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Episode Notes

Episode Title: Hustling to go Online. Dr Sridhara Dasu, Chair, Physics Department, U of Wisconsin Madison. Part I

Episode summary introduction: It was becoming clear to the University of Wisconsin Madison, that the Coronavirus was a real threat to the campus population. College leadership took quick action to evacuate the campus and continue the semester online.

From his vantage point, the Chair of Physics Department, Dr Sridhara Dasu gives us an account on how it all went down.

In particular, we discuss the following with him:

  • How did University of Wisconsin make the decision to close the campus?
  • How did the faculty convert in class material to online?
  • Grading for the online session

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • The Campus Shuts down [2:01]
  • Scrambling to get ready to teach online [4:52]
  • Letter Grade or No Letter Grade? [9:33]
  • Surprising Benefits with Online Classes and Staff Meetings [12:43]

Our Guest: Dr Sridhara Dasu, Chair of the Physics Department, University of Wisconsin Madison.

Memorable Quote: "We just sort of muddled through”

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Episode Transcript

Transcript of the episode’s audio.

Venkat  0:12

It hadn't happened in over a 100 years! At that time, in the Fall of 1918, the Spanish flu' was sweeping through the US, closing colleges in its wake.

This year in March, College after college was shuttering its campuses as the novel coronavirus was spreading. This time however, students were being sent home and instruction was to continue online.

To get an inside account into how one school and one department hustled, to get it's in-class curriculum online within a couple of weeks, we caught up with Dr Sridhara Dasu, Chair of the Physics Department at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Over to Dr Sridhara Dasu!

Dr Dasu 1:03

Hi Venkat!

Venkat  1:04  

Hey Sridhar, welcome to our podcast. How are you?

Dr Dasu  1:07  

I'm doing fine. How are you?

Venkat  1:09  

I'm doing well. Thank you. Thanks for making the time. I know you guys are very busy, and just wanted to spend some time talking to you about and get your views on, you know, all the stuff that's going in the pandemic world and how it's impacting colleges and in particular, what, you know, University of Wisconsin and your department, etc. So, that's the broad context of what I wanted to, sort of, chat with you about.

So maybe the best way to start is at the beginning, you know, maybe just a little sort of history on how the shutdown came about. And then you know, how the various operations came to a halt. So just, sort of, give us a picture of that.

Dr Dasu  2:01  [The Campus Shuts down]

Okay, so a couple of weeks before Wisconsin spring break early March, we were, everybody of course was getting worried about how this is going to affect people. And large congregations of people was definitely already known as an issue.

And all our universities are prone to this particular problem. And in particular the dorm room. People are going to be roomed in bunk beds and very close spaces. So they're basically 24 hours here together with somebody.

And you also have large classes where the seating is sort of very close by, people are sitting together and eating. So people started getting worried already about that, but Wisconsin being far up north and far from big cities, was not really a problem. But we were already concerned that things are going to go wrong. Because in spring break people are going away to all over the world, and coming back to campus.

Dr Dasu  3:09  

So even before the spring break, we had decided that we have to tackle this.

So some of us who are in the administration got together a few times, and that upper management of the university decided that after the spring break, we will not come back to classes in Madison, but rather we participate remotely and we were asked all departments, all faculty were asked to prepare for online teaching, effective the week after the spring break, with the idea that maybe it's only for two weeks or three weeks because at the time, the COVID-19 thing had a 14 week, 14 day gestation period, I thought that, people thought that after 14 days things can go back to normal.

It seems like a long time ago, but it's so different from reality that it comes, it almost sounds funny right now that we would think that we can resume in early April, but it was clear that there was no way to go forward. So even during the spring break, while we were preparing for online classes, we already decided that this entire semester is going to be that way. So that's how it started.

And all the faculty worked hard during the spring break and prepare for online classes. So that's how it got started.

Venkat  4:36  

Was it difficult converting sort of the in class, you know, lectures and instruction to online I mean, was that a big big bridge or was that reasonably straightforward?

Dr Dasu  4:52  [Scrambling to get ready to teach online]

Oh! It wasn't straightforward at all, and I don't think that we have even crossed the bridge, I would say that we pushed it along. So this is actually our finals week. So we're just coming to the end of the semester on this one, and we just sort of muddled through, is one reasonable description of what happened.

But I will say though, the colla..., it was very, very collaborative and some groups and some departments have done better than the others. I'm pretty sure. But, it was just something that was put together in a rush, in a very kludgy way. This is certainly what not what we would have done, if we're doing online teaching.

Venkat  5:35  

Sure, sure. Yeah.  But you have to do what you had to do. I mean, it was Yeah, an emergency. Yeah. Yeah. Fair enough.

And And how about the, so what did you guys do with the labs and stuff? I mean, given the physics I would imagine there's a lot of physical real physical stuff to do, right?

Dr Dasu  5:50  

Yeah. So the, let me talk about big classes that we teach called the service courses which lot of engineers, medical students and non-physics majors take.

These classes, they have several hundred students. And they do, we do basically big lectures first, and the lecture usually accomplish, accompanied by big demonstration setups. And these setups are particularly useful at illustrating to the students why there is interest in this topic, and what are the physical principles involved and concepts, those things are very useful.

That's the only thing that sets us apart from let's say, Khan Academy's or the world where they can also teach introductory physics, but these demonstrations and having a live interactive nature of this in a classroom setting, is what makes the university course more interesting.

So if somehow that is gone and then it's probably better to use other more professionally made online material. So we had to [in audible]. So we incorporated it.

So we have these lecture demos, as we call them. So I went down there two or three days, while the university was shutdown, to, to go and videotape a whole bunch of demos. And I put them up on YouTube for my students to watch in the context of the lecture. My colleague, my colleague went and videotaped the lectures, you know, instead of a 50-minute lecture, it was like 20 minutes, 15 minutes or something like that. And we video-taped it and put it online.

And then during the actual class, what we did is for those who were able to connect, not all students can connect because they don't have internet, which is suitable or they're in different time zones. 850am, when I teach is, maybe 650 for someone, they're not going to wake up, right?

So logistical issues of whether the person is available, to connect or not, due to various reasons or not, so, we did not want to deprive one student compared to others.

So, everything was available for offline or synchronous online communication. So, it causes quite a bit of effort, and for, for the lecturer and the lecture demo person, and then all the discussion sections and labs are done in groups of 20 people or so, and that led by TAs.

And students actually get to work with experiments, play with them and take data. Now, they cannot come and play with the equipment and take the data. So, we organized the TAs and some of the lab, lab assistants to go and make videotapes of their taking data, not of people but of the instruments as the, as the settings were changed, how the readings came about, and so on. So the entire experiment was sort of videotaped. When the experiment was being done by the TAs, or the lab assistants, and we have those videotapes, we uploaded them and provided the data that was acquired to the tools so they can do the analysis and try to report and answer some questions about now.

That is not really an experience that we would like our students to have. But that's the best that we could manage.

Venkat  9:27  

So then what happens to grading and stuff like that? I mean, did you guys go with pass fail or was that…?

Dr Dasu  9:33  [Letter Grade or No Letter Grade?]

Yeah. so this was decided at the higher levels of the university. And I, I'm actually on, being the chair of our department here, I'm part of a group called the Midwest chairs group. These are faculty who are chairs of physics departments across the country. I noticed that this is something that was followed by majority of the universities which is the students are given an option of taking a Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory grade.

But in Wisconsin we decided that the faculty themselves will follow through and give the usual letter grades. And then the students have an option, they can either keep the letter grade, or they can change to Satisfactory or or not!

And it's expected of course, that if a person got an A the person will not want to change it to Satisfactory. That was the idea that, those who are getting As should not be deprived of the A grades and have before should take satisfied. So they ended up I think becoming high grade or Satisfactory or Not satisfactory. So that's basically what I think it'll end up being that people with A's or B, B pluses, but very rarely people with a C or a D will keep the grade, but rather they'll change it to satisfactory.

Venkat  10:56  

So, okay, I mean, it's a good good compromise, I suppose...

Dr Dasu  11:01  

But there are more complications associated with that.

Most of the time these grades are useful from the point of view of advancement in people's academic careers. Somebody wants to go to Grad school, That's when the actual grade matters, if someone's going to work in a company, nobody's gonna care whether they got A or a Satisfactory grade in a particular course.

But usually, graduate admissions committees place a lot of emphasis on the letter grades of the previous undergraduate education program.

So what we had, what I have advised our graduate program committee, that they should ignore the Spring Semester grades. And I suggested this as a possibility for department chairs across the country to agree, on, that we ignore the semester grades in making [graduate] admissions next year, And almost everybody says, ‘Yeah, that's a no brainer we should do, we should not be looking at the actual letter grades.”

So I don't think that the actual letter grades this semester matter, whatever they're called.

Venkat  12:14  

You know, the other part you just said is actually a pretty interesting or is really a challenge, because you said that people are isolated, which we all understand staying at home so they don't have access to the help nor can be, you know, consult with somebody, get somebody you know, physically to help them, create things.

So how did all the department meetings and all that obviously, you do it on zoom or something? I'm assuming that they went on..

Dr Dasu  12:43  [Surprising Benefits with Online Classes and Staff Meetings]

The number of meetings went up because now I can't say that I can't make it because I am traveling or something.

Everybody's at home, and everybody assumes that you're available 24 x 7 then meeting number of meetings have gone up and the meeting attendance actually has gone up also. We're doing a lot of meetings online. And there have been, I think the meetings wise, they're quite effective.

I should point out one little thing. So, I'm using a tool called BB Collaborate, some vendor, there are many such things. It's like Zoom, another one, which Dean was, he has signed up with.

[Students ask more questions!]

It's actually very interesting that when you're teaching synchronously in my large class, and there are 150 people, 300 people sitting in a room, very rarely people raise their hand and ask a question. But in this online thing, it's completely different. People are asking questions, and they're much more audible, when they ask the question and the classes are much more interactive.

As a result of that turned out to be I think, pedagogically it turned out to be better. So one could actually make this thing nicer long term, maybe more useful than a big lecture hall setting, where you just give me a talk.

Venkat 14:13  

That's, that's interesting. I wonder why, but it is maybe they have fewer distractions, they are forced to, you know, or maybe maybe they feel comfortable. It's like, you know, being behind the wheel of a car, you're far more aggressive than when you're, you know, in a group or something.

Dr Dasu  14:29  

I don’t know what it is,...but people are much more…

Venkat  14:30  

Interesting...

Dr Dasu  14:32  

It's sort of either you need to be looking at the list of people who are connected are the numbers of people who are connected, but still, they're not all around you and they don't feel as intimidated.

Even if there are [a] thousand people connected, your screens not gonna look that much different because all you're seeing is a slide and a small window where the names are there. So I think it's a lot easier to ask questions. They raise their hand and ask a question. When people raise a hand on this tool, it's very easy for me to see that.

Dr Dasu  15:06  

Whereas in a 300-person room, if somebody raises a hand, I would never notice.

Yeah. So I think that classes are being more interactive and hopefully, more useful for the student.

I did notice that the number of students attending, you know, in large classes, the attendance starts out, at around and not over 95% in the beginning, and it just goes down to close to 50% by the end of the semester.

And online, it went down to one third, I would say, but there's a big difference in the sense that we have made all the lectures available for people to watch offline when they feel like, yet there were a third of the group attending.

So I was not entirely disappointed by the [online] attendance, I would say it was fine.

Venkat 16:04

Hope you enjoyed Part I of our conversation with Dr Sridhara Dasu, Chair of the Physics Dept at University of Wisconsin Madison. I also hope that you found the behind the scenes look both interesting and informative.

Thank you so much for listening to today's podcast. Part II of our conversation with Dr Dasu will drop soon.

These podcasts are brought to you by almamatters.io. Till we meet again, take care and be safe. Thank you!


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