Manfred Sigrist, Professor of Theoretical Physics, has been lecturing at ETH Zurich since 1995. He regards the huge blackboards in the lecture halls as key teaching aids. How is he getting on, now that students have not been allowed on campus since 16 March?
Remarkably good, actually. “With a great deal of improvisational skill and hastily purchased equipment, we were able to make the lecture halls suitable for video streaming,” says Marius Simon from Teaching Services at the Department of Physics. The empty seats now accommodate cables and cameras. A fascinating combination of physical and virtual presence is emerging during the lectures. A camera shows the large blackboard, in front of which Sigrist stands alone, chalk in hand, addressing his virtual audience. For experimental physics, Simon's team still physically sets up the experiments in the lecture hall so they can be integrated seamlessly into the lecture.
The rapid switch
This requires unusual ideas. Depending on students’ bandwidth, the blackboards can appear pixelated, so Sigrist takes a photo during the break and uploads it to the Moodle learning platform before wiping the board for the second half. He answers any questions at the end of the lecture. To do so, he stands in front of his laptop where he can read his students’ electronic messages, unlike when he is at the blackboard. In the meantime, an assistant ensures that he is connected to the virtual world.
The practical courses also take place via the video conferencing tool. The teaching assistants do not work with blackboard and chalk, however, but use electronic pens and tablets instead. “It works surprisingly well. I’m amazed at how quickly ETH implemented the switch,” says junior mathematics assistant Anna Knörr, currently also working from home. “We use the tool’s joint whiteboard function for our practical courses, which is great when the internet connection is good. I encourage everyone to turn on their camera and ask questions orally.”
The search for a new normal
The students are very grateful for the swift response of both ETH and the department, particularly when they compare their situation to that of students in other countries. They find it interesting to see how differently the professors use the tools, with some even enjoying developing new methods. Knörr is confident that “an evaluation over the coming weeks is likely to offer great potential for optimising all of ETH.”
She continues, “The most frustrating moment in the last few days was when my internet connection crashed.” She is not the only one under pressure. Many colleagues are also struggling with network problems at their temporary workstations at home, located as far as possible from other family members. Although many things are running more smoothly in the second week of working from home, the initial enthusiasm for the novel situation is wearing thin and a certain fatigue has begun to show. The objective now is to bring the fast pace back down to normal levels and establish a sound structure for the new day-to-day routine.
Communication is key
When struggling with technical problems at home, it is all the more important to stay well informed. Communication is vital, therefore, not just at university level but also within the department. As well as publishing information on the coronavirus crisis in a prominent position on its website, the Department of Physics has set up a wiki to facilitate discussion between the teaching staff and researchers. Feedback has been very positive, meaning that the major effort has paid off.
The department’s IT Service Group had its own challenges to contend with, patiently helping with support to maintain the information flow in the new home office environment, ensuring that hardware was working and that the tools provided, some of which were new, could quickly be put to use. Solutions have also been found for informal networking: the Quantum Science and Technology lunch seminar is about to go online, which involves the approximately 30 participants eating together at their workstations. Some groups have already introduced virtual coffee breaks.