Teaching in the Time of COVID-19: One Faculty Member’s Perspective

Stress tends to bring about change, and a great stressor such as COVID-19 can radically alter lives. There is no question that the current pandemic has been disruptive to our activities, moods, and our ability to perform productive work. Our roles as educators and students have been upended, causing us to question our methods of teaching and learning. I found myself in this position the first day I moved my lectures to the online format required by the University.  Could I translate my face-to-face lectures into the Zoom format? Should I do this directly? And if not, what changes should I make to my teaching?

My Physical Optics Lecture

For my physical optics class (EE 5621), I had a series of pre-recorded lectures that could serve as a basis for the instruction. However, good teaching is a two-way street where students can ask questions and the instructor can take the educational pulse of the class. Obviously, my pre-recorded lectures did not allow for this. My first challenge then was to find a way to augment my EE5621 class in a way that could offer meaningful online content. So, I chose to enhance the taped lectures with online sessions that review the highlights, allow for dialog, and probe the important concepts in more detail. In essence, I flipped my classroom, requiring the students to watch a video while using the “in-class” time for summation, discussion, and problem solving. So far, I have found this to be a positive experience. My students seem to be engaged and are free to ask questions about basic concepts, technical details, and homework problems. Although I greatly miss seeing and interacting with everyone face-to-face, the inverted classroom style has offered some new advantages that I hope to preserve when we return to in-class teaching.

My Physical Optics Lab

My lab course (EE5622) is another story altogether. How do I offer a meaningful experience in a laboratory-based class where touching, adjusting, and observing are key aspects of the learning experience?  During a normal year, the teaching assistant (TA) and I are both present in the lab and can circulate around to answer questions. The lab is a classic physics set-up, complete with lasers, optics of various kinds, detectors, camera, and computers. Converting this into a look but don’t touch format has indeed been challenging. Luckily, my TA Nathan Mowry took extensive notes and high-quality data when he was a student in the class last year.  Nathan and I now meet with the students on Zoom every week for roughly the same amount of time as a standard lab period. But rather than helping the students set up equipment and take data, we devote the session to a discussion of experimental intricacies and mathematical methods that they need to apply to our pre-recorded data. Is it the same as a real laboratory experience? No. But that’s not to say it’s bad – just different. Although it pains me to know that our students are missing the joy of actually seeing the interference fringe from the interferometer they just spent an hour aligning, I know they still can appreciate the power of the optical effects and techniques we are presenting.

Lessons Learned

So how have my first two weeks of online instruction been? Well, there are definitely things I miss about face-to-face lecturing. But at the same time, the online format has forced me to evaluate my teaching methods and has introduced me to new teaching styles. In essence, I am learning new things along with the students. Sometimes adversity can be the key to advancement. And when we all come out of this struggle, I expect to be a better teacher for it.