Figure 1: Webcam pointed at a physics lab experiment, and shared via Blackboard Collaborate Ultra

Local+Remote Lab Classes

This article explains a potential way to teach physics lab classes in the time of COVID-19, in a way that gives students some hands-on experience with the equipment and preserves the collaborative element of working as lab partners. (750 words)

Planning for teaching physics labs in the Fall of 2020 is fraught with difficulties.   One way we might teach labs is to use video conferencing software and extra webcams to allow students to work together to collect real data using real laboratory equipment, in what I refer to as a local+remote arrangement1  (this may also be referred to as EVL.2)  Here’s how it might work:

  1. The class would meet at the scheduled time, but with only half of the students in the classroom and the other half  joining via video. Each student would log in to Blackboard and join the class using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra.  The students in the classroom would use the existing laptops for this, which all have a camera and a microphone.  The instructor would also join the video meeting, even though they are in the room (or maybe they are not?)
  2. It’s often the case that the instructor provides the whole class some background information or special instructions at the beginning of the class.  Some of this could be provided via a video recording before class, but the instructor could also present to the entire class by using the document camera. The images from the document camera would be transmitted to the remote students via Blackboard, but could also be shown to the local students using the room projector system. Details on how to use the document camera this way are given here.
  3. When students are ready to begin the experiment, the instructor can assign them to “break-out rooms” in Blackboard, putting one local student and one remote student together as lab partners. The lab partners can see each other and talk to each other to collaborate, but each group is independent of the others.
  4. A webcam is attached to the laptop in the classroom, and the local student can point it at the equipment and share the video from the camera with the remote student. (See Figure 1.)  This would give the remote student a more complete experience of the exercise, even though they are not in the room. Sharing video from an external webcam in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra is just as easy as sharing the screen or sharing an application window.3

    Figure 1: Webcam pointed at a physics lab experiment, and shared via Blackboard Collaborate Ultra

  5. If students working together have a question they can use the “raise my hand” feature in Blackboard to get the attention of the instructor, who can then join their break-out room to help them. If the instructor can answer questions or give guidance via the video link then they do not even have to remain in the room.  The instructor could do this from their office or another room.  If something breaks, or if there is another reason the instructor has to be in the room, then they can assist the local student in person, but then leave the room (or return to the instructor station) when they are done.
  6. If data are saved in files (eg. from Logger Pro) then those data files can and should be shared with the remote student before the lab session is over.  (Ideally the instructor will remind the local student to do so before they leave the room.)  The students may need to be reminded that the computers erase any files saved on them when they reboot.

Notes and References

  1. The term “hybrid” means a course that has both-in person and remote components, but nothing more.  I have been using the term “local+remote” to mean a hybrid class which is synchronous (meets at a certain specified time) where some of the students are in the classroom while others join via the computer, all at the same time.
  2. In an official chart of teaching modalities distributed to our campus community in early August this is referred to as “Extended Virtual,” with the abbreviation “EVL” in on-line course lists.  I don’t like that this is likely to be pronounced “evil”.
  3. It’s also just as easy to share an extra camera in Zoom, except that the option is in the “Advanced” part of the Zoom sharing menu.  WebEx does not (yet?) offer the option of sharing an extra webcam, though you can switch your video to a different camera (which is not quite as good).
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