Teaching tech online amid the panic of coronavirus

COVID-19 makes everybody nervous, if not panicky. 

Consider the apprehension of undergraduate students and their professors suddenly forced to tackle Python coding or complex circuit board design in an online course.

At Purdue University, one of the nation’s largest engineering schools, online learning will start in earnest for 10,000 undergraduates and 4,000 graduate students after spring break on Monday.

“It’s definitely a huge sea change for us in academia,” said Prof. Donna Riley, the Kamyar Haghighi Head of the School of Engineering Education.

“Our motto is students first. This is going to be life-changing and life-disrupting,” she said in an interview with FierceElectronics. “This is online learning in an emergency by people who are super-stressed out.”

The biggest switch with online education requires professors to modify how they interact with students. “You have to build in how to make it personal,” she said. “Engineers can hide behind screens, but we have an opportunity to be human and let the student be human. They are displaced and may be traumatized or sick or with people who are sick, and that stress is significant and shouldn’t be ignored. Professors have to be interactive and have more of that humanity.”

E-learning can be face-to-face learning, she argued, as contradictory as that might seem. If professors ask for feedback on what works, “if you take a minute, students will tell you.”

There are myriad practical concerns as well. Some students will say they have an internet connection and a working computer, but that might not always be the case. In some regions of the world or the U.S., the connection will be poor. With about 25% international students in Purdue engineering programs, some might have no network alternative. Even the neighborhood Starbucks with free Wi-Fi is likely to be closed. “We’ll find out if the internet is good enough,” she said with a slight laugh.

An online program for Ph.D. engineering students has been underway for about 18 months, allowing some Purdue professors to try out a variety of collaboration and videoconferencing tools: WebEx, Zoom or even tools inside of a popular course support program called BlackBoard. With some students experiencing limited home bandwidth, the focus has been on offering short videos, some just five minutes, followed by an activity online or at home to reinforce a concept. Even a few miles outside of Purdue’s West Lafayette, Indiana, campus, fast internet isn’t always assured.

Asynchronous learning will replace some live classes at Purdue, Riley said. As with live-teaching engineering design to 120 students per class broken into teams of four students, each team in the e-class will be still have online access to an undergraduate teaching assistant. Students may be watching videos ahead of time instead of in-class. And instead of assigning each team of four where and how to meet, the team gets to decide. With Generation Z students, the challenges of going online and using unfamiliar technology are not as great as they might be for other generations, educators have said.

Worries about the low course completion rate at MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), some with thousands of students, usually come down to keeping those who drift away tuned in. Giving online students a chance to make decisions will help, she said.

“We have high expectations of our students,” Riley said. “We know how students learn and we’ll do our level best to make sure students meet those learning outcomes. There is a distancing that happens with online, but you can overcome that if you are intentionally designing it to connect students to one another. They are going to be in teams and with faculty and teaching assistants.”

One teaching module could eventually involve an instructor showing a design on a circuit board that students will design on an actual circuit board of their own, then taking a photo of it to share with their team or instructor. “Students will be learning how to work under adversity,” Riley said.

Even professional engineers in chip design face logistics problems with work from home (WFH), although there are some online tools that help. At NXP Semiconductors, thousands of engineers in China, India and other countries have been suddenly forced to WFH because of the virus. They can access hardware development boards located in “board farms” and labs which are networked and controlled via CI/CD (continuous integration and delivery) infrastructure. They work around network snafus by bringing home physical evaluation boards, but even that capability is being limited by strict quarantines and travel bans.

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At James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, Lecturer Laura Atkins has already taught online classes in upper level web design and development to undergraduates in the College of Business using WebEx for screen sharing. “There are a lot of online resources available,” she said.

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Starting Monday, she will be converting to online three sections of Python programming totaling 90 students. “It’s been a quick change,” she said. “I brought home a document camera that I can use, and typically do use in the classroom, to walk through code and explain concepts. This lets students see code a step at a time rather than a big jumble of stuff that can be hard to focus on.”

She also ordered an XP-PEN Deco Graphics Tablet with pen input for annotations in a document or program file.  “We’ll see how that works,” she said.  To allow students to upload code or ask questions, she will use Codeshare with WebEx.

“We are seeing a lot of support from publishers, making online resources available for free for the rest of the semester,” she said.

For online one-on-one meetings with students, she relies of WebEx Personal Meeting room for online office hours. “Students can queue up as they enter the meeting and I can ‘admit’ them one at a time,” Atkins said.

In addition to the 90 programming students suddenly going online, Atkins has another 25 students in an upper level Digital Ethics and Sustainability class that she created. Traditionally, students in that class, mostly graduating seniors, get to discuss searing topics about the future of artificial intelligence and its role in society. The question remains how lively—or disciplined—such a discussion will be online, although social media has demonstrated that most people aren’t shy.

“I created a Padlet, an anonymous online bulletin board,for each course so students can post their concerns and questions about the remainder of the semester,” Atkins said. “They’ve started posting questions, and I can then post an answer. I’ll use it to drive some discussion…when we have our first online session.”

As with other academics, Atkins is focused on keeping learning levels high as much as possible in the age of coronavirus. Many experts believe it can take months to develop effective online courses, but the sudden conversion to online formats has forced some universities and their students to scramble. “I believe online can be effective, although not as much so when you have to do it like this” with COVID-19 distancing concerns and travel bans.

“There are some really good methods for designing a course and teaching online,” Atkins added. “In this situation, however, we don’t have the time to redesign our courses. So, we may need to reduce the amount of material and focus on core concepts and really teaching those well, given the circumstances.”