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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Robinson

What Are We Working With?

The second thrilling installment of "Precarious Physicist: The Perils of the Pandemic".

Let’s now look at the design process for the course that I'm currently teaching.

The summer version of Physics 1007 has 13 scheduled lectures of three hours each. These used to be at 6 pm, an absolutely terrible time to teach, and to learn. As an aside: this year, before the pandemic, I'd finally managed to get the time changed to 2-5 pm, a vast improvement. I would have preferred a morning slot, but that would have clashed with some Chemistry and Neuroscience courses which my students are often taking concurrently. The typical enrollment when I started teaching it, several years ago, was 40; over recent years, the enrollment has climbed to 100-120. One advantage of teaching this course, is that usually experienced students, and dedicated students sign on. They cope with the material extremely well, although many have a great deal of anxiety at the start. Physics has a terrible reputation for being difficult. The reality is that it’s no more difficult than any other subject.

But then we got a pandemic, so we had to go online.

The first design decision was relatively simple, do I try to replicate the lectures synchronously, by using video conferencing, or record the lectures, and allow students to work asynchronous, at times of their own choosing. This was pretty easy. The literature favoured asynchronous delivery. My experience with lecture recording told me that many students in the class already did this. Finally, my home situation did not suit fixed three hour lectures, due to caregiving responsibilities, and other people needing to video conference during the day. I've also subsequently found that teaching by video conferencing is utterly exhausting, far more so than classroom teaching, so I made the right decision. Of course this sets up a massive front-end load of work, because you need to prerecord everything before you start. Don’t even think about doing this as a just-in-time task. Get it done before classes start.

Key Course Elements

The lectures were all in PowerPoint, so it was relatively easy to break them up into shorter 10-15 minute chunks for recording, and putting online.

There was already a test bank of questions for online tests, which I normally gave weekly, with 10 questions per test. These were reusable assets.

I also used to give students a weekly take-home test, with 2 or 3 long answer questions. I already had quite a few suitable questions, and I used to post the questions online. In place of collecting them in class, I needed online submission. In a small class, you might get away with submission by email. My class typically had 100 students, so it clearly had to be handled by the learning management system. Our LMS is a version of Moodle. It can handle online submission of assignments. So far so good.

Laboratory work was moved to online only, concentrating on analysis of data. There was plenty of old data to hand out, in the form of Logger Pro files. This was obviously not great, but as an emergency measure, was the best of a bad job. With longer preparation time, we could have done some simulation experiments, or prepared experimental packages to send to students.

Classroom interactions. I normally get a lot of questions whilst in the classroom before, during, and after class. In addition, I used the Poll Everywhere classroom response system to test student comprehension and encourage peer to peer discussion. So, these interactions needed to be replaced with something analogous in the online environment.

To replace this, I decided to use short (maximum one hour) video conference contact hours, daily at a fixed time. (Going synchronous here!). In addition, I decided that short, low stakes practice quizzes, graded on participation only, would take the place of the clicker exercises. This meant expanding the quiz test banks, which it turns out has a significant time overhead.

As a matter of organization of subject material, I divided things into Modules, which roughly correspond to one or two chapters in our textbook. Each Module has a number of Units in it. Each unit is a sub topic and has a lecture video associated with it.

This gave me the chance to reorganize the material into a better pedagogical sequence. Physics textbooks at the introductory level are unbelievably conservative in the order they treat topics. Indeed, they are almost identical, and I don’t like the “traditional” order. For my purposes, I clustered all circular motion topics together, and waves and sound together. These modules take topics from two textbook chapters each. If I'd had the time, I would have swapped the order of the Forces chapter and the Kinematics chapter too, but this might have been a Bridge Too Far.

So that’s the high(ish) level redesign work done.

In the next Precarious Physicist: The Perils of the Pandemic", we'll get into the details of how to implement these.

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