Friday, April 3, 2020

Some Notes: Week 1 Teaching Full Distance

A couple weeks ago faculty and students went home on a Friday for spring break week.  Over the next few days we were told we were not coming back to campus for the rest of the semester and we needed to get our courses converted to 100% distance for the rest of the spring semester. This past week was our first week back.

It has been an interesting week – frustrating at times sure but I feel like we’ve worked through a lot of the startup problems and overall right now am feeling pretty positive. Here’s a few things I’ve jotted down in no particular order.

1.     The one document instruction tip I wrote about a couple days ago is working very nicely. Students are comfortable being able to go to one place to get the most recent information and I’m not burying them with email.

2.     Making your content mobile friendly is critical. Most of my students are accessing course materials using their phones. We’re using Moodle at Holyoke Community College and the Moodle mobile app works great. Zoom runs nice on mobile.

3.     Live lectures? Recorded lectures? It does not matter. I’ve been recording (see #4) lectures and using class time on Zoom for homework problem review, general Q and A, etc.
4.     I’m recording my lectures on my iPad and posting online. I wrote about how I do this a couple years ago when I was faculty at the University of Hartford. I’m trying to stay two weeks ahead with my recordings in case I get sick.

5.     Live sessions for my circuits class are done using Zoom running on the iPad. The screen shot here is from my circuits class yesterday. Briefly (I’ll write up a post with detail on how to to this over the weekend) I share the iPad screen and launch GoodNotes, a note taking app. I use the Apple pencil to draw circuit diagrams, work through problems etc. Zoom allows sessions to be recorded and those mp4 recorded files can be posted online for student access. Sessions can also be recorded directly on the iPad. GoodNotes allows export to PDF. So during a classroom session I can:

      Write on the iPad screen while talking and recording using the GoodNotes app.
      Save the recording as an mp4 video/audio file either using Zoom or direct on iPad.
      Export my handwritten notes from GoodNotes to PDF.
      Post the mp4 file and also the PDF online for student access.

            Better than a classroom chalk or white board? I sure think so!

6.     Routine is important for us all. I’m meeting with students at the start of each class period and maintaining regular office hours. The tips I posted in an earlier post have also been very helpful.

I’ll be writing about a few of these in detail along with a bunch of other stuff.

Overall at the end of week 1 - I’m sooooo impressed with the way students, faculty, staff – every single person I’ve had contact with at Holyoke Community College has pulled together and really gone to task on this. Flipping a course midstream to distance is not easy, especially for our students. Pile the fear and unknown of COVID-19 on top of that it is all pretty daunting. So far so good!

Thanks especially to all of the great students!!

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Online Instruction Tip: Communicate But Don't Over Communicate

After spring break, most faculty and students are back in their courses online for the rest of the semester. Spring break 2020 for me was not early morning fishing and afternoon napping in Florida, it was spent in Massachusetts converting my in person lecture and laboratory classes over midstream to full online delivery.

With the transition, many of our students are overwhelmed and confused. Faculty are struggling trying to figure out how to complete a semester worth of material in the next five or six weeks, how to handle lectures, homework, exams, laboratory experiments, etc. Lots of decisions, changes in decisions..... often overwhelming change that needs to happen very fast.

The tendency for many of us faculty with each change is to over communicate. Communicate, communicate, communicate right? Make a change, fire off an email to the class. Make another change, fire off another email. Change something back, fire off another one.  You get the picture – flooded mailboxes, overwhelming and confusing our students and ourselves...... it does not work very well.

My solution is to keep a single dynamic “Rest of the Semester” Google Doc that I share with my class. Any changes I make go in that document. I have it linked up in the Learning Management System (LMS, at Holyoke Community College we use Moodle) and students understand they have one place to go to get the latest and don't have to worry about missing an email.

Each online Zoom “lecture” starts with a 5 minute review of the document, allowing students the chance to ask questions, clear up any confusion, etc. Simple and effective.  

Here’s a link to an example of a sanitized Rest of Semester document for one of my electrical engineering classes


Like all of my course materials it is a work in progress. You'll notice in the template - I like to stay two weeks ahead of the class (in case I get sick and need to take some time off, etc) but not any more than that because things can change pretty quickly these days.

Feel free to download a copy and use as a template for your classes.

I’ll be posting here with additional tips. Stay healthy and safe!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Some Things That Work For Me When I’m Working From Home


In 2014 I took an early retirement from Springfield Technical Community College and started as a Co-Director for the National Science Foundation funded National Center for Optics and Photonics Education (OP-TEC: http://www.op-tec.org)

The OP-TEC position was a little complicated with offices in Waco, Texas and funding by NSF via The University of Central Florida in Orlando.  Most of my work was done out of my home office in Massachusetts with Waco meetings once a month for a few days.

Long story short (I wrote about my path to Holyoke Community College in an earlier post) in those 4.5 years I learned a lot about working from home and today, thanks to COVID-19, find myself back in that home office. Here’s a few tips that helped me adjust:
  •           Develop and stick to a daily routine. That means getting up in the morning and taking a shower, shaving, getting dressed for work, etc.
  •          Clock your time. This was a good way for me to know when I was overdoing it. I I use an app called Klok linked here https://getklok.com/klok/   
  •           If you have the room, make a dedicated space for your work preferably with a door. I have a tendency to spread out and using something like the kitchen table is tough if you need to pack it up every day. The door helps too – inside that room is work and work has defined hours. Close it when your work is done for the day!
  •           Get yourself a timer to assure you take regular breaks. I found the Pomodoro Technique time management method works well for me. The method was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s and uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. Some call these Tomato Timers – pomodoro is tomato in Italian. Here’s a free web based one that works well https://tomato-timer.com
  •           In addition to regular breaks be sure to take time for your regular meals. Take time, don't wolf down the food and hydrate with your meals.
  •           Don't go nuts with those snacks :) 
  •           Hydrate, especially with water. I have a tendency to hit the coffee machine a bit too much and have learned if I’ve always got a glass of water next to me I drink a lot more water and a lot less less coffee.
  •           Exercise. Maybe you have some equipment at home you can use. It is a great way to take a break and clear your mind. Taking walks (with social distancing under current situation) works well for me even if it is just to the mailbox and back. It is also a beautiful time of year to get outside.
Working and learning from home can be pretty stressful so getting into a routine is so important for faculty, students, etc. These tips have really helped me adjust again to the home office.

Hoping this thing is over soon and everyone stays safe and healthy.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

The Amazing Lynn Barnett

[note: Post title lifted from an email subject line.]

I’ve had the opportunity to meet many great people over the years. Lynn Barnett who
passed away yesterday morning was one of the greatest….

Lynn blue badge sitting with a bunch of trouble makers.
My guess is she was telling us to get our act together :)
Around 2000 at AACC meeting in Chicago.
It was 1997 and we were in the middle of the dot com boom. Microsoft had announced a program in collaboration with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). The program was called Working Connections and paired 5 mentor colleges from across the country with what became 63 mentee colleges, helping them setup programs, develop courses, help faculty prepare to teach new courses, build laboratory spaces, recruit and retain students, apply for grants, etc. I was teaching at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) and very interested in this program. Lots of meetings at the time with some other great ones (STCC President Andy Scibelli and VP John Dunn are a couple) and after a lot of back and forth we decided to apply for one of the 5 mentor slots. We knew it was a bit of a long shot but….. our proposal was accepted and we became a mentor college! The mystery lead responsible for the program at the AACC was a VP by the name of Lynn Barnett.  

At the same time I was shifting gears from my full time/load faculty position at STCC to a position with a newly funded National Science Foundation Center of Excellence, the National Center for Telecommunications Technologies (NCTT) located at STCC. A couple years earlier the NSF had established the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program that focused on two year Associate Degree level STEM education. AACC was closely tied with the NSF and the new ATE program honcho at AACC was – you guessed it – this mystery VP by the name of Lynn Barnett.

I remember thinking who is this VP Lynn Barnett? Two pretty important and high profile national programs. I was new to the community college grant stuff and had no idea what to expect. What did I get myself into? Should I go back to teaching? Hmmmm….. I’ve got to at least check this stuff out. Let me meet this VP Lynn Barnett – she will be key in my decisions…. Find out what she is like…. Is she the kind of person I could work with?

In March 1998 we had our first Working Connections meeting at Microsoft. I had talked to Lynn on the phone and gone back and forth with her by email. She seemed ok but…. let’s see what she is like in person. So – I packed up a couple of suits and ties (remember those?) and flew out to Seattle for our first meeting. Shuttled over to the hotel in downtown Seattle and, being dressed rather casual, recall thinking I hope I don't end up meeting anyone important in the lobby. Walk in the door and this woman dressed in jeans, flannel shirt and fleece looks at me and says “Hello Gordon”. It was Lynn and she was so cool. How the heck did she know it was me? Easy going yet so focused – I felt like we were instant friends. You rarely meet people that can make everyone in a large room feel like they are looking and speaking directly to you. That was Lynn. And…. no suit and tie required. Yo gotta love that!

As part of the Microsoft program we mentored colleges around the country and went on a lot of site visits together. Most memorable is the trip to Ilisagvik College on the North Slope of Alaska in Utqiagvik. Bush plane flights village to village with a 14 year old pilot. One of my favorite memories - riding around with Lynn on a six-wheel ATV one evening after meetings ….. we had been told be careful because “Polar bears know that humans are tasty and easy to catch.” I got to know one of the most impactful people I’ve ever met. 

Always a smile…. always asking about my children and always so very focused on community college STEM students and their success. Lynn influenced thousands of lives in so many positive ways. Lynn dealt with cancer for many years but unless you knew about it you had no idea. It finally caught up with her. Her legacy lives on. Thanks Lynn!

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

“Returning” to Western Massachusetts


It’s been a bit of a roadtrip back but…… it is official…… I’m back! In 2014 I took an early retirement from Springfield Technical CommunityCollege and signed on as a part-time consulting Co Director for NationalScience Foundation Advanced Technological Education (NSF ATE) funded NationalCenter for Optics and Photonics Education (OP-TEC). OP-TEC with a main office in Waco, Texas and funded via University of Central Florida, had five years left before sunsetting. I ended up staying with OP-TEC as a consultant for about 3.5 years. Most of my work was done out of my home office in Massachusetts with monthly trips to Waco and the occasional trip to UCF in Orlando. The work was interesting and I enjoyed it but the Center was in the last year of funding - something referred to as "sunsetting" in the grant world and my time there was to be ending soon. I knew I needed to find a replacement, with a preference for something a little closer to home....

In November 2017 I applied for and was offered a visiting professor position at the University of Hartford College of Engineering, Technology and Architecture. I spent the last three amazing semesters there teaching a variety of electronics, electrical engineering and engineering design courses. The admins, faculty and especially the students were incredible and it felt so good being back in the classroom – teaching. So much fun to connect with students again after almost 20 years of academic and NSF grant administrative work. I am so impressed with the University of Hartford community – the way everyone pulls together to help each other out - respectful, hard working committed….. amazing. I had left teaching traditional age college students in 1998 and was not sure what to expect in 2018 – to say I was pleasantly surprised at Hartford is a huge understatement!

But those visiting professor gigs are temporary and don’t last long. This past spring I sadly realized my time at Hartford was coming to an end and I needed to start looking around again. So…. I applied for an Engineering Professor position at Holyoke Community College, interviewed and….. was offered the position. I start in September…. a little closer to home and also a lot closer to my parents home.

Leaving Hartford is breaking my heart - I’m really going to miss everyone there, especially the incredible students I had the opportunity to work with in my classes. No names because I’m sure I would end up leaving some out. Thanks to all of you who worked so hard in my classes – I’m jealous of you all with your work ethic and commitment to excellence along with the internship, career and academic opportunities you have already had or will have. If any of you are reading this please keep working hard and stay in touch. I look forward to following your careers.

Took the long way back to Western Mass via Waco, Orlando and Hartford but I’m back. Looking forward to reestablishing some of those past regional business and industry connections and working with the admins, faculty and especially students at HCC. And yes - you bet I’m hoping to establish some sort of a formal transfer/articulation agreement between HCC and Hartford.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

FCC Proposed New 6 GHz Wifi Spectrum

On October 2, the FCC proposed WiFi access to the 6 GHz region (5.925-7.125 GHz) in addition to the currently accessible 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands of frequencies. 
Currently most WiFi access points operate at either one of those 2.4 GHz of 5 GHz bands. Problems arise as more and more devices are connecting via WiFi. Due to longer wavelengths, 2.4 GHz band signals travel further but with the growing plethora of wireless devices, often suffer from congestion and interference. The 5 GHz band typically operates at higher speeds but does not travel as far due to the shorter wavelengths. 
Opening up the 6 GHz region will provide close to three times what is available in the 2.4 and 5 GHz regions - great for locations where lots of people are connecting at the same time (think college campuses, airport terminals, etc). 
The 6 Ghz frequency region is currently used for point-to-point microwave links and earth-to-space communications along with other data links and there will likely be some opposition. There is a current FCC public commenting period and there will be another vote once the commenting period is over. For details you can read the full FCC Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for ET Docket No. 18-295; GN Docket No. 17-183 linked here.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Successful Academic Program Secret Sauces

I’ve had the recent opportunity to get back in the classroom with traditional students (18-22 years old) after a 20 year semi-administrative hiatus. The experience has been more than an eye opener for me. Students today are connected 24/7 with mobile the communications method of choice. Instant access to information, family, friends and peers has made students much more aware of options and opportunities. As a result, they are often not afraid to walk away and try something else if a program does not feel right. 

How does this relate to our academic programs? We are working hard to recruit students into our programs and continue to work hard to get them through our courses and graduate but…. we all end up losing some. Can we do a better job retaining students in our classes? Can we better help students that are motivated but struggling? Can we learn from our faculty peers at other institutions? Why are some programs more successful than others? 

Here’s a short successful program secret sauce list based on my observations: 

  • They have faculty that have strong professional relationships with students. 
  •  They have faculty that make students aware of services that are available on their campuses. 
  • They have faculty that identify students early who may be at-risk and help them get the support they need. 
  • They have faculty that assess students early and often in every course to help identify and advise students that may need a little extra support. Ideally this includes weekly quizzes and homework assignments that are promptly graded and returned to students the following class. 
  • They have faculty that refer students to the proper service for larger issues as appropriate. 
Some things never change - the most successful programs and courses are likely the ones where faculty are most professionally engaged with their students.