Pandemic blog 34: teaching on the screen

A small proportion of UW-Madison courses were being given in person, until last week, that is, but not mine. I’m teaching two graduate courses, introduction to algebra (which I’ve taught several times before) and introduction to algebraic number theory, which I’ve taught before but not for quite a few years. And I’m teaching them sitting in my chair at home. So I thought I’d write down a bit about what that’s like, since depending on who you ask, we’ll never do it again (in which case it’s good to record the memory) or this is the way we’ll all teach in the future (in which case it’s good to record my first impression.)

First of all, it’s tiring. Just as tiring as teaching in the classroom, even though I don’t have to leave my chair. This surprised me! But, introspecting, I think I actually draw energy from the state of being in a room with people, talking at the board, walking around, interacting. I usually leave class feeling less tired than when I walked in.

On the screen, no. I teach lectures at 10 and 11 and at noon when both are done I’m wiped out.

My rig, settled on after other setups kept glitching out: Notability open on iPad, I write notes as if on blackboard with the Apple Pencil, iPad connected by physical cable to laptop, screensharing to a window on the laptop which window I am sharing in Microsoft Teams to the class while the laptop camera and mic capture my face and voice.

What I have not done:

  • Gotten a pro-quality microphone
  • Set up a curated “lecture space” from which to broadcast
  • Recorded lecture videos in advance so I can use the lecture hour for discussion
  • Used breakout rooms in Teams to let the students discuss among themselves

All of these seem like good ideas.

So far (but I am still in the part of both courses where the material isn’t too hard) the students and I seem to find this… OK. My handwriting is somewhat worse on the tablet than it is on the blackboard and it’s not great on the blackboard. The only student who has told me they prefer online is one who reports being too shy to speak in class, sometimes too shy even to attend, and who feels more able to participate by typing in the chat window with the camera turned off. That makes sense!

I have it easy — these courses have only thirty students each, so the logistical work of handling student questions, homework, etc. isn’t overwhelming. Teaching big undergraduate courses presents its own problems. What happens with calculus quizzes? In the spring it was reported that cheating was universal (there are lots of websites that will compute integrals for you in another window!) So we now have a system called Honorlock which inhabits the student’s browser, watches IP traffic for visits to cheating sites, and commandeers the student’s webcam (!) to check whether their eye motions indicate cheating (!!) This sounds awful and frankly kind of creepy and not worth it. And the students, unsurprisingly, hate it. But then how does assessment work? The obvious answer is to give exams which are open book and which measure something more contentful about the material than can be tested by a usual quiz. I can think of two problems:

  • Fluency with the basic manipulations (of both algebra and calculus) is actually one of the skills the class is meant to impart: yes, there are things a computer can do it’s good to be able to do mentally. (I don’t think I place a complicated trig substitution in this category, but knowing that the integral of x^n is on order x^{n+1}, yes.
  • Tests that measured understanding would be different from and a lot harder than what students are used to! And this is a crappy time to be an undergraduate. I don’t think it’s a great idea for their calculus course to become, without warning, much more difficult than the one they signed up for.
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3 thoughts on “Pandemic blog 34: teaching on the screen

  1. Richard Séguin says:

    I was recently faced with buying a microphone for videoconferencing with my voice therapist (I’ve had problems with hoarseness!) and discovered that microphones popular with podcasters, YouTubers, and others, are mostly backordered right now or cost a lot more than they did a few months ago. Microphones are another market distorted by the pandemic with so many people videoconferencing now! You might need to also buy a “pop filter” if your voice tends to produce pops in the microphone.

    Some possibilities for USB microphones:

    Blue Yeti microphones – possibly overrated
    Rode NT-USB
    Marantz Professional MPM-2000U
    Fifine K670B – inexpensive, sounds pretty good, but has lower S/N ratio than the above

    Some of these can even be used by your iPad, and if they draw too much current, you can use an adapter to charge at the same time you’re using the microphone. However, we discovered that the microphone in my iPad Air is itself pretty good — the voice therapist was surprised.

  2. Mauro Artigiani says:

    I’m teaching an abstract algebra course, full online. I prepare in advance slides and short (max 10 minutes) videos with Loom. The idea is for students to watch videos, read slides and relevant book pages BEFORE class. Classes are for revisions and discussions. Moreover, I always split them in groups of 3-4 students and ask them to solve some relevant exercise which we later discuss together.
    It seems to me that things are going relatively well, given the circumstances.

  3. Julie says:

    A third problem with open book exams is that there are cheating sites that– for a fee– will even complete your carefully thought out, contentful questions…

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