Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Week 2 -- Barely Keeping my Head Above Water

Here we are Monday of week 3 and I haven't blogged last week. That should give you some indication of how things are going -- busy, busy, busy. However, most of the business is due to logistical setup -- getting everyone accounts on our custom grading server -- and getting the students through their first "submission" (a check-in on assignment one which is really due next week).

So, how are things going?

I'd say they are going well. We've dealt with some of the issues surrounding our new classroom:

  • I tried writing on a small whiteboard for the first class -- it was totally invisible to the back of the room. So now I bring my tablet (my nifty new surface), hook it up to the projection system, fire up Bluebeam (a terrific PDF editor), and use that to scribble.
  • Running one handheld microphone among 132 students (that's the registration number for the college; it will change a bit over the next few weeks) doesn't work. I've gotten the OK to buy 4-5 more microphones, which should solve the problem.
  • Everyone likes it so much, they want to use it other times! We've gotten OK to hold office hours there after class -- that's pretty cool (and exactly what I predicted).

So what were the big issues this week?


As I've not done this class before nor has it ever been flipped, I really don't have a good sense of how much material the students will get through in a class. I've designed the first few days' exercises so that if we didn't finish them, it would be OK, but students still stress if A) they don't finish everything and B) they feel as if others are doing "better" because they got through more. I'm working to produce exercises everyone can get through, but it's quite challenging. I've taken to writing up "answers" after the fact so that students who didn't finished can go back and check what they missed. Of course, that takes time away from preparing the pre-class videos and in-class exercises. I spent almost all my waking moments on the course (when I'm not producing NIH formatted biosketches): preparing slides, recording audio/video/screen capture, designing in-class exercises, designing pre-class surveys, creating accounts on various servers, reading Piazza, answering Piazza, replying to email, holding web conferences. I'd forgotten what it means to do a large course (132 Harvard College plus 60 Harvard Extension). If you don't hear from me this semester, you'll know why!

Web Conferencing

Well, we did our first web conference for the extension students. The good news is that it feels very similar to what goes on in class -- some of the small groups work well; some have slightly bigger discrepancies in skill set, but the same interactions and questions seem to come up. The bad news is that working these "rooms" is really challenging. Two of us did the first one and I was completely exhausted afterwards. There is just a lot to keep track of (it's especially problematic if people have poor connectivity -- they keep popping out of their breakout rooms and you have to manually put them back). That said, we had about half the class show up (the timing is bad for those in Europe and Asia).

I've also been using the web conference for office hours and I like that a great deal. (We're using Adobe Connect.) I can "hang out" in the room and students show up and I can talk with them; if they need privacy we can jump into a breakout room, otherwise, everyone gets to benefit from each other's questions. So far, so good.

Post-Class Statistics

After every class, we ask for a bit of feedback about how useful the class and exercises were. It seems that most people find them pretty handy (I wonder if this would change if we stopped asking for email address -- I think I'll try that)? Only a handful (2-3) people hate working with their peers and felt that the exercises didn't help them. In general, 80% and above find them useful and/or enjoyable. I'm pretty good with that.

A Picture

I got a request for a photo of the new space!

Find all posts about flipping this course here.


  1. Hello Margo,

    I am one of the extension students taking CSCI E-61 this semester and happen to stumble upon your blog. I just wanted to say my experience with this class so far has been amazing! I really appreciate the effort you and your staff put into this class. Despite the technical difficulties, I had a great experience so far with the web conference breakout rooms. The in-class work does not get finished in time and I am sure different breakout rooms get through it with different speeds, but having answers posted to them is helpful.

    1. Thanks so much for writing! As is evident, I don't have quite as much time as I might want to follow up on everything, and checking for comments on the blog hasn't happened until now.

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