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.