Sunday, February 28, 2021

Nonverbal Overload In An Online Engineering Classroom

Last week, Stanford researchers published a new study: Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue. The study is a first shot at pointing out Zoom, WebEx, etc design flaws to isolate research areas for social scientists and to suggest design improvements for technologists. Researchers found four quite different causes for fatigue and recommend solutions for each:

Close-up eye contact is exhausting. Solution: Minimize the face sizes of attendees into grid view, and sit back a bit to allow yourself more personal space. 

Watching yourself is exhausting. Solution: Confirm that your lighting and setup look good, and then adjust the settings to hide your view of yourself.

Sitting immobile is exhausting.  Solution: Create a wider visual field for your camera. 

Video chatting is cognitively exhausting. Solution: When it’s feasible, turn off your camera for breaks—and turn your body away from the screen.

It's all exhausting! I’ve done some of my own experimenting and agree with the Stanford findings when it comes to the online classroom. Here’s how I’ve been working on some course content delivery improvements in one of my online classes.

Pre-Recorded Lectures
I’ve been pre-recording lectures  for about a year now and posting them. In one of my classes I recently started watching them with students during class sessions – I share my screen and audio, playing the videos.  Electrical engineering courses are 95% applied math and lectures typically involve a short introduction to a topic and then working sample problems. I am not a fan and do not use PowerPoint. I record lectures using an iPad and Apple Pencil. 

Class Sessions
Students are required to take notes as they would in a traditional in-person lecture with me writing on a board in front of the class. They ask questions, verbally or in the chat box. By watching my own lectures with the students, I’ve found myself much more aware of non-verbal cues. I’m able to watch the chat box, catch any mistakes I’ve made, pause a video for discussion, etc. I’m no longer sitting with my head down writing on an iPad, cranking out math problems while what seems like talking to myself. I’m much more focused on the students and the way I’m explaining the material. When they ask me to pause a video, I have a pretty good idea they are following the lecture and taking good notes!

After each class is over, students are assigned between 1 and 3 quiz/homework problems that are due the next day at noon. I also post the videos for students to access.

I do try to squeeze a 5 min break in when I can even though I’ve not been very good at that. I also try and keep videos to around 25 minutes so if we miss one of the 5 minute breaks there is a natural break between each video. 

Students typically do not turn their cameras on and I’m ok with that in my classes. Some faculty will disagree.

Future Plans
We're charting new ground so every day is a work in progress - so far student feedback has been very positive with plans to further refine (have some interesting ideas for exams) and expand methods to other classes I teach.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Divergence Theorem - Electrical Engineering Class Snap Video

I've become a big fan of what I call snap videos while teaching remotely. Here's a simple example I used recently to explain a concept that is relatively simple to describe in a traditional face-to-face class but maybe not so simple for students to understand while learning online.

Every undergraduate electrical engineering student needs to take an electromagnetics course. This course is a little different than most of the other required courses that use wires, resistors, capacitors, transistors etc, all physically (and in most cases two-dimensionally) connected together. 

In much of this course there are no wires and everything in three-dimensions - I sometimes refer to it as the "magic" course. The math is advanced calculus based but I've found if a student has made it far enough to be taking this course they've got the math down and can handle it. Conceptually is where they often stumble - trying to get a picture in their head of what is going on in three dimensions. 

The Divergence Theorem is a good example. In electromagnetics it is used to identify by location like sources and sinks. It is also used to explain the rate of change of a function with respect to position. Important stuff for things like cell and wifi signals along with a bunch of other "magic-based" technologies.

The math includes a couple methods called volume integration and surface integration. The volume integration is pretty easy - a student can bang through the math and get an answer without really having a good picture in their head of what is going on. Surface integration is a speed bump, wrong way turn, etc for many. I know it was for me when I was first learning this stuff. It really cannot be done without an accurate mental picture of what is going on. The classic way to introduce this topic uses a cube drawn in three dimensions on the board. Here's one of my (not so good) drawings in three dimensions (x, y and z axis) as an example. 
The cube (yeah, that's a cube!) has all six sides labeled and to solve the problem students need to do surface integration math on each of the six sides individually and then combine the six answers for a final answer. Which side is which is where the confusion lies - which on is side 1?? Looking at my drawing above - I can't figure it out.... My diagram is pretty much useless!!

When teaching in the classroom I hold up a box and describe and label the different sides with the students. Can't do that online so..... how about a video. Here's a quick one I put together a couple days ago, describing and hopefully explaining the confusing parts. 

I'm using an Apple iPad with Apple Pencil along with the GoodNotes app. I find it useful to "think out loud" when I do these. It is also the way I teach - thinking through a problem step by step with the students. I do not do any editing so this 6 minute video took maybe 10 minutes total to record and upload to YouTube. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

End of First Full Week Teaching – Fall 2020 Semester Remote

Some quick thoughts/observations after the first week: 

  • Email volume from students is through the roof. Not meeting in person means not being able to ask questions. Email does not scale in an online “classroom” setting. I’ve used Slack in the past in courses with mixed results. At Holyoke Community College (HCC) we are using Moodle as a learning management system (LMS) and there are ways to integrate Slack with Moodle – as an example see I’m not sure if I have the proper privileges to do this. Will give it a try this weekend. Some are using Discord and I am also considering giving that a try.
  • The more I use Moodle the more I like it. I’ve used lots of different LMSs over the years and Moodle is very nice. I’ve been really impressed with the IT staff and Moodle admins at HCC.
  • More on Moodle – very nice on mobile devices. I’ve been able to make my Circuits 1 Electrical Engineering course content 100% mobile accessible. I like to think of mobile as the lowest common denominator for our students. At home they may not have a computer, have to share one, not have access to broadband, etc. The majority do have cell phones with data access though.  
  • I bit the bullet on a 12.9 inch iPad Pro over the summer and it has really been nice. Using an Apple Pencil I’m using GoodNotes to record my lectures and keep track of just about everything else in my life. 
Finally, I snagged the pic here from a recent (and brilliant) Nokia ad...... imagine what it would have been like back then.....

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Day 1 Fall 2020 Semester Remote

I spent much of the summer preparing for Day 1. I was not sure what to expect – sure we went remote in March for the second half of the spring semester but that was a little different. We all knew each other and the ice had been broken a long time before we started zooming…… 

The first day of a traditionally offered class is always the same - most of the students do not  know each other and they don't know the instructor. They don’t say too much and it is hard for the instructor to get any kind of feedback – positive or negative. Do they have any idea what the heck I’m talking about? I rely a lot on visual feedback when I’m in front of a class – Are they taking notes? Paying attention? Staring out the window or door? Looking at the clock? Looking at their phone? And sometimes just staring blankly into space? 

In some ways day 1 class zooming has not been much different. I noticed the majority (~75%) did not have their cameras on during the first class. Is that because they are shy? Doing something else like looking out the window, at their phone, etc? I’ve heard some faculty are requiring their students have their cameras on. I’m not going to do that. I am hoping to see them come on voluntarily as we get into the semester. 

I also noticed about the same percentage (and the same students) have their mics muted. I can understand that – I mute mine when I’m not talking. 

Conclusions – I don’t have any yet. It seems like a normal first day with a bit of a remote zoom twist. Our challenge as faculty has always been to get our students learning and that includes  engagement, working together, not being afraid to ask questions, smiling and laughing every once in a while and generally feeling comfortable. From my perspective so far so good!

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Congrats Class of 2020!

 Final grades went in at Holyoke Community College last week and I’ve finally had a chance to take a little time to get some thoughts down.


When a problem comes along be nice to it, because it tries to teach you something. Klaus ObermeyerIt seems like so long ago - thinking back to when we started the spring 2020 semester in January. Who knew what was coming  in 6-7 weeks…. March 11 was the Thursday before spring break and when I last met with my Systems 2 (Circuit Analysis) class in person. It was midterm exam day. At the time we had all heard about Corona and were more than a little nervous…. A couple days later we learned we were going “remote” for the rest of the semester….


WOW - 8 weeks, hundreds of hours of online class time, studying, homework and exams. Loss of part time or full time jobs, learning in often non-idea locations and situations, uncertainty about the future, anxiety, for some depression, sleepless or near-sleepless nights, and a whole lot of frustration with your computer, others around when you are trying to get work done and of course your professors…. And now, not having that final chance on graduation day to say goodbye to you classmates and friends. It’s sure been a haul, it’s over now and you made it! It was not supposed to end this way. I’m hoping it was all worth it. It sure has been for me. I’m so proud of all of you that pushed through this.


Your attitude and hard work has been an inspiration that I’ll remember and talk about for a very long time. I know you are all off to different places and I’m sorry I did not get a chance to say goodbye to you all in person. Hoping to see you at the Holyoke Community College virtual celebration in August and seeing you walk across the stage next year with the Class of 2021.


Thank you for all of your hard work and wishing you so much success. I know you got this…. now go do more good work!


CONGRATS Class of 2020!!

Monday, May 11, 2020

Engineering Student Design Team Projects at a Distance

On Friday, May 1 I had the honor of judging University of Hartford College of Engineering, Technology and Architecture Class of 2020 Senior Team Design Projects. I spent three semesters at Hartford as a visiting professor before coming to Holyoke Community College and had many of the students participating in the 2020 design competition in my classes.

I wrote about my experience at Hartford in an earlier post - after 20 years they were my introduction back to the traditional age group (18-22) engineering classroom. The last time I had students this age in one of my classes was 1998 and I had no idea what to expect. To say I was pleasantly surprised was an understatement.

Fast forward to the May 1 competition when this group once again impressed me. Senior project work runs over the fall and spring semesters with final projects evaluated and scored at the end of the spring semester by invited judges. Shutting down the campus at the half way point this spring hit them at a critical point in project completion. Student teams continued to work together online from their homes and student teams presented their projects together to us in online meeting rooms. 

I am so proud of them - each team member was able to rise to the challenge - focusing, planning and completing their projects at a distance. In some cases that distance was 6 or more times zones away. This spring has been difficult and unexpected for all of us. These students were able to adjust, make necessary changes and complete their project work. You can check out some of the projects here

We don't have control over what is happening but we are able to control how we view and react to it. Valuable lessons. Congrats to the Class 0f 2020!

Experience with students in my classes at Holyoke Community College has been exactly the same. I’ll write about that in my next post.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

To Zoom or Not To Zoom: Week 4 Teaching Full Distance

Resting student Doggies in my campus office.
Students were working on these when we
transitioned from the classroom to online.

Five weeks ago most faculty and students in the United States 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% online for the rest of the spring semester. This past week was our fourth week back.

The last few weeks for me has been focused on fine tuning my asynchronous course content. I’m teaching an intro robotics course (EGR 110) at Holyoke Community College that was originally scheduled to meet 5 hours per week. Students spend time building and coding Lego EV3 robots. The interactivity in the classroom is a lot of fun and students seem to enjoy the class.

The Lego Mindstorms EV3 kits are expensive and we have a limited supply – not enough of them for every student in the class to take one home. With the shift to online 5 weeks ago we had to find an alternative and pivoted to an EV3 simulator. The students have picked up using the simulator on their home computers and are doing a really nice job completing different projects. I’m very impressed at how the transition has gone so far.

My original intentions were to provide 45-50 minute live (synchronous) lectures twice a week at the start of each class and if a student needed some extra help, hold individual Zoom sessions sharing screens. An attempt at this over the first couple weeks was not successful. 45-50 minutes was just too long and the individual Zoom sessions tended to drag, produce frustration and not lead to much learning.

BBC Worklife interviewed a couple of workplace experts - Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead, who explores sustainable learning and development in the workplace, and Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor at Clemson University, who studies workplace wellbeing and teamwork effectiveness. Their views reflect in many ways to what I’ve seen in my online robotics class. Here’s a few highlights from the interview that mirror my online classroom experience:
  • “Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy.” I wrote about processing non-verbal cues online last week – very difficult if not impossible. 
  • “Silence creates a natural rhythm in a real-life conversation. However, when it happens in a video call, you became anxious about the technology.” My experience - as a result students end up either anxious, distracted or zoned out.... crickets chirping is the best way I can describe the result. 
  • “The video call is our reminder of the people we have lost temporarily. It is the distress that every time you see someone online, such as your colleagues (or classmates), that reminds you we should really be in the workplace together.” We all miss each other. 
  • “Aspects of our lives that used to be separate – work, friends, family – are all now happening in the same space. When these aspects are reduced, we become more vulnerable to negative feelings.” Crowded homes, abuse, children to take care of, loss of income, lack of food, lack of computers and broadband are impacting learning (and teaching) in a huge way. For many the classroom is a safe and comfortable place to get away. 
  • "Big group calls can feel particularly performative, People like watching television because you can allow your mind to wander – but a large video call “is like you're watching television and television is watching you”. 
  • “Both experts suggest limiting video calls to those that are necessary. Turning on the camera should be optional. In some cases it’s worth considering if video chats are really the most efficient option." 
  • “When it comes to work, shared files with clear notes can be a better option that avoids information overload.” I wrote a little about this in Week 1.
  • "When online sessions are held, it is important to take time to catch up before diving into business. “Spend some time to actually check into people's wellbeing,” It’s a way to reconnect us with the world, and to maintain trust and reduce fatigue and concern.”
From my experience these observations are spot on when it comes to the online classroom. My robotics class has shifted strongly in the asynchronous direction. I rarely get on one-on-one sessions with students now. I don't do the 45-50 minute lectures at the start of each class but I am on Zoom for the first 45 minutes with student attendance optional. I’m there to help out, answer any questions, talk about how much we all need haircuts and maybe tell a knock-knock joke or two.

Most questions come in during off hours via email. If students have a problem I ask them to first email me a picture of their code (screen shot, cell phone, etc.) I can take a look and send back a hint or two. The student can then make changes in their code. This method is working well and has reduced a lot of student (and my) stress. It does require watching email closely.

 I continue to be impressed with the students in my classes. They are learning and getting their work done!