Friday, December 31, 2021

End of the Year Reflection

It has been more than 20 months since we went completely remote due to the pandemic. I still remember the chaos and panic when we started all this in March 2020. I think all of us thought that this would be short and will last only a few months. Boy were we wrong.

I had never wanted to be an online instructor, and I do not see how an effective physics instruction can be done via such a means, even when I was aware that many schools have online general physics courses. I was skeptical on how well a student can learn from such a format.

But when force to teach remotely, I had to train myself into being an online instructor. I already knew back then that I cannot simply transpose all my usual face-to-face (f2f) way of teaching and bring it online. It didn't work for the rest of the Spring 2020 semester, and I was highly unsatisfied with my own performance. I knew I had to do something, and that meant forcing myself to be trained as a certified, online instructor. I want to learn what has been know to work and effective, and what doesn't.

At the institution that I am at, the requirement to be certified as an online instructor involves passing two selected online courses offered by Quality Matters. Then, to complete the certification, an in-house courses on using our learning management system (LMS). I will admit that they were all extremely useful and gave me a different mindset on online learning. I knew that online courses is a different beast than f2f classes, but there's a lot more "psychological" consideration with online learning, both synchronous and asynchronous. It is why trying to apply f2f format to remote learning will not be very effective.

I became a certified online instructor at the end of Summer 2020. Since then I've applied many of the techniques, philosophy, and methodology of remote learning to the courses that I had taught in the subsequent semesters. I went from being uncomfortable and unfamiliar with remote teaching to actually liking it! It got my creative juices flowing as I continue to think of various ways to increase students' engagement in the course.

And that word, "engagement", became the central theme that I've learned as an remote instructor. While I used to think of "class participation" as something I want the students to be active in in f2f classes, it is now a more general concept of student engagement that is more important. Class participation is only one type of student engagement, and I learned of how I could get students to be engaged in a subject matter under remote learning modality. I realized that I spent a lot of time thinking of various things and activities that students can do or participate in, either synchronously or asynchronously, to keep that focused on the material or as means to get them to understand the material. Oh sure, it took a lot of time and effort in the beginning to come up with these things, but from the evaluation feedback that I received, they seem to be quite effective.

Technology-wise, I find that it is no longer a major issue to interact with students in answering their questions or showing them how to solve problems. I will either post my hand-written work on the course's LMS page, or if it is a synchronous session, I used my iPad and an app called AirSketch to mirror my iPad onto my computer and voila! I have a "pen and paper" capability to show my students, similar to being at a whiteboard.

For me, one of the most useful suite of online resources is the Google Office apps. I make use of Jamboard, Google Slides, and Google Documents for students to work either on their own or in a group during breakout sessions. I've even assigned graded tasks for them to solve using Google Slides where I post a problem and they have to work together to show their solution. Often, these are accompanied by a task they have to complete using PhET web applications and other simulations.

One of the most difficult part of going remote is the labs. We were not prepared for this, so unlike schools that already have established online presences, we do not have kits to give out to students so that they can continue doing physics experiments at home. We end up relying on either simulations, virtual experiments, or other means. Along this path, I discovered Pivot Interactives, which in my opinion, is one of the best alternatives to doing labs online. This is because this is not a simulation. It is an actual experiment, but done by someone else. A students is left with the tools to measure various parameters. So the result is almost like what the student would get if he/she were to perform the experiment itself, meaning that the data have all the uncertainties and errors in a typical actual measurement. I have more to say about this in an upcoming post.

During the pandemic, I upgraded many of my equipment. I replaced my old MacBook Air with the new M1 MacBook Air (so much faster!), and added a few other accessories to enhance my synchronous session, including a ring light. Here's a look at my current setup (and yes, I do have two different notebook computers that I use frequently).

I think that as far as the quality of my video during Zoom, we are good! I had students who told me that I look like one of those TV news readers. I hope they were referring to my video quality rather than how droll and dry my presentation was. 😁

While this is all well and dandy, my skepticism of online/remote learning has not gone away. This is especially true in terms of assessment. I still believe that online cheating is too easy and too rampant. I had to work extra hard in reducing (not eliminating) the chances of cheating during my exams. Forget about using questions given by the textbook publishers because those can easily be found online, especially on Chegg. All of my exams are questions that I had to formulate on my own. And it never fail to amaze me how a student who scored 20/20 on a homework will crash badly in an exam that contained questions similar to that found on that homework. And yes, I have found questions that I had formulated in an exam given just a few weeks before now appearing online verbatim, even including the sketch that I made. It means that I can't even recycle my own questions in future exams.

I am aware that there are several proctoring method that can be done with remote learning, but many of them sound rather creepy and Big-Brother-ie to me. I do not want those things installed on my computer, so why should I force my students to have them. The way I reduced the degree of cheating in my exams is to inform the students in advance that all the exams will have limited time, will open only within a certain period of time, and all the questions will be out of my head. With this, I hoped that they will realize that even if they copied from other sources to do the homework, they will at least try to understand what was done in the solution rather than doing a blind copy. I've only had limited success so far with this.

As 2021 closes, it looks like I will have to start appearing on campus. The labs will now be done f2f while the rest of the instruction will still be done remotely. I also have the option of having exams done in class rather than remotely, so maybe that will eliminate issues of cheating with the exam. What is different now than in March 2020 is that I no longer have that apprehension of teaching remotely. While I will continue with my own personal and professional development as an instructor, I think that I am now well-equipped to handle remote instructions. During these past 20 months, I've acquired both the skills and the technology to deliver lessons online effectively, even if I'd rather things go back to the way they were (don't we all?).

Happy New Year, everyone!


Monday, December 20, 2021

You Might Get $50 Had You Read This Professor's Syllabus

The amusing story going around right now is the report on CNN about a professor hiding an information about how a student could get $50 if he/she read his course's syllabus and found the instruction on where to find the money. At the end of the semester, when the professor went back to the money's location, the $50 was still there!

The hint read: "Thus (free to the first who claims; locker one hundred forty-seven; combination fifteen, twenty-five, thirty-five), students may be ineligible to make up classes and ..."
This would have led students to a locker that contained a $50 bill, free to the first student to claim it.
But at the end of the semester, when he went to check the locker, the bill was still there.
Frankly, I'm not surprised (is anyone surprised by this?). I've always assumed that students do not read the syllabus given to them at the beginning of the semester. This is why (i) I go over the syllabus on the first day of class where I point out the important parts of it, and (ii) my first quiz of the semester requires that they find the answer from the syllabus itself (i.e. "What date is Exam 2?").

I put out a very detailed syllabus. Major parts of it are dictated and required by the school. But other  parts include important requirement on what they students must do. I also include a detailed calendar of when topics or chapters of the text will be covered, what are due each week, and when the exams are scheduled. Basically the entire semester has been laid out at the beginning. I find this to be extremely useful after we went remote, because it became very clear on what tasks and assignments the students have to complete each week and when they are due. They did not have to contact me for most of the questions they had about the course.

However, it isn't unusual for me to still get, in the middle of the semester, students asking when the next exam will be held, what is the weight given to homework, etc.. etc., all information that the students can find in the syllabus. I often tell them that these are all information that they could find in the syllabus, and only then do I give them the answers.

Now, to be fair to the students, because of all the stuff we have to include in the syllabus, it has gotten rather long. With the course scheduled and the course learning outcome and student learning outcome all included, my syllabus for this Fall 2021 is 13 pages long. I can certainly understand if a student just does not have the patience to read every minute detail of the document, which is why I spend that first class of the semester going over the important highlights that they must know or be aware of. I can certainly see why this professor got his $50 back if the information is buried somewhere in the many pages of information. But then again, he could also have buried it in between some very pertinent piece of information.

If you are a student, the moral of the story here is that, no matter how tedious and unimportant it seems, just spend some time readying the syllabus. It gives you an important overview of the course, and maybe even what the instructor expects out of you. Who knows, you might be lucky enough to find some lunch money!


Sunday, December 12, 2021

Impact of community masking on COVID-19

I find legislation that prevents mask mandates or requirements to be extremely irresponsible and abhorrent. These are made without regards to public safety and in contradiction to overwhelming scientific evidence that showed that wearing proper mask is one of the most effective means to reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19.

I have presented several posts on this blog on the various scientific studies in support of this. Now comes another one that leave no doubt on the effectiveness of masking in reducing the virus transmission. This was very recently published in Science (a very prestigious and difficult journal to publish in, if you don't know this already), and is done across several villages and on a population of more than 300,000 adults in Bangladesh.

We designed our trial to encourage universal mask-wearing at the community level, rather than mask-wearing among only those with symptoms. We encouraged even healthy individuals to wear masks since a substantial share of COVID-19 transmission stems from asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic individuals, and masks may protect healthy wearers by reducing the inhalation of aerosols or droplets.

When you read this paper, keep this in mind. It is one thing to show scientifically of how masks reduces the spread of aerosols from our mouth and nose. This has been shown clearly and without any doubt base on the many publications and studies that I have highlighted so far. But it is another to show that it does have an impact STATISTICALLY when applied to large population. This latter part is more difficult because it involves a lot of variables. It is why this latest study is very important because it is one of the larger sampling of human population involved in masking (or lack thereof) to reduce the spread of the virus.

The sign of a valid idea is that the more you study it, the more convincing it becomes. Pseudosciences lack this kind of progression, where they continue to struggle getting to First base to prove that such-and-such even exists. In the case of the effectiveness of wearing proper mask to reduce COVID-19 transmission, the more we study it, the more the evidence we gather to point this to be valid, that wearing mask has been shown unequivocally to reduce the risk of the virus transmission.