Teaching on a Snow Day, Take 2

For the second year in a row, both my kids’ schools had snow days on a Monday when I normally teach advanced biostatistics to the Yale RWJ Clinical Scholars. And for the second year in a row, technology came to the rescue.

Last year I stayed home and recorded my lecture with Powerpoint and Quicktime, and posted it on Youtube. My students watched at their leisure, and we all stayed safely away from some nasty driving conditions. To my complete surprise, this lecture has also turned out to be rather popular outside Yale as more than 17,000 people have watched it!

The downside to last year’s solution was that the class lost all interactivity, something I value quite a bit. I normally answer a fair number of questions in person, and we often discuss specific issues my students have run into in analyzing their own data. Another big part of the class is what I call the “problem break,” where they split into small groups and apply the method at hand to answer a substantive question using real data.

This year, instead of sacrificing the interactivity, I decided to stay home and teach live using the same Zoom video conferencing software that I use when I teach online over the summer. I sent everyone the web link to my Zoom conference room, and at 10:30 sharp four students had already logged in from either their homes or offices. They could see me and I could see them. A few minutes later another 8 students logged in from a laptop in the classroom where I normally teach. They had plugged one student’s laptop into the projector so everyone could see me on the big screen. Unfortunately the power cord didn’t reach quite far enough for them to be able to position the laptop’s camera so I could see them. The microphone also faced the wrong direction, so one of the students had to sit close to the laptop and act as the designated questioner for the whole group since I couldn’t hear them all very well.

I shared my presentation slides with everyone, started teaching, and annotated my slides as needed using my trusty Wacom tablet. When it was time for a problem break, I was very excited to try Zoom’s brand new breakout room feature for the first time in a real class. The software can randomly assign students to as many separate video conference rooms as you want, but I manually constructed one breakout room with the eight students that were physically together and another room for the other four. Then I bounced back and forth between the two rooms making sure the groups were progressing. When we were ready, I pulled everyone back into the main conference room with a single button click.

The two hour class went by quickly and to be honest, the whole experience was darned close to what happens when we’re all physically in the same room. And with just a few tweaks (like an extension cord and maybe a higher quality external microphone) it would be even closer.