Teaching Online During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Insights from ECE

Teaching in the best of times requires instructors to be nimble and adept at meeting the needs of individual students academically and otherwise. Throw in an infectious disease such as COVID-19 making the rounds, and faculty and support staff have to dig deep and come up with innovative ways to keep the show going.

On March 16, 2020, President Joan Gabel announced that classes and labs for all students throughout the University of Minnesota system would continue through alternate means. For instructors, this meant quickly swiveling from a traditional classroom set up to distance learning. In ECE, our faculty had to rapidly turn around all in-person lectures and labs to fit remote instruction. And they did this with the support of resources from the CEI, the OIT, and by drawing on the experience of those who have previously taught entire courses online.

However, it is no easy matter for curricula that are typically situated within a face to face classroom context to be migrated online, and in the case of classes supported by critical experiential learning components such as labs, the challenges are myriad. In ECE, our faculty and staff have been working on resolving the finer aspects of teaching: course recitations, labs, accessibility issues, device issues, fair substitutions when labs simply cannot be replicated, community building, and a myriad other concerns. Navigating these challenges while keeping in mind equity, and the integrity of the degree have been foremost on their minds as they continue teaching during these strange and tumultuous times. Here are some thoughts, and insights from some of our faculty and staff involved in the pivot from the early days as the department worked their way through just a few of these challenges. 

Prof. Randall Victora, ECE Department Head: An Overview

I am writing this as we complete our second full week of teaching. Overall, it has been an adventure, and I think most of us have been pleasantly surprised at the effectiveness of Zoom for online lectures. It also seems to work well for office hours, especially if both professor and student have a device to quickly share handwritten pictures and equations, such as a tablet or document camera. As might be expected, labs have been challenging. [Prof. Orser will discuss this in more detail] Remote exams without a proctor remain an issue. Faculty are trying various approaches and I expect we will need to learn what works.  Of course, the possibility of S/N grading offered by President Gabel takes some of the pressure off this issue.

Learn more about Prof. Victora’s work

Prof. David Orser on the State of Our Labs: Successes and Challenges

We have had some successes and some stumbles along the way as we work on getting our labs to work online. In recent years, we have been steadily updating some of our lab courses to be almost entirely disconnected from the physical lab environment. This was done so that students could continue to work outside of the lab on programming, wiring, and development of projects. Such labs have benefited the most; their transition to online teaching has been mostly resilient. But there have been other issues such as poor connectivity in alternate locations, lost lab kits, and broken devices. Nevertheless, the labs have been set back no more than a week. 

Other labs have been less successful, but still useful.  We have moved a couple of labs to simulation which has allowed us more time to explore topics we wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to explore. However, certain learning objectives such as building and debugging actual hardware will still be impacted; simulation is not a replacement for hardware experiments.

A unique success of online instruction is randomized breakout rooms, which allow students to work in groups without forcing people to sit according to a seating chart. Students have been very engaged during group work. Putting students in random groups inevitably makes them pay closer attention to the lectures, and not just rely on their known neighbor to do the work for them. It is also a way for students to know more members of the class and expand their study support network.

Learn more about Prof. Orser’s work

Prof. James Leger (DUGS) on His Experience Teaching a Course and a Lab Online (EE 5621)

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.

In my own case, 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, as good teaching is a two-way street where students can ask questions and the instructor can take the educational pulse of the class, I chose to augment the taped lectures with online sessions that review the highlights, allow for dialog, and probe the important concepts in more detail. 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 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 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? The lab is a classic physics set-up, complete with lasers, optics of various kinds, detectors, camera, and computers. Luckily, my teaching assistant (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, but rather than helping them set up equipment and take data, we now discuss 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. It’s 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.

A longer version of Prof. Leger’s reflections appears here

Learn more about Prof. Leger’s work

Kyle Dukart, Department Administrator on Learning Technologies and Support

A key challenge for our department was  figuring out how to get all of our faculty up to speed on teaching online. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, we had a couple of instructors who had taught an entire course online, and a few who had taught a lecture or two online while traveling. However, most were unfamiliar with the tools available for delivering lectures online, creating exams that work remotely, and setting up environments that allowed for positive connection with their students and within the classroom as a whole. To address the challenge, ECE created a site in our campus learning management software, Canvas, specific to providing tips on using learning technologies and best practices for accomplishing our pedagogical goals. The University’s resources have been useful of course, but having a site that addressed our particular needs, and relevant to the courses we teach has proven helpful.

Zoom, of course, has been critical to this move to online delivery. Both students and instructors are discovering some advantages to this method of course delivery, even if they are missing the traditional classroom. Advantages for faculty such as being able to poll students to check on their grasp of a concept, and for students to be able to look back at recorded lectures, have helped offset the disruption. 

Supporting our students’ learning is a top priority and we have been able to continue tutoring through IEEE-HKN (ECE’s honor society); the student tutors are offering a full slate of Zoom-based online tutoring hours. Online office hours are working well. In fact, some of our faculty are considering offering office hours on Zoom when classes reconvene face to face, as it allows them to hold hours in the evening when there are fewer conflicts, and students are more likely to attend if they don’t need to travel to an office. In other highlights, ECE has mailed out lab kits that were left behind by students during spring break so they can continue their work online. The department has also shipped out a laptop on loan to a student whose computer was too old and slow to work in our courses.

Contact Kyle Dukart

It has been a work in progress as faculty and students inch closer to exams large and small, and come up on other new challenges. But these challenges are also opportunities for everyone involved, opportunities to explore what might be perceived as problems, fix vulnerabilities, improve upon available options, and come up with new ways of teaching and learning that can be shared as we continue to fulfill our teaching mission.