Gas station without pumps

2020 March 13

Ending a tough quarter and starting a tougher one

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:56
Tags: , , ,
Winter 2020 has been a tough quarter—we had 2 labs and 3 lectures (10% of the course) cancelled by the administration, and students had difficulty getting to class on some other days.
One of the labs and one of the lectures were cancelled because of the grad student strike.  I held the class and the lab section anyway, but they were not official meetings, so attendance was sparse.
The other two lectures were forced to be remotely taught, because of precautions about COVID-19 (for which there are now 7 known cases in our county of 250,000).  I ended up cancelling both lectures—replacing one with an online version of the quiz that they would have taken in class and doing a trial run of using Zoom for online presentation for the other.  The lab was also officially cancelled, but I was there for both lab sections and we had about half the usual attendance.
As of this morning we are remote-only for lectures and discussions until the end of Spring quarter.  It is not clear whether lab and studio classes will be allowed to run in-person or not.
Lecturing remotely is going to be a pain—I’m used to being a big-blackboard lecturer, and being constrained to a tiny screen will be hard. For today I tried using my wife’s easel to hold a 2′ by 4′ whiteboard in front of my desktop machine.  That was not entirely successful—the contrast was a bit too low and the writing too small of the screen and the few students who attended the Zoom session had difficulty reading it.
I expected the whiteboard to cause problems, but they were probably less than the problems I had using a mouse or Wacom tablet to use the Zoom whiteboard when I practiced this morning.  I may try getting an iPad to use as a drawing tablet—I think I can use the Zoom whiteboard if my drawing appears at the tip of the pen, rather than on a separate screen.  My hand-eye coordination is not good enough to draw or write legibly if I can’t see what I’m writing or have to look somewhere other than where my hand is.
One of my students suggested an in-development app for using the physical whiteboard. I’m not sure how much an app would help here, as I won’t have a camera operator to zoom and pan, and I can’t divide my attention between presenting the material and fussing with the camera settings. The whiteboard is already too small, and zooming in would make the usable part even smaller.  Part of the problem is just that screens are much tinier windows than blackboards or whiteboards.  So I will have to learn a whole new lecturing style—one based on having a tiny peephole rather than a 40′ blackboard that I can move around on. 
I don’t want to do canned lectures with pre-prepared slides—I already did the pre-prepared presentation in writing the book, and I don’t lecture that well from slides.  (When I prepared slides for research talks, it generally took me 8 hours to prepare a 20-minute talk, so I don’t have time to prepare 32.5 hours of lectures.) 
Many of my lectures this quarter never got to the material that I had planned to cover—I spent the entire time addressing questions that the students felt was more urgent.  That is what my improvisational lecturing style is good for, and I fear that the online format will be particularly cramping.
For Spring quarter, the labs could be run from home, but each student would need about $400 of lab equipment (Analog Discovery 2, solder station, and fume extractor)—we currently have only enough for about half the class, and no easy way to get the equipment to the students nor have it returned by the students. It will also be hard to help the students learn to debug, as it will be very difficult to help them figuring out that their wiring doesn’t match their schematic remotely.
If students have to work individually, instead of in randomly assigned pairs changing for each lab, a big chunk of the benefit of the class is lost.  Also the grading load for me would double, which I cannot handle (40 lab reports every two weeks exceeded my capabilities last Spring—50 every two weeks would not be possible).
They’ve already cancelled all labs for the first week of Spring quarter (costing me 10% of the lab time even if nothing else changed), with no word on whether the labs have to go remote or not.  They aren’t promising any answers until the end of next week, which may be a bit too late for any planning.
What might be best is for my course to be rescheduled from Spring to Fall (swapping which quarter I take sabbatical).  That would give enough time for planning if the COVID-19 restrictions are still in place, or for in-person labs if they aren’t.  It would be hard on students that planned to graduate this spring, and there are too many courses scheduled for next fall already, but of all the terrible options, this one might be least bad.

If I were a college student, I’d request a leave of absence for Spring quarter and hope that next fall things will have been figured out.



  1. If you go the iPad route, make sure to use the Apple Pencil or a similar pressure sensitive pen. Also get a textured screen protector, otherwise writing on the screen will feel totally unnatural and your writing will suck. I personally recommend the PaperLime screen protector, best I’ve found to date.

    I also use prepared graphics slides with diagrams on the so I can minimize how much writing I have to do. I find myself circling components and drawing ephemeral arrows a lot, then erasing them to clean up the diagram.

    Comment by Rich — 2020 March 16 @ 17:16 | Reply

    • Thanks for the advice. I have to make a decision soon about whether to try to go to remote labs (which will be difficult to set up, as BELS doesn’t have the equipment to ship to students, nor the personnel) or to delay the course until the fall, swapping when I take my sabbatical quarter. Delaying to fall would make things easier, whether fall is done in-person or remotely, as there will be time to plan, rather than having to everything at the last minute.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2020 March 16 @ 17:34 | Reply

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