them the possibility and back it up with funding for the repeated year. My own suspicion is that it would be a minority, but probably a significant minority, that would opt for this. It would cost money, but I think it would mean a lot to a considerable number of students.

I can anticipate an objection that students repeating their first year will take up places that would normally go to next year’s new intake. That depends on how many would take up the repeat offer, of course. Extra capacity may be needed for some but not all courses. But it also seems to me that this year’s Leaving Certificate students will have had their studies affected too. Perhaps final-year school students should be offered the chance to repeat their year too?

Would starting and/or finishing college a year later really be such a problem given the extraordinary nature of the Covid-19 crisis?

P.S. I’ve talked about the situation in Ireland, but everything I’ve said will apply elsewhere too.

SARS-Cov-2 Vaccine strategy: One Jab or Two?

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , , , on January 13, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the issue of the Coronavirus vaccination programmes currently underway and have had some interesting and informative exchanges on Twitter about it. This morning’s news that AstraZeneca has finally applied to the European Commission for permission to market its vaccine within the European Union reminded me of those discussions so I thought I’d post a question here. I genuinely don’t know the answer, incidentally, so there’s no agenda here!

As you probably know all SARS-COV-2 vaccines (Moderna, Pfizer/Biontech and AstraZeneca) require two doses, administered about three weeks apart, for maximum efficacy. It’s worth saying before going on that the scientists involved deserve high praise for developing these highly effective vaccines at a speed that has exceeded all expectations.

At the moment however supplies of these vaccines are fairly limited and it’s early days for immunization programmes so there are serious logistical problems to be solved before we get anywhere near full vaccination. I grabbed this from Twitter yesterday showing the state of play in various countries:

Note, incidentally, that Denmark is doing particularly well within the EU but France, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium have started very slowly. Ireland is about mid-table.

At the top of the league is Israel, though  they are not offering vaccination to the Palestinian people whose lands they occupy. Israel has just reported that after 12 days the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has about 50% efficacy after one dose based on results from its own programme. That number is roughly consistent with initial estimates of from trials this vaccine but the statistics aren’t great and there is a considerable margin of error on these figures.

Now the question I am asking myself is that given the limited supply is it better at this stage to give as many people as possible one dose of the vaccine, or follow the manufacturers’ original plan and give two doses to half as many people? There are reports that the UK has been deferring the second dose beyond the recommended interval, where there is no data on its efficacy. Perhaps I’m being excessively cynical but it seems to me that the UK Government’s approach is more driven by public relations than by public health considerations.

I understand that there are difficult issues here, not least the ethical one of having people sign up for a specific two-dose vaccination only to find that’s not what they get. Another issue is the speed with which doses are being made available relative to the size of the population. Yet another issue is who you prioritize.

Above all, though, there is the question of what you mean by “better”. One criterion would be to save as many lives as possible. Another might be to slow the rate of infections as much as possible. Another might be to allow the economy to open up as early as possible. These are all different and would lead to different decisions, particularly with regard to who should get the vaccine. Saving lives obviously means protecting the vulnerable and the people who care for them (e.g. health workers). Economic considerations would however lead you to prioritize those on whom the economy depends most directly, which would include workers who can’t easily work from home (many of whom are in low-paid manual jobs).

The following poll is therefore going to be very unscientific, but I’m interested to find out what people think. In  order to keep it simple, lets suppose you have a batch of two million doses of a vaccine (say the Pfizer one) and the next batch is due in three months.

You have to decide between the following two options:

  1.  Give 1,000,000 people one dose now and another dose in three weeks’ time
  2.  Give 2,000,000 people one dose now and hope that it is effective for three months (or that additional supplies appear more quickly than anticipated).

Vote now!

A similar poll I did on Twitter a while ago can be found here: there are some quite interesting comments in the ensuing thread.

Comments are of course welcome through the Comments Box!

P.S. I’m quite low down the pecking order in Ireland so it’s unlikely I’ll get vaccinated before the summer.

Covid-19 in Ireland: where it all went wrong

Posted in Covid-19, Politics with tags , , on January 10, 2021 by telescoper

I don’t buy a daily paper, but I am a regular reader of the Irish Times Weekend edition. The reporting, especially on international news, is generally good and although it is basically an Establishment newspaper it is fairly balanced. That can’t be said for the opinion pieces however, which are frequently execrable. A particularly shitty example is provided by a column by Political Editor Pat Leahy in this Weekend’s edition.

It’s bad enough that he writes as if the most important thing about the pandemic is not that people are dying but that there might be implications for Ireland’s political establishment. And that he takes the opportunity to take churlish swipes like “Many public servants have, of course, been working furiously hard. Some haven’t.” As a public servant who has put in countless hours of unpaid overtime over the past year that snide comment really got my goat, coming as it does from a Political Editor who trots out lazy evidence-free rubbish for a living.

This is the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic in Ireland.

Restrictions were lifted on 1st December. New cases started to climb steeply almost immediately, doubling roughly every 7 days. It was obvious then – by simple extrapolation of the exponential curve – that there would be around 1000 new cases per day by Christmas and about 2000 by New Year.

The only reason we didn’t have 2000 cases per day by 31st December was that the system couldn’t cope with so many positive test results and a backlog developed. Today, 10th January, 6888 cases were reported. Hospitalizations, ICU admissions and, sadly, deaths are now tracking upwards after the inevitable delay.

Loosening the restrictions with new cases at hundreds per day always looked to me to be very wrong-headed. I’m not happy to have been proven right.

Against this backdrop Pat Leahy says this:

What?

This is simply untrue. It is true that there was a general expectation that the growth curve would not be so steep, with perhaps 500 cases by Christmas. That was wrong by about a factor two but given the doubling time and no interventions 1000 would have been reached a week later. As someone who argued for relaxation in December, Mr Leahy is rather obviously trying to rewrite history to make him appear less culpable.

In my view the reason why the residual restrictions in December did not slow the increase in Covid-19 cases was that the messaging from the Government was too complicated, had too many exceptions, and gave the appearance that it was arbitrary and without clear justification. This, together with persistent lobbying by vested interests in the hospitality sector, encouraged enough people to ignore even the weakened restrictions in the run-up to Christmas and through the holiday period. In short, the Government has lost the room. Worryingly, I don’t think that it understands this even now.

Even now with a dire health emergency in clear view, I still see people circulating in groups without face coverings. What went wrong, in my opinion, is that the Government was too weak to stick to the advice given to it from the National Public Health Emergency Team and instead started tinkering about trying to satisfy various lobby groups.

But back to Mr Leahy. The statement that “nobody suggested the price for Christmas would be so severe” is plainly untrue: plenty of people knew exactly what was coming and said so loudly and publicly. Neither he nor the politicians listened. If there’s any justice the “political fallout” from this catastrophic weakness will be severe.

Anyway, after being angered by that dreadful Opinion column I’m seriously thinking of switching to a different paper. Any suggestions?

There’s a Moose Loose Aboot this Hoose!

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth, Music with tags , on January 8, 2021 by telescoper

Artist’s Impression

I am working from home at the moment owing to Covid-19 restrictions on campus activity but I have been informed by on campus staff that an unauthorized mouse bas been seen in the Department of Theoretical Physics. This is a very serious situation as access to the Science Building is for essential work only and this does not include rodents, even if they have a PhD. Furthermore, the mouse is not wearing a face mask and, from what I have heard, is not observing proper sanitary procedures.

More importantly, our Covid-19 protocols require all visitors to the Department to be in receipt of a letter authorizing their presence. I have contacted Human Rodent Resources and no such letters have been issued.

I have therefore instructed all staff and students in the Department that if they see this mouse they should instruct it to leave and that any refusal to comply will be met with disciplinary action, initially taking the form of a formal written warning but escalating if necessary to a meeting with Maynooth University Library Cat.

There now follows a  message concerning these developments from Professor Brian Dolan.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

Level 5 New Year

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , on December 30, 2020 by telescoper

To nobody’s surprise the Taioseach this evening announced that the whole of Ireland would go immediately into full Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions. Officially these will apply until January 31st, but nobody thinks they will end then. Nor should they. The past few days have seen the number of cases and hospitalizations skyrocket and the current positivity rate of tests is 10.5% (7-day average) with a figure of 18% recorded yesterday.

Here are the latest plots of 7-day averages. First, logarithmic:

Second, linear:

I’m not alone in thinking that it was a very big mistake to relax the restrictions in early December, but that’s done now and we have to deal with the situation as it is now. Unfortunately the Christmas wave hasn’t really hit these figures yet so I think thinks are going to get a lot worse before they get better. The current exponential phase with a R number of around 1.6-1.8 means the cases will probably double by this time next week.

Anyway, looks like a quiet night in for New Year’s Eve (not that I mind that) and my horizon for January is back down to a 5km radius, although its centre has shifted a little as I have moved house since last time!

Covid Questions for Ireland

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on November 15, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve just done my daily update of Covid-19 numbers here and thought I’d show the latest figure:

There are now 262 data points on these graphs. When I started doing the updates I thought it might carry on for two or three months -i t’s now been almost nine and there’s no end in sight.

As you can see the 7-day average of new cases has been falling steadily since entered the period of Level 5 restrictions that is now about half-way through. That, of course, is good news. The problem is that the rate of decrease is really quite slow. The number of new cases on each day for the last week (including today) were: 270, 270, 362, 395, 482, 456, and 378 (today). That is fairly flat, the steep downward trend of the previous week apparently faltering. As a rough guess I’d say that by the time we come out of the current period of restrictions (at the beginning of December) we’ll probably still be having over a hundred new cases per day.

I think that level is far too high for comfort, but the current government is probably going to find it difficult to resist the political pressure to exit the lockdown in time for Christmas. If that does happen, I can see another lockdown looming in January. My superiors at Maynooth University are talking about having on-campus teaching again next Semester, but I think that’s highly unlikely in the circumstances.

Things are even worse in Northern Ireland where the number of new cases announced today was 478. Daily cases have been running higher there than in the Republic for some time, despite the fact that the six counties of Northern Ireland have a population of just 1.9 million compared to the 4.9 million of the 26 counties  in the Republic.

That brings me to the issue of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine that everyone is getting excited about. Assuming that it passes the various tests needed for it to be approved, Ireland would get about 2 million doses from the stock procured by the European Union.  The population of Ireland is about 4.9 million, and each person would require two doses, which means that supply will only enable about 20% of the population to be vaccinated.

(Actually I don’t know whether the 2 million refers to people that can be vaccinated or individual doses, but even if it’s the former that still accounts for only 40% of the population.)

The question then is who should be prioritized? I think we’d all agree that all health care workers should be vaccinated ASAP but that’s only about 25,000 people (source). Who should get the other doses? Most people seem to be assuming that those at highest risk of mortality should be vaccinated, but there’s also a case to be argued that  it should it should be those groups within which the virus is most likely to spread that should get it, which is presumably the otherwise healthy population.

I don’t know the answer, but it will be interesting to see how this all develops. In any case as far as I can see it there’s very little prospect of high levels of population immunity being reached by this time next year. And that’s even if the vaccine is available soon, which is by no means clear will be the case. As a matter of fact I wouldn’t bet against me still having to do daily updates on Covid-19 statistics for most of next year.

 

Dare we hope?

Posted in Covid-19, Poetry, Politics with tags , , , , , on November 9, 2020 by telescoper

A short passage from Seamus Heaney’s verse play The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes has been much quoted recently. It even ended the RTÉ News last night:

The passage begins

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.

Well, there’s an additional reason for hope this morning, in the announcement of good progress in the search for a vaccine against Covid-19. The two pharmaceutical companies involved are Pfizer (USA) and BioNTech SE (Germany). The reported efficacy of the vaccine tested so far is over 90%, which is far higher than experts have predicted. Now these are preliminary results, not yet properly reviewed, based on a sample of only 94 subjects, and I’m not sure what motivated the press release so early in the process. I’m given to understand that the type of vaccine concerned here would also be challenging to manufacture and distribute, but we’re due for some good news on the Coronavirus front so let’s be (cautiously) optimistic.

On top of that it seems that Ireland at least is turning the tide against the second wave, with new cases falling every day for over a week:

Dare we hope?

Standing Up for Online Lectures

Posted in Covid-19, Education, mathematics, Maynooth with tags , , , , on November 3, 2020 by telescoper

I have a break of an hour between my last lecture on Vector Calculus (during which I introduced and did some applications of Green’s Theorem) and my next one on Mechanics & Special Relativity (during which I’m doing projectile motion), so I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts about online teaching.

I started the term by doing my lectures in the form of webcasts live from lecture theatres but since we returned from the Study Break on Monday I’ve been doing them remotely from the comfort of my office at home, which is equipped with a blackboard (installed, I might add, at my own expense….)

I still do these teaching sessions “live”, though, rather than recording them all offline. I toyed with the idea of doing the latter but decided that the former works better for me. Not surprisingly I don’t get full attendance at the live sessions, but I do get around half the registered students. The others can watch the recordings at their own convenience. Perhaps those who do take the live webcasts appreciate the structure that a regular time gives to their study. Even if that’s not the reason for them, I certainly prefer working around a stable framework of teaching sessions.

“Why am I still using a blackboard?” I hear you ask. It’s not just because I’m an old fogey (although I am that). It’s because I’m used to pacing myself that way, using the physical effort of writing on the blackboard to slow myself down. I know some lecturers are delivering material on slides using, e.g., Powerpoint, but I have never felt comfortable using that medium for mathematical work. Aside from the temptation to go too fast, I think it encourages students to see the subject as a finished thing to be memorized rather than a process happening in front of them.

I did acquire some drawing tablets for staff to enable them to write mathematical work out, which is useful for short things like tutorial questions, but frankly they aren’t very good and I wouldn’t want to use them to give an hour long lecture.

In addition to these considerations, my decision to record videos in front of a blackboard was informed by something I’ve learnt about myself, namely that I find I am much more comfortable talking in this way when I’m standing up than sitting down. In particular, I find it far easier to communicate enthusiasm, make gestures, and generally produce a reasonable performance if I’m standing up. I know several colleagues who do theirs sitting down talking to a laptop camera, but I find that very difficult. Maybe I’m just weird. Who else prefers to do it standing up?

Level 5 Holiday Weekend

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 with tags , , on October 24, 2020 by telescoper

The last Monday of October (Lá Saoire i mí Dheireadh Fómhair), aka the Halloween Holiday (Lá Saoire Oíche Shamhna), is a national holiday in Ireland so I’m currently in Bank Holiday weekend mode.

Tougher (Level 5) Covid-19 restrictions came into play at Midnight on Thursday so I guess I’ll be spending most of this weekend time at home, but that’s OK. It will be a chance to recharge the old batteries.

I’ll also have time to read the big booklet that arrived in yesterday’s mail.

This new regime is not at all like the first lockdown in March but my main worry is about compliance. The vast majority of people have behaved sensibly throughout the pandemic but enough haven’t to create a very worrying situation. I’m concerned that those people who flouted the Level Three restrictions will flout Level Five too, but we’ll see.

Last night we resumed the “virtual pub” night on Zoom with former colleagues from Cardiff, which went into abeyance when actual pubs reopened there. Wales has now gone into a stricter lockdown too, for at least 17 days. I think England will probably follow soon.

Anyway today’s tasks are: (i) to activate my home internet and (ii) to avoid reading work emails using it.

I arranged to have the router box etc delivered yesterday. The courier texted me in the morning to say they would deliver between 2pm and 4pm. I had a lecture scheduled from 12 to 1 so I went on campus, did the webcast from my office, and returned home by about 1.30. I waited there until almost 6pm and then gave up and went to buy beer and pizza.

When was coming back with the goods my next door neighbour saw me and came around with the package. The courier had arrived at my house at 11am and discovering that I was not in, had left it with her. No note at my house. No text or phone call to my mobile to say they’d been.

Nightline is the name of the courier company. They wasted a whole afternoon of my time. The driver also forged my signature in the process, surely a criminal offence?