My implementation of a fully flexible Physics 132

Showing my flexible learning setup.
A fully flexible setup.
Allowing participation in-person, synchronously remote, and asynchronous is quite complex!

As described in a previous post, the relaxation of the mask mandate at UMass Amherst around spring break motivated me to introduce a third way to attend Physics 132. For some time, this course had provided students the option to either attend in-person or engage asynchronously by watching the videos of lecture recorded by Echo360 later and completing in-class quizzes within the week via Moodle. However, the lifting of the mask mandate and a general push here at UMass promoting “flex learning” motivated me to add a synchronous remote option. For the second half of the semester, therefore, there were three different ways of engaging with the course: in-person, asynchronously, and the new synchronous remote.

Key features of the course that need to be present in all the different modalities

  1. The class is taught in a flipped style: students are responsible for engaging with the fundamentals of the content before we begin the unit via reading and homework problems. Students need the ability to get help with this material.
  2. To ensure adequate mastery of the preparation, there are (almost) daily one-question quizzes. Students need to be able to complete these quizzes regardless of their modality.
  3. Class time is spent in various ungraded activities including problem solving, conceptual questions. Students need to be encouraged to actively engage with the material as opposed to passively listening/watching.

How the different modalities achieve these goals


  1. Help with preparation: For those students who are physically present, we offer a slew of help hours in our help room. This room is open for significant parts of the day as shown in the schedule below. While the specific assignments for each TA are listed, any of the students in any of the service courses offered by our department can attend any hour.
  2. Engagement with quizzes: The quizzes are done via the iClicker system. This technology is the standard audience participation system at UMass and most of the students, being second and third year students, already have one. Therefore, these remotes do not imply an additional cost.
  3. Engagement with in-class activities: This goal is easiest to implement in-person. The social pressures of the room: giving dedicated time plus having myself and my TAs walk around, encourages most students to engage with the material.

Asynchronous attendance

  1. Help with preparation: In addition to the help room, we also organize Zoom-based help hours.
  2. Engagement with quizzes: In addition to the in-class quizzes, a related quiz is posted to Moodle each day. Students who do not take the quiz in class have one week to complete this quiz which has an 8min time limit.
  3. Engagement with in-class activities: Encouraging this behavior in students taking the course asynchronously is notoriously challenging. One way I tried to inspire students to go beyond just watching the videos is by segmenting them into smaller pieces and adding a card into the videos encouraging students to pause, try to solve the problem before moving on. To assist with this time consuming task, I hired a physics major with experience in video editing. This student’s physics knowledge was sufficient to figure out logical breaks.
A screenshot of the video uploaded to Echo360 system. Note the captions provided by PowerPoint, the camera of the room, and the instructions overlaid encouraging students to pause the video and solve it before moving on.
A screenshot of the video uploaded to Echo360 system. Note the captions provided by PowerPoint, the camera of the room, and the instructions overlaid encouraging students to pause the video and solve it before moving on.

Synchronous zoom-based attendance

  1. Help with preparation: the Zoom-based help hours are also useful for these students.
  2. Engagement with quizzes: UMass students who purchase an iClicker also gain free access to the cloud-based app which they can download to their mobile devices. Via the app, students can engage with the iClickers the same as students who are attending in person.
  3. Engagement with in-class activities: Students who choose this option attend class via Zoom. A single TA is assigned to manage the Zoom room: answering questions, facilitating conversation etc. The aim is for this guidance, plus the dedicated time during the class session, to promote students trying the problem as opposed to simply waiting for me to go over it.

Different ways students can move between the modalities

Primarily in-person

Some students will come to almost every class of their own volition. Others like to have some extrinsic motivator to encourage their attendance. For both of these groups, I offer the opportunity to join in-class teams which I organize via the CATME system which helps ensure equitable team formation. Students who elect to join such teams have an explicit attendance expectation enforced through the in-class quizzes; team members are limited in the number of times they can use the Moodle quizzes to four times or less during the semester. However, the various remote options are available for the occasional absence.

Significantly remote

This course is dominated by second and third year students as shown by the figure below. However, there are also a significant number of students in their final semester before graduation. Many of these students have a lot of external responsibilities: job interviews, touring graduate schools, etc. Other students have unanticipated life events that require them to be away from campus for extended periods, while still others find remote attendance to be more accessible. These students might complete a significant portion of the course remotely: either synchronously or asynchronously. These students are still encouraged to work together. However, there is no official recognition of their groups and, as such, no attendance requirement at all.

The demographic breakdown of Physics 132.

Exams and labs were still in person

As described in a previous post, the exams for this course were hosted on Moodle. Even so, given the challenges of remote proctoring, all students, including those who completed most of the rest of the course remotely were required to come to exams in person except in exceptional circumstances such as COVID-19 isolation. Moreover, remote labs are always a unique challenge. Remote labs for electronics and optics doubly so due to the equipment requirements. Therefore, all students were also required to attend lab in-person.

How it went


In terms of the technical aspects of the fully flexible course, I think it went pretty well. Students seemed to like the flexibility and things went rather smoothly. A full picture of the setup is visible at the top of this post. In general, however, the Zoom room was run by one of my TAs who was also the facilitator of collaboration. A key for this TA was to provide a separate webcam for them to use as the camera angle of most built-in laptop webcams is not very good. The sound was also passed through this laptop as sound was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” for my surface’s hardware and bandwidth. We connected a Jabber microphone to the TA’s laptop. Sound, therefore, ultimately went from my mouth through the room microphone (which recorded the sound for the Echo360 viewing later), into the Jabber, and then to Zoom. Meanwhile, my surface hosted the slides with closed captioning, a Zoom chat window (for questions during the lecture), a webcam, and a document camera for demos.


This was a bit more mixed. I had a statement of expectations (reproduced below) which students had to read and earn a 100% quiz on (unlimited attempts) in order to get the Zoom link. However, the level of engagement on Zoom was still not the same as in class. Moreover, I had almost no students turning on their cameras, an issue with which most faculty who have taught remotely will be very familiar. Finally, I am concerned that some of the students who elected to engage via Zoom were simply doing it so as to not need to come to the classroom at 9:05 or 10:10 in the morning. I suspect that many of these students may have benefited more by being present. I will look into the data from the semester and see what it says.

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Full hybrid here we come!

As mentioned in a previous post, UMass recently dropped its mask mandate. My goal is, as always, to have as many students feel comfortable in my class as possible. In this case, that means offering a way for those who may not wish (for whatever reason) to be in a large class of unmasked folks to participate. As such, I have finally taken the plunge to offer a fully hybrid option for Physics 132 for the second half of the semester. Students will now be able to participate in one of three ways:

  1. Attend class in the “old-school” way.
  2. Engage asynchronously via watching recordings of class which have been chunked into smaller pieces by my undergraduate video editor.
  3. Attend class remotely and synchronously via Zoom.

We will see how this goes!

End of Mask Mandate at UMass Amherst

Earlier this week, the faculty, staff, and students at UMass, received notification about the end of the indoor mask mandate. I am not here to discuss the validity of this decision; frankly as I am not a epidemiologist or related scientist, I do not feel qualified to make such a decision. What I think is important is that this moment had to come, and no matter when it came, there was going to be a subset of the population who would not be ready. Moreover, I do not feel it is my role to comment on folks’ motivations for not being ready: their reasons are their own. What I want to reflect on is the more practical: this happened, what can we, as instructors do about it?

Here is what I did, there is no claim that this was the best course of action, but I figured I would share in case it helps others. If someone reading this has my email and would like to provide feedback, I welcome it.

My goal is for as many students in my class to be as comfortable as possible – not an easy task in a room of 300 people. What I said was (working from memory),

“I want y’all to know that I found out at the same time as you did – I was not keeping information about the relaxation of the mask mandate from you. Moreover, I am not a epidemiologist or public health professional. I am trained as a particle physicist. Thus, I do not really feel qualified to have an opinion on whether this is the right decision at this time or not.

Regardless, this is the state we are in. My goal is for as many folks in this class to be as comfortable as possible. If you are not ready to not wear a mask in here, I will support you. If you want to take yours off, there are experts who suggest that is a reasonable thing to do. As part of making as many people comfortable working with me as possible, I will continue to wear one in class.

If you would like to move to a remote mode of delivery for this class, that is an option for you. Even if you signed up to have an attendance commitment, I am perfectly willing to remove this for you under these circumstances. Just let me know.

I have also decided that I will use the upcoming spring break to incorporate a synchronous remote option for students who are not comfortable in a large lecture hall under the new circumstances. I have been playing with this idea, but these new circumstances have forced the issue. I will make notes here going forward about how I accomplished this and how it goes.

Reflecting on Remote Physics 132

I know the blog has been quiet lately. Like so many others, I have been learning how to juggle everything in this new reality. What time I have found to share with others online has been spent on the page of remote teaching resources I have been curating.

Well, now the semester has finished and I am doing my usual reflecting on how it went and what I can do better for the next round of remote learning in the Spring 2021 semester. A lot happened, so the thoughts are long, but here they are.

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