Friday, April 10, 2020

Please comment: Should online teaching be public?

I write this post because I am genuinely interested in people's opinions. So please comment even if usually you wouldn't and it's ok to to simply say you agree with somebody's opinion (or not). And of course you can do this anonymously or under a pseudonym.

The question is: What is the right balance between participants privacy and making things public in the name of public knowledge? Let me explain.

In these times where everybody has to stay at home and the summer semester is only one week away, everybody is busy planning how to run university teaching over the internet. And personally, I am quite optimistic. It's not the real thing but essentially all the tools are there and I see this as a chance to try out new things and experiment while everybody will tolerate if things are not perfect at least as long as you are honestly trying. Maybe this way, we can bring university to the 21st century. And yes, some things would work better if there had been more preparation and planning but without the current urgency, inertia might have kept many things from happening at all.

This summer, together with Sabine Jansen from the math department, I will once more teach the TMP core module "Mathematical Statistical Physics" as the physicist on the stage. At least in my interpretation, this course is mainly about how to honestly deal with systems with infinitely many degrees of freedom and understand the choices you have to make when handling them which then lead to phenomena like phase transitions, coexistence of phases and spontaneous symmetry breaking. I will mainly discuss the quantum part of the story using tools from the algebraic approach where the central objects are KMS states. I recorded a trailer video:

Regarding tools, I will pretty much do what Clifford suggested that is use Zoom for the lectures where I share the screen of my iPad while writing on it like a notepad and do pretty much what I would have done on a black board while talking and people can see my face. I plan to do this live so there can be questions and feedback and discussions both for the benefit of the participants asking questions and me trying not to talks completely over people's heads or boring everybody to death. In addition there will be a Moodle for handling exercise sheets, a forum and a chat as well as tutorials (also via zoom). And, and this is the point if this post: I want to record the zoom sessions of the lectures and make those available for later consumption.

And here is the point: I strongly believe in the principle that knowledge and information is that commodity that does not get smaller by sharing it. If everybody contributes a little bit this allows us as a community to build huge things. This idea is for example behind Open Source software and Wikipedia and has proven very successful in building many things from which everybody can benefit a lot.

In this spirit it is my impulse that of course the recored lectures should be available to everybody on the internet. And yes, I would love to see other peoples lectures as well, most of which will of course be much better then my own. I think this is particularly true for an advanced course like ours that is unlike the millionth electrodynamics course that every physics department in the world teaches every year. I hope, our content might be interesting to many people around the world and many of those would not have access to local lectures about it.

And yes, I am not super prepared for this course. I will make mistakes, say wrong things and make a fool of myself. But even then, I think it's worth it. Of course, I am in a privileged situation, I cannot see myself job hunting in the foreseeable future, I am very much settled. So my risk is mainly the everybody can see how stupid I am. But that's it. And to be honest, I rather expect if there is any effect at all it will be to my advantage because there is hope that one or two people might think we are teaching interesting stuff.

But there is a concern that this might not be the same for everybody. Remember, the idea of live teaching and not pre-recording everything is to allow for interactions with the audience. And the way zoom recordings work is that those reactions are recorded as well. Participants can chose other names and turn off their camera. But the question (clever or stupid) that anybody asks will be recorded never the less. And people might be concerned about this. And the fact that the whole world can later hear them asking what somebody might consider a stupid question might prevent them from asking the question at all. This all while my main worry should be the benefit of my own students rather than myself becoming an internet celebrity.

I would like to take into account that the benefit is not only about having my lectures available (that benefit is likely very very small). But what I am talking about is establishing a culture that over the long run makes many people's lectures available. And those are much more likely useful for many. While contemplating this in the example of my lectures I imagine that many lecturers might have similar thoughts at the same time (or I would like them to have those at least). This is along the idea that the idea I talked about in an old post that there is a possibility to take advantage of an asymmetric outcome in a prisoner's dilemma might be an illusion.

And what adds to it is that those people that would be hurt most by this are likely those how deserve the most support, timid ones, women, minorities.

So, what should I do? From what I have written you will get that I am very much in favour of sharing knowledge as much as possible. But I am willing to take concerns into account. But I want to take actual concerns into account and not those that one can simply imagine someone might have. So please tell me, what do you think? And yes, if you are the timid person, you might be less likely to leave a comment in a public blog. But please consider doing it never the less. Do it anonymously. It doesn't hurt. Of course, you can also email me. Also that can be done anonymously.