Archive for Online Teaching

The Term Ahead

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on January 28, 2021 by telescoper

After a recent Government announcement that current Covid-19 restrictions would be extended until at least March 5th, this morning we received the expected communication from the University authorities that almost all our teaching at Maynooth University would be online until March 22nd at the earliest. This is because the half-term “study break” is from 15th to 19th March (to include St Patrick’s Day) and there would be no point in trying to get students back for one week (8th-12th March) before breaking up for the following week. In fact, if I had to bet money on it I would say we’ll probably be online all the way through to the summer, and possibly beyond, but that decision has not been made yet.

To nobody’s surprise we’re also going to have online examinations in the summer again. We’ve done two rounds of these already so are getting used to them now so that’s not a problem.

The St Patrick’s Day break was basically when we flipped – by which I mean “changed teaching methods” rather than “went mad” – last year so at least we’ve already got teaching prepared for the second half of the forthcoming semester if Level 5 restrictions do continue.

I am actually a bit annoyed at the politicians for making hints about when the restrictions might end. It is clearly far too early to be talking about that. Here are yesterday’s numbers:

If you prefer them on a linear scale here they are:

New cases have fallen significantly since the latest peak but at least part of that is due to the fact that automatic close contact tracing couldn’t cope and was abandoned. Testing positivity rate has fallen to around 8.2% (from over 20%) , hospital admissions admissions are falling, and deaths may have peaked, so the evidence suggests there is a is a reduction, but the numbers are still way too high. They need to come down to much less than a 100 before any lifting of restrictions can be contemplated. At the current rate of decline that will take many weeks.  Suggesting opening up is going to happen soon will only make people impatient and reduce compliance.

Teaching term at Maynooth starts on Monday (1st February) and I have three modules to deliver, one of them a module I’ve never given before. Because there has been so much to do behind the scenes since Christmas I don’t think I’ll ever have started a term feeling so exhausted. The cycle of academic life carries on remorselessly despite the fact that everything takes longer to do under Covid-19 restrictions. It is an effort just to keep up.

Still at least we’ve all still got jobs to do and are still getting paid. It’s time to knuckle down and focus on reaching the mid-term break in one piece and then seeing where we go thereafter.

 

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?

Teaching Improvisation

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 29, 2020 by telescoper

The sudden switch of all our teaching online on Friday has necessitated a certain amount of improvisation. I had intended to do my introductory session on Mechanics and Special Relativity to first-year students as a kind of interactive workshop using the blackboard in Physics Hall. When we were told to move everything online I thought I’d just do yesterday’s session from my office which has quite a good blackboard and a setup I had already tested. Unfortunately however an office refurbishment project I was assured would be finished before the start of teaching but which has barely started meant that yesterday there was constant hammering and drilling in the Department. That made it impossible to do an online lecture (or do anything else) in my office. I knew there would be nobody in Physics Hall, though, so I did the lecture there to an empty room.

The camera provided in that room is fixed to a monitor at once side of the theatre and is therefore useless for capturing the blackboard, so I used my laptop camera plus a handy litter bin to raise it up. It wasn’t great but was better than nothing.

You might ask why I don’t do this from home. The answer to that is that I haven’t yet got an internet connection in the new house, so I can do online activities from there.

You might also ask why a refurbishment job, which could have been completed at any point during the summer when the building was empty, has only just started now we’ve started teaching again. If I had an answer I would tell you. I think the six people whose offices are currently unusable would like to know too, though at least they can work from home. It’s tough enough trying to keep everything together these days without this.

Fortunately today a colleague in the Department of Psychology found me a quiet place to work. It’s a small windowless cubicle normally used for experiments. At least it’s quiet. I think the next step will be a padded cell somewhere.

What works with Online Teaching?

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , on April 8, 2020 by telescoper

Since the cancellation of in-person lectures and tutorials at Maynooth University a few weeks ago, we’ve all been trying – mostly without much a priori knowledge – how to teach students using exclusively online methods.

In the Department of Theoretical Physics we’re all trying different things and trying our best to learn from student feedback how to improve.

Maynooth University recently launched a survey of students that was completed by about 3000 in 24 hours, which is a very good response.

The results are very interesting. When asked what works best for them the responses were:

  1. 39% prefer PowerPoint with sound;
  2. 27.2% prefer recorded video or screencast;
  3. 18.6% prefer text materials (Word/Pwpt); and
  4. 12.2% prefer live video or screen cast.

I’m sure that there is no single “best” way of doing this. What works will depend a lot on the discipline (and the kind of material to be presented) and on the lecturer (and how comfortable they are with different approaches), as well as on the student.

I’ve always felt that students being different individuals all learn in different ways so the best approach is to offer as broad a mixture of approaches as possible in order to try to offer something for everyone.

For my part what I’m doing is making a PDF of the lectures available for the students to study in their own time, but also record short (15-minute) recorded video explainers of the key concepts using a piece of software called Screencast-o-matic.

Here’s a still from one of my Computational Physics videos:

You see they get the notes with a pointer moving about on it as I talk, but also have to endure an encapsulated video of me waving my hands and blabbering on, for that authentic lecture experience.

The video and audio is not ideal because of lighting and background sound issues in my flat which is why I felt keeping the recordings short would be useful.

I recorded the one shown above (and several others) before I figured that it works better to use the natural light coming in through the window than electric lighting. That means that I now do my recordings in the morning, when I can face the sunlight in my sitting room.

I should add that we also have a laboratory for this course. The students are given a script to work through then some (Python) coding exercises to complete. They have to do these at home but myself and a demonstrator are online via Microsoft Teams to assist the students who can share screens and output files to help us diagnose any bugs.

Anyway, what works for you?