Thursday, December 31, 2020

E&M Lab Manual for Virtual Classes

This appeared on arXiv on Christmas day. It is a series of lab manual for intro E&M virtual experiment suitable for online courses.

The pdf document itself contains the just the lab instruction. Most of the virtual experiments made use of the applications found in PhET. It is in the abstract that we get a bit of an explanation. The authors claim that:

Student learning outcomes (understand, apply, analyze and evaluate) were studied with detailed lab reports and end of the semester lab-based written exam which confirmed the virtual lab class was as effective as the in-person physical lab class. 

Unfortunately, they provided no evidence or data to support this, at least not in the document.

In my lessons, I try to incorporate the "experiment" as part of the lecture itself. So I had students perform one part of the virtual experiment, and then we discuss the outcome before they write down their observations. Then we move on to the next topic or examples before we come back to doing more of the simulation or measurement. So in many cases, the students encounter both the theory and the observation at almost the same time. The exception being when we did Lenz's and Faraday's law, where I actually gave the students the equipment and instruction, and let them discover for themselves the induced current and how the induced current behave with changing magnetic fields. So they observed the phenomenon first before they learned about the theory.

In any case, this set of lab instruction might be useful to be adapted to my remote classes. We'll see how that goes this coming Spring.


Thursday, December 24, 2020

Happy Holidays and a Better 2021

It has been a crazy year! I think I've posted the least amount of posts in this blog this year than any other year since I started this eons ago. There have been just way too much distraction and pressure coming from all the workload and learning new stuff that I had to just to be an effective instructor. It doesn't help that I think my teaching workload felt like it doubled for remote classes. I'm doing almost twice as much for remote courses than I do for in-person classes. It's crazy!

And I'm sure that students similarly felt a different set of burden and pressure with remote courses. The course feedback that I've received, even though overall they were positive, clearly reflected the frustrations the students have with remote learning and the way different remote courses were ran.

Looking into 2021, I know that we will be totally remote once again for Spring 2021. While I was more prepared to face Fall 2020, I am even more well-prepared for Spring 2021. I know the adjustments that I need to make, and I know things that I need to change. I will also be trying new stuff. Remote labs are something that I continue to struggle with. Honestly, I prefer the official online courses' approach to labs where they send kits to students, and we designed experiments for the students to do at home. However, these courses that I've been teaching are not online courses, but rather face-to-face (f2f) courses that had been forced to be delivered remotely due to the pandemic. So we have no kits. We rely on online simulation as "labs".

But in Spring 2021, I am going to adopt the lab environment of Pivot Interactives. A couple of our faculty members used it extensively this past semester, and they had good things to say about it. I've given it a test drive, and I can see how this may be as close to an actual experiment as it can get without actually physically doing it. Any of you out there use Pivot Interactives? What do you think of it?

Anyhow, with the possibility of the vaccine looming on the horizon for everyone sometime in 2021, there is a glimmer of hope that things will start moving back to "normal", whatever that may look like. So if you are celebrating the holidays at this time of the year, I wish you a wonderful holiday season and a significantly better 20201. Thank you for reading this blog and letting me indulge in spewing my thoughts into the ethereal world of the internet.


Saturday, December 19, 2020

Flipping Your Remote Classroom

I wrote just a few days ago about my effort in continuing my flipped classroom when we went into the remote mode (as opposed to being in an online class mode which is totally run asynchronously). I then ran across this article out of UC-Berkeley about doing the exact same thing.

It definitely seems consistent that for a flipped classroom, there should be a synchronous part, otherwise it doesn't make any sense. And it is nice to see the different variations of a remote flipped classroom, which gives me more ideas on how I can further tweak my own classes.

Do you run a remote flipped classroom? How do you do it?


Friday, December 18, 2020

Intro Physics for Life Sciences

I came across this article out of Michigan State University, about the issue of teaching intro physics to life science majors. I find it rather interesting (amusing?) that this is still an issue being discussed at many large universities when smaller universities and community colleges have long focused on designing such courses for these life sciences/pre-med majors.

Without naming names, I know of 3 major universities in the Chicago area that do NOT have special intro physics courses for such majors. They lump them with the same group of students majoring in physics, chemistry and engineering. So not only are they required to know calculus in those calculus-based intro physics courses, but also they are competing with students whose major are more closely aligned with physics. It is why many of these life-science majors often opted to pay for these courses at city colleges and community colleges and get their transfer credits.

I had written something on this two years ago about teaching physics to life-science/pre-med majors. I am more convinced than ever, just as stated in the article, that you cannot teach this as you normally would to physical science/engineering students. It helps that the course was designed for life-science majors (we used text that are full of examples out of biology, medicine, etc.), but the course objectives and learning outcomes are generic and not specific to these majors. At the curriculum level, there is still a disconnect between the students' need and the official objectives of the course. As an instructor, I am bound by the course objectives and learning outcomes, but of course, I have leeway in implementing those. That means that I try to emphasize more on the topics that are more relevant to their needs and more applicable to life sciences than others. As the article pointed out, while planetary motion and central force problems are part of physics (and part of the course objectives), I do not emphasize it as much as I would in a calc-based physics class.

There can be more refinement and improvement in the design of courses for these students, making them even more relevant to their area of studies. This can only lead to a win-win situation, where the students will actually see the value and connection between physics and biology/medicine, and we can motivate the students more easily on the importance of physics in their fields. I see nothing wrong with that at all.


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Flipped Classroom Under Remote Learning

In my normal face-to-face (f2f) classes, I ran them as flipped classroom. I had the students watch videos and/or read short items related to the material for that week and have them do a short quiz on what they had viewed or read. All these before they attend the first class for that week. By they time they got to class, they should have a good idea of what the material is about.

In class, I went over the salient point of the material, and did a few examples. I also did polls on the topic to gauge how much they had understood the material. When those are done, I gave them a list of problems where they will work in groups to solve them.

Fast forward to the present day, where we have gone online with our classes. The school where I'm at tried to distinguish courses that were already designed to be online courses, versus courses that were f2f classes, but were forced to go online due to COVID. The school called those latter courses as "remote", to distinguish them from "online". While there was no mandate to do so, they recommend that remote courses be taught with large synchronous component, preferably live during the published class time. In other words, try to make it as close to f2f session as possible via the synchronous sessions.

All of my classes so far have been "remote" classes, although I have signed up to teach an online course next semester since I am now qualified to teach online classes after all that training that I went through during the summer. And for all of them, I have kept the flipped classroom model. The students had to watch videos or read the material, and did the short quiz, all before our first synchronous session of the week. During our synchronous session, I covered the major points of the material, did a few examples, did polls, and then I assigned then to breakout rooms to work on various problems.

It worked similar to the f2f format except that I couldn't see what they were working on. In a regular f2f class, I could see their work since they use a whiteboard slate to do their work, and I could hear them discussing the problem with one another. In the remote format, I could only jump from one breakout room to the next, but I couldn't see what they had done. They would tell me if they had problems, but other than that, I could only rely on what they tell me. It was not as informative as I wanted to.

But the students seemed to think that this was effective. I had my own survey at the end of the semester, and a few of the questions were directly related to the flipped format, especially on what I called the "prelecture" items (videos/reading material, and the quick quiz). An overwhelming majority of students from this past semester (Fall 2020) seemed to like having the prelectures and found them to be useful! A smaller majority of students (but still a majority) found the polls and the breakout room exercises to be useful.

I think that this is one of those pre-COVID teaching methodology that may work rather well in the remote setting IF there is a regular synchronous component that resembles a class session. It makes no sense if the class is purely asynchronous, since most of the material are online already and there are no "lectures" for there to be "prelectures". But for the "remote" modality that the school has defined, the prelectures work in almost the same way as in a f2f class, and from the feedback that I received, the students seem to find them useful. I may have to work some more on making the polls and breakout room activities more beneficial to them, but in some respect, parts of it may be out of my control since those also depend on the participation of the members of their group.

In the end, I'm pretty happy to know that some resemblance of the flipped classroom model appears to be effective in the remote classes with regularly-scheduled synchronous sessions. Since Spring 2021 promises to be more of the same, it is something that I'm going to keep on doing, with a few refinements here and there.


Friday, December 11, 2020

Forcing A Square Peg Through A Round Hole

 Many of us survived another semester of remote or online learning. Phew!

Unlike Spring 2020, Fall 2020 remote learning wasn't as problematic and disastrous, mainly because many of us were expecting it, and knew what to expect. In my case, I mentioned earlier that I spent the entire summer getting trained as an online instructor, mainly because I want to learn about some of the best-practice method of teaching online. I honestly do not want to be an online instructor because I much prefer the standard face-to-face (f2f) instruction modality. But the reality right now is that many classes are being taught remotely, and I need to have the knowledge and skill to deliver lessons that way.

Having chatted (via Zoom) with a few colleagues from my dept. during a number of online meeting, I was shocked (or maybe I shouldn't have) at how many of my fellow faculty members think that remote lessons are simply the same as f2f lessons, but delivered remotely or online. I've even had one instructor telling me that he was trying to make his remote classes to mimic his f2f classes as closely as he can!

Regardless of how logical or effective that is, let's look at what are the facts here. Remote classes are already significantly DIFFERENT than f2f classes in a number of elements: locations, in-person contacts, immediate and direct response, and on-site actions. In other words, remote/online lessons are a completely different beast than f2f lessons. So what is the rational for treating them to be the same thing?

The one very clear message that I received during the several workshops and training I did over the summer is that if you treat remote lessons the same way as f2f lessons, your classes will SUCK! Even the layout of the learning management system (LMS) page has to be redesigned to make it more obvious and easier to navigate, because this is where the students will have to go to to find stuff. Items need to be there at their fingertips because no one is around for them to ask to get immediate feedback.

One issue that was brought up during my conversation with my colleagues is the issue of student engagement. Instructors were lamenting that their students often do not turn on their cameras during their synchronous sessions, often do not actively participate during those sessions, etc. They consider this as lack of engagements and want to know how to increase the sense of "community" and participation.

I told them that maybe what they are using to gauge student engagement is rather limited to what they are familiar with in f2f classes. For online/remote learning, student involvement includes more than just participation during synchronous session. It can also mean participation in asynchronous activities. This is where group projects, discussion forums, etc.. count as student engagement. In the effort to make their remote classes as close to f2f classes, many instructors forego other viable means of online student engagement activities, simply because they were either not aware of such means, or they do not see the importance or significance of such means. But these other means have been shown in many studies to be effective, if done properly, to engage students and keep them interested in the subject matter. These other means may not have been necessary in f2f environment, but we are not there now. It is now a different beast, and it requires different means to achieve the same goal.

For many of us who did have the online instruction training, we learned quite a few valuable lessons and philosophy in using online and remote tools in delivering instructions. In fact, most of us think that we will continue using many of these online tools even when we go back to fully f2f classes. I would certainly like to continue having Zoom office hours, because it gives quite a flexibility in scheduling meetings with students at various times even when I'm not on campus. I also now have sufficient tools to be able to show a "pen and paper" solution online when students need help. And I know that my LMS page is significantly improved compared to when I had it for my f2f classes. There are a lot of things that I will continue to do even when we go back to "normal".

But the moral of the story here is that instructors need to be aware that remote classes is NOT the same as f2f classes delivered remotely. They can't be the same. Forcing it to be is trying to force a square peg into a round hole, and then wondering why it doesn't go through.


Sunday, December 06, 2020

The Sad Ending of Aricebo Observatory

It was less than a month ago, on a Nov. 19, 2020 report, that the National Science Foundation announced the closure of the famed Aricebo Observatory in Puerto Rico due to structural and safety problems. Unfortunately, on Dec. 1, 2020, the collapse of the central structure happened, with dramatic footage released by the observatory.

While the famed telescope is gone, it will live forever in many footage from movies and tv shows. This is in addition to the numerous scientific discoveries that it has made throughout its operation.