Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Since we will soon be back in the classroom, how was Zoom? Anything you want to maintain?

UMCP will have all classes on campus this Fall. There is a Mask Mandate. All students and faculty have to get vaccinated unless they have a health or religious exception. 92% are vaccinated, which I interpret as people are NOT abusing the exceptions (though I still wish it was higher, and it may go higher). (ADED LATER- right after I posted this I got an email saying that UMCP is now up to 97%).  Those NOT vaccinated have to get tested - I think twice a week. 

Now that we are back in the live-classroom, here are some thoughts about teaching on zoom. 

I taught on zoom:

Spring 2020: The last half of both Ramsey Theory and Automata Theory(Reg, CFG,P,NP,Dec,Undec)

Fall 2021:  Cryptography 

Spring 2021: Honors Discrete Math and Automata theory

a) I taught in the usual time slot but I recorded the lecture so those who could not make it (more common during the pandemic) could still see it. Attendance was low, verbal interaction was low, but chat-interaction was very good. Looking into if we can do a chat in an in-person class. I was recording lectures before the pandemic and will keep doing so.

b) My exams were open-notes, open-book, open-web. That cuts down on ways they can cheat, though they can still phone-a-friend. Or ask their cat.  Unusual-but-correct answers can happen, as I discussed in this blog.

c) I gave my muffin talk a few times on zoom. In person it goes very well as my enthusiasm is contagious.  On Zoom that affect is dampened so the audience was more sedate.  I gave it as a special lecture to High School students and to my REU students. Note that it was NOT part of a class so the usual motivation to learn it to do the HW is gone. Hence its more important they be excited about it. 

d) In person I carefully make sure that I wear a funny T-shirt every day, and its a diff one, and usually a math one to (if possible) match the topic. On Zoom I did not bother, though I sometimes used wallpaper to match the topic. 

e) I had to make up slides for Aut theory and for some of Discrete Math. For Crypto I already had slides. I like the slides I made up and will use them in the future. But see next point. 

f) In Discrete Math I went  faster than usual- perhaps because its on slides, perhaps because there were less questions since it was on zoom, perhaps because Emily my  TA was so awesome that they had less questions. (She is very interested in education and did a guest post about the pandemic and education here.) As a result I actually learned and presented the proofs that (1) the e is irrational (my slides are here) and that Liouville numbers are transcendental (my slides are here). While I enjoyed learning those theorems and I think the students understood them on some level, I will slow down next time.

g) Ramsey Theory: It is impossible to teach the Poly VDW theorem on slides, so I had to omit that part of the course. 

h) Bottom Line: Did the students learn more? less? the same? My impression is that the students learned about the same, but really really didn't like it. And thats legit- that is NOT just students complaining. 


  1. "which I interpret as people are NOT abusing the exceptions (though I still wish it was higher, and it may go higher"

    As the saying goes "Beware of what you wish..."

  2. Except for the occasional use of online polls, the only plus with Zoom for classes was recording, but this is something we could already do in many of our classrooms.

    However, after an initial period when students were unsure about them, Zoom office hours, particularly in big classes, have lots of great features. You can have a lot of people in the session without crowding into a small space and you can use a breakout room to talk with individual students about their specific ideas for solutions or about their grading. Zoom office hours also cuts down on the number of students who spend time just hanging around listening to others or me discuss solutions, hoping that someone will let slip some nugget about it.

    Zoom was also good for review sessions prior to exams.

  3. How many classes required group projects, and how difficult were those to do over Zoom, or were students still meeting in person (say in an open setting). Similar question would hold (probably more importantly) for study groups. If these meetings are forced to be outside then there are other factors like being distracted, the weather complying, noise, and wind blowing papers.

    That said, what we've been seeing for probably the last 20-30 years is that people (particularly students) are becoming more digital and more apt at "The Google Machine". I'd probably say that Wikipedia and StackExchange may be more of a first resource than textbooks in some courses. For some of the courses you mention (particularly Ramsey Theory) where there are so few experts, it forces the students to either contact you (the professor) or the TA or each other to understand more of the material. There's always the chance of finding a good writeup of a concept that was confusing, but its not always available as the courses get more complicated.

    I think going forward questions like how similar are these courses to courses at other universities and outside references (particularly online things like lecture notes) that could help them would be useful.

  4. Zoom also allowed for asking questions via private chat during the lecture (beneficial for those who may not be comfortable to ask in front of an entire class).