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.


Daniel Caballero said...

I think the potential benefits outbalance the drawbacks. Possibly a way out for this particular concern is asking students for permission.

Janik said...

I really like the idea of sharing (high-quality) lectures spreading knowledge to everyone around the world. The Chess Club of Saint Louis actually does something very similar and that already for several years, see e.g. The lecturers in these video also interact with the audience, but the video producers make sure that the audience is neither visible nor really understandble in the video. If this can be guaranteed, then I would support sharing lectures.

Danu said...

Would it be possible to anonymize incoming questions, so that people who are afraid to be identified can still ask? That would be a good solution, as far as I can tell.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I belong to those people quite timid, but I have always taken a lot of benefits from online lectures, so I also believe that the advantages overwhelm the drawbacks. I think that if someone has problems to be recognized in a recorded video, as you said, he/ she can turn off the camera and speak anonymously and it should be fine.

Anonymous said...

In my personal opinion, lectures should be made recorded and published. It's for everyone's benefit.
If person doesn't want to be recorded, I think he/she can always disable video/audio, and just listen to lecture.
Maybe just make a small announcement about it, in the beggiing of each lecture.

At the end of the day, university and education have always been made for openess for everyone

Gigo said...

I'm pro recording (and publishing) in general. If you don't have a problem in this risk of "making a fool out of yourself" (I don't see that in your case), the only drawback could be the privacy of the listeners.

In your case, you could try the following:
- Use a headphone for your conference call
- Disable the sound output on your iPad (you probably do that anyways)
- Do not record the zoom session but make a recording on your iPad that will record the internal iPad microphone - and that's only your voice now.
- Repeat any questions from the audience for your recording.

I'm planning a pretty similar setup but with my thinkpad yoga instead of the iPad. That of cause gives me a lot more options for recording...

But let me know, if you want to test something like this live, I'm willing to help!

Anonymous said...

I consider that there are no stupid questions. This is an opportunity to teach the students how to overcome the fear of asking and being judged. In the end that is what is limiting the students. So if there is the option to ask anonymously and it helps the students, we should implement it, even if the lecture is recorded or not. Let's use this semester as an experiment to see also the student's response.

Anonymous said...

I've also been teaching online (using exactly your method) for a few weeks now, and I've actually noticed that most students prefer to ask questions in the chat. Because it's more low-key than having the whole class hear you speak, this actually leads to far more people asking questions. Also, simple confusions tend to be answered immediately by other students in class. It also 'feels' pretty natural (like on Twitch or Youtube).

Since there are some drawbacks, though, like not really knowing whether students understand your answer, I don't think that this should be the only option to participate.

Anonymous said...

In Germany, all state universities have open-access to public. Online educational content shouldn't be any different. Moreover, I think giving students a platform to anonymously ask questions will only encourage them to participate more actively in the learning process. One of the primary reasons for students not asking questions in a live lecture is due to the lack of anonymity -- students are either too shy or are afraid to expose their incompetence. Anyway, my thinking is that all educational content should be open-sourced. There is nothing gained in keeping knowledge only to yourself.

Anonymous said...

What about having a concurrent chat for the lecture where people can type their questions rather than voicing them? This might lower the threshold for the shy to raise a question as well as address the privacy issues. It's just a thought, I don't know if it's sensible or even technically possible. Might turn out as well that people are just spamming garbage into the chat

Anonymous said...

I think this a great idea! I would highly appreciate if there were more online material available also on advanced topics of interest. This can help students and interested persons all over the world and also inspire lecturers who prepare a similar course. Regarding the privacy issues I don't think they should hinder this undertaking considering in particular that a few good solutions for this problem have been presented in the comments. Great concept!

Anonymous said...

I agree with your idea. Let’s make the world more exciting.

Anonymous said...

Honest opinion: I don't understand why you are bringing this up now. The technical means to record lectures have been around for years!! But except for the LMU computer science department, nobody ever seemed to care about it... Is it now because now it's apparently only a mouse click to record a lecture? If that's the only reason, please don't do it... What has to change in Germany is to make teaching quality a top priority.

Peeter Joot said...

You write: "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."

I must have really missed something reading your post. How does making the material available hurt anybody? What does to choice to make the material available have to do with gender, minorities, or timidity?

That confusion aside, making the material available could help those who self study (likely a very small population), but could also really be a great aid to somebody taking a similar course. I recently took the University of Toronto QFT I course, and struggled very badly with one of the concepts from a particular lecture. I found Dr. Tobias Osborne's QFT lectures on youtube. Not only did he provide a spectacularly clear explanation of the problematic concept, but his lectures provided excellent parallel instruction that supplemented my professor's material nicely. Because he had, years before, made his material available, I was able to understand my course material much more effectively and thoroughly.

Alessandro said...

First of all I'm happy that, even if pushed by the unlucky circumstances of coronavirus, an experiment on videoteaching will finally be made. I think the general idea has a great underrated potential.

I'll try to outline in a clear way some of my intutions, provided I too share the view that making good knowledge material availabe for everybody is a very good principle.

§Smooth theory-only videolectures§
The more appealing and smoother to be accessed the offered material is, the better:
way best formula would be to prepare and upload in advance the videolectures (in other words no real audience needed, and therefore no questions here!), to have them as neat and fluent as possible, with a value lasting in time (adding in case some little edits with time).

A glance to the style of this neat and smooth approach can be found for instance here (sorry it's in italian though, but the feeling of it will pass to you anyway)

§ (Separate) Q-meetings §
Worth considering would be scheduling a separate online appointment for questions & discussion (mainly on the previous lecture's content) for which questions could be collected via either email/audio messages (where more comfortable)/pictures/whatever. In case referring to a specific timing of the videolecture (so everyone can check and get to the precise point). Further questions and stimula could arise on the fly during the discussion (through real-time questions or through any of the previous paths, so those who want to stay anonymous can). And the recording of these Q-meetings would be eventually saved as well.

This strategy would leave as said the playlist of "theory only-videolectures" cleaner, more fluent and therefore more appealing, and real synchronization of people would then be required only for Q-meetings, where it's welcomly needed (in practice just to actually do all those things one could not do alone!)

I finally add that I would consider a pretty good formula if every course had...

-An online parallel forum for questions and discussion on the course (referring to specific lectures or general connected topics)
-A good pdf script covering 1:1 the lectures of the course.

This way multiple tools for absorbing, critically digesting and discussing the content of the course would be provided, to maximize possible learning channels.


If this two-folded setup can't be made, I guess that the fluency and appeal of the course playlist may be less effective... It's not a matter of silly questions, but the required flexiblity and improvisation typical of a live lecture will likely make the final appeal not optimus. Still good and valuable, though. For this less sophisticated and perhaps more practical scenario, I'd anyway recommend to prepare the needed backbone-writings in advance and act on that base file just adding highlights and brief additions (an example of this is seeable with the same link above). This saves precious time in the real lecture and helps (together with the pdf script if it exists) freeing students from the bind of writing down again all things that appear on the blackboard, perhaps losing attention. Exception for practical examples and exercises and all such things that might be more effective kept "entirely alive".

>>>   As regards questions from the audience (if they are supposed to be casted on the fly only) I basically agree with Janik's suggestion of the method of invisible and muted audience, with questions rephrazed by the teacher for all to hear.

Anonymous said...

I would appreciate recorded lectures. Up to now I only had a few online-meetings. But it happened that people had problems due to the stability of the internet connection.

As far as I know there is also a project by the student representatives in which they build a Forum for students to discuss problems and ask questions. (work in progress.)

Anonymous said...

Chances are that the questions asked during the lecture will also be useful for the viewer. From a viewer's perspective, the participants of your lecture will most likely not look stupid at all but even enhance their experience.
However, your live audience's perception might be different and they should have the option to get their inputs "anonymized", if they wish to.

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