Zoom, zoom, zoom

The new school year is on its way. My daughter is a kindergartener, my other daughter is a fourth grader, and my son is an eight grader. They will all be attending school as remote. It is going to be a challenging school year for all of us.

The school offered a hybrid version of 2 days of in-person teaching followed by a day of remote teaching, and assignments. But we chose the all remote version. Our reasoning was that these schools will all be converting to remote in a month or two anyways, so why keep up the facade. A better strategy for the schools would be to keep it simple, and put all their preparation efforts for a fully online platform. I think most of the reason for putting up the facade is because of the pressure from the parents who are unable to accept this new reality. 

For my little daughter we sure had imagined this year differently. We were thinking that she would be holding hands with her older sister, sharing seats on the school bus ride to school and back, and have great fun learning and socializing with her peers at school. It won't happen for another year, it seems. 

Anyways, I have to give it to the elementary school. They are doing all they can to prepare for the new situation. They distributed Chrome books today. I have received emails from the teachers about their preparation to keep kids engaged while teaching them over Zoom. I am happy to see that the elementary school principal has been showing great leadership in these difficult times. I am yet to see plans from the middle school, but I am hoping they will have a reasonable plan in place. 

As for my own teaching, it is all remote, again over Zoom. I am teaching Distributed Systems to a class of 40 seniors and 70 graduate students. Here are the syllabus and the slides for the first three classes. After add/drops we switch to Piazza for distributing the slides, and conducting the discussion. Here is another post about why I teach distributed systems the way I teach.

I was surprised to see that the Zoom teaching was much more interactive than in-person teaching. The students used the chat continuously. They were not shy about asking questions. Sometimes before I got a chance to answer the question, other students chimed in and answered the question, which was even better. In class, raising hands, getting picked to speed, and hearing the question has a transaction cost, both for me and the student. In the chat environment, this cost is low, and I started seeing a lot more questions and comments about the content. Moreover by using the yes, no buttons in the participant window the students can reply to my impromptu polling questions (e.g., Is this part clear? Do you know why this is this way?), and I can have monitor their comprehension much better. I use the erase all button to erase all the yes, nos before asking my next polling question.

Another nice thing about Zoom teaching is that none of us needed to drive all the way to the campus, search for parking, and walk all the way to the lecture hall. We all saved time. But, on the other hand, I miss that 5-10 minute walk to the lecture hall. That is when I made the final plans about which things to emphasize in the lecture, and how to go about them. Maybe I should take a walk in the neighborhood before the lecture. I do definitely take a walk after the lecture, because I am drained after a 100 minute lecture. Part of it is the fatigue of having to be in the spotlight as an introvert, and part of it is the regret rush from thinking I could have done better at certain parts of the lecture. (I talked about this in detail in this post.)

For connectivity, the first lecture on Monday was bad. I connected from the second floor, and wifi connection didn't hold well. I turned off the video, and used just the slide sharing, but there was still some parts I lagged. I recorded on the cloud to share with the students, and the lags were evident in the recording. One student suggested I look in to twitch. I checked it, downloading the twitch studio beta to make streaming work. But from the same location at the second floor, with wifi connectivity, twitch was worse than zoom for lagging. I think Twitch requires more upload bandwidth and/or processing than zoom. In the rest of that night up till 2am, I stayed up trying to get Zoom iPad screen sharing via wired connection to the laptop, it didn't work. I also tried connecting my laptop to Zoom as another participant and sharing the screen, but maybe it is how the UB Zoom account is structured, I could only share the whiteboard on ipad, but not the notepad app, or the slides.  I went to bed sour, angry, and cursing at computers and software.  

For the Wednesday lecture, I used a direct ethernet connection to the cable modem in our first floor in the living room and taught the class there. The connectivity was great, without any lags. The cloud recording I shared was very good quality. 

For my next class, I will use the slides as background feature in the share screen window under the advanced tab. This imposes my video directly on my screen shared slides. While I am more comfortable by sharing only the slides and not my face, several students said they will feel more engaged seeing me sweat while teaching. I tried it and it looks good. Unfortunately, it works only for ppt and keynote slides, and I prepare my slides in pdf using emacs org-mode export to beamer. It is possible to paste each pdf slide to keynote by picking each slide up from the thumbnail in viewer and pasting and resizing in keynote slide separately. But this is tedious. I downloaded this program (by Professor Melissa O'Neill), which automates this process. So I am ready for my upcoming lectures.

I expect that in a couple years a new startup will emerge and disrupt remote education both at the K12 and college level. Just for trying to catch up with announcements for three kids' logistics is a nightmare. Every instructor has a different timeline for homework and instruction. Maybe this won't be a startup but it will be a division inside Google, given that they have a big hold on the market with their Google Chromebook and Google Classroom play. But Google makes a lot of blunders when it comes to end-user facing products. Maybe Amazon or Microsoft will do something here, who knows. Zoom is also a big contender. I am praying it won't be Facebook though :-)

As for our family, we decided, we will try to make the most out of this. We get to spend more time with our kids, and this is priceless. I am sure, we will look back on this 15-20 years later, and think we were lucky to have spent more time with them. Because once they are out of the nest, we won't have that much opportunity to spend time together. 

UPDATE 9/8/2020: The Zoom slide as background feature does not allow marking up or point on the slides, so I am back to my pdf slides, and separate camera view. The interactivity of the class is still good, much better than in a physical classroom.

Comments

Unknown said…
The success of zoom for remote teaching/learning puts the interaction into a digital format. This sets up an opportunity to replace teachers by AI, though we are still far from this happening.

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