Remote version of Physics 132 in response to COVID-19

TL;DR: My syllabus addendum for the second half of the semester can be found at this link. For comparison and reference, the original syllabus is at this link. (I hate it when people bury the information you really need behind a bunch of stuff. Recipe websites, I am looking at you! I don’t want your entire life story.)

March 9-13: what a week before spring break! At the beginning of the week, things were very much up in the air. By Wednesday morning the other four colleges in the 5-College Consortium (Amherst, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, and Smith) had all closed for the semester, with UMass still undecided. Then, mid-day on Wednesday, we found out (via the Boston Globe!) that UMass would be doing remote learning for essentially all undergraduate courses for the two weeks after spring break until April 3. By Friday, it was announced that all courses (including graduate courses) were to go remote until the end of the semester and all faculty were to avoid campus as much as possible.

How to teach a two sections of a team-based learning class with a total enrollment of 458 remotely? Moreover, what about those students who may not have internet off campus, are in time-zones with 11 hour time differences, or now have new additional responsibilities? One of the things you quickly learn about teaching large courses: minimizing special cases is key. You simply cannot deal with each student individually. There are simply not enough hours in the week. You must find systems that work for most people giving you the bandwidth to deal with the individual students who most need your attention.

In my class, the material that can be placed into short videos already has: those videos form my prep homework. Replacing class with a series of video lectures and online homework would rob my students of yet one more community they have; I know for a fact that some of the teams in my course have become quite close. I cannot rob them of that right now.

So how to do this while at the same time acknowledging that many of my students are working under less-than-ideal circumstances? A combination of synchronous and asynchronous delivery modes. There are a few small carrots to attending the synchronous modes, but no punishments for not being able to attend them. This encourages students to attend the synchronous modes if they can, but allows for other options for those who cannot. Finally, I thought a “syllabus” was important, I want to be as clear to my students as I can to try to put their minds at ease.

We will see how this goes.

Pretending to be a biologist for a day!

This past Saturday, Brokk Toggerson participated in the ASBMB Northeast Catalyst Conversations for 2020 at UMass Amherst as a panelist talking about OER. In particular, about the gradual transition from OpenStax to, a stack of pdfs, to the custom books we have now developed. The biggest hurdle to many faculty is, as it was for us, the online homework systems. Our experience with EdFinity seemed well received.

In addition to being on a panel, it was interesting to see some work from the biology DBER community as well. Some interesting ideas over lunch with Sarah G. Prescott, an Associate Professor from UNH Manchester, resulted in some ideas about how to better implement Twitter in the classroom. This was tried in 132 a few years ago, without much success. The students found the assignments to be “busy work” and there were significant technical challenges getting everyone setup. However, the motivation for the assignments, encouraging students to find applications of physics in their everyday lives or fields of study is still important. Prof Prescott’s main ideas were:

  • Make each assignment relevant or don’t do it (obvious but always good advice!)
  • Make the first few assignments simply about engaging with academic Twitter. This will make the entire activity more relevant to them as they can see how this can benefit them.
  • Have screen captures etc. about how to get setup, including how to make a dummy account.
  • Make students turn-in a screen shot. Again, a video on how to do this may be needed, but these are much easier to grade than us finding students’ posts on Twitter!
  • Grade using a mastery model: they must include everything or no points. This is easy to grade and scales well. A few drops ensures that this does not negatively impact anyone’s grade.
  • Finally make the the technical use of Twitter part of the assignments: threads, hashtags, etc.

Definitely something to think about going forward. Always fun to see how other disciplines do things!

Discussion of Open Textbooks in the NYTimes

NYTimes Opinion 11 December 2019 – How Professors Help Rip Off Students: Textbooks are too expensive.

Another interesting article from the NYTimes related to our work here at the physedgroup. This most recent article talks about the fact that textbook prices have increased over 1000% since the 1970’s! The article specifically talks about economics, but many of the details mentioned are relevant to physics as well: $250 books, with $50 access codes for homework systems, all familiar refrains for undergraduates taking physics courses.

Continue reading “Discussion of Open Textbooks in the NYTimes”

An article in the NYTimes on equity in classrooms

I Was a Low-Income College Student. Classes Weren’t the Hard Part from the September 10th New York Times, is an excellent piece by Anthony Abraham Jack, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, on his experience as a low-income student at our neighbor: Amherst College. The article articulates several, perhaps less commonly considered, challenges that students with lower incomes face in the college environment. What can we do within the structure of our classrooms to mitigate some of these challenges? A few thoughts from our experiences here at UMass

Moving to free and open textbooks and homework systems. In physics 131 and 132, I use a custom free-and-open educational resources. These textbooks reduce the cost down to $35 for access to the online homework system. This cost is quite low compared to other courses on campus. However, even so, I still usually have a handful of students who come to me asking for an extension on the first homework because they need to wait for a paycheck to afford this. Fortunately, I can make an arrangement with the textbook company who manages the homework system to get a temporary access.

A bias still exists, however. I can only help those students who come forward and ask for it. I have also experienced students who, at the end of the semester (when students start to calculate their grades), come forward and tell me. I, of course, make allowances, but my range of options reduces as the semester progresses.

While I am currently working to develop a system that will be completely free-to-students, until that project is finished, I will make a note in my syllabus explicitly inviting students to see me if they are having financial challenges that prevent them from accessing this required resource.

Another important consideration is the fact that students with lower incomes, almost uniformly, must work. These additional scheduling constraints, also an issue for students with familial obligations, can make attending traditional office hours a challenge. These issues are why we offer a TA-staffed consultation room with a wide variety of hours, including later in the evening. Since moving from individually selected office hours to this more centralized system, we have observed an increase in office hour usage.