Recently a lot of universities, including my own, have been asked to conduct teaching online due to the COVID-19 outbreak. For a while, I did quite a lot of online teaching and tuition, so I thought I would share this in case it helps anyone else teaching Mathematics or related fields. I found online tuition for mathematics very effective, and sometimes even better than face-to-face tuition for some topics.

Chalk and Talk

Mathematics is an unusual sport in that the vast majority of it still involves a lot of traditional teaching; the lecturer writes on some kind of board and students copy some of it down. Although blackboards and chalk are not so common anymore, the basic principle of developing a proof or an argument, or performing a calculation live in front of students is still, I think, a very common form of teaching. (For some discussion of this, I love Prof. Korner’s essay, “In Praise of Lectures”)

Replacing this face-to-face learning with an online equivalent is therefore essential, so here are some tools that might help. Essentially, there’s three things you need: something to write on, a decent web camera, and the right software.

Mathematicians tend to be quite computer literate, and a large number don’t like Microsoft windows, and use mac, or linux- compatibility in hardware and software is also needed.

Writing

Handwriting is still important in Mathematics, so having some hardware that allows writing on a screen is essential.

  • I use a drawing tablet to draw, which essentially replaces a mouse with a pen, and enables you to write when you depress a mechanical nib on a special mat. Personally, I chose a VEIKK A30 Digital Drawing Tablet which is ten inches by six inches (about the size of an A4 piece of paper), and costs about £50. I use it with linux, but it is also compatible with Windows and Mac. (The market leader is Wacom, but in my opinion this is much more expensive, but overkill for mathematics- budding artists, etc, may find it has more features which are not needed.)
  • Some people prefer to draw directly on the screen of a device. I found this a little less good myself, as you are always looking down, and there is a small but annoying delay between writing and it appearing on the screen. These are much more expensive options, but if you are in the market for a new tablet or computer, worth considering. Some options, which really depend on your ecosystem:
    • The new iPads all work with an optional Apple Pencil, but this is close to £500, even with the educational discount. I find the baseline model (10.2″ diagonal, slightly smaller than A4) a little small for writing a page of mathematics, and the bigger ipad pros are better, but more expensive. I found it slightly annoying to change between apps as well, and you are always charging them.
    • The samsung galaxy tablets and the S-pen are very good for android uses, but have many of the same flaws as the ipad. They come at 10.5 inches, but again are above £400 quid.
    • I really like the 2-in-1 devices, which are PCs that come with a stylus with which you can draw on the screen, and can run Windows or even Linux. I have a Dell XPS 2 in 1, as the pen is fantastic, but there are many options now which might suit all budgets.

Webcamera and microphone

If you do a lot of online tuition or teaching, having a decent quality webcamera and microphone is important for audience experience. You may have one built into your PC or laptop, but this makes a big difference for the recipients of your teaching.

I use a Logitech C920 webcamera, which records in HD (1080p), so is good quality, and also records sound well. It is compatible with linux (and Windows and Mac). You can spend more or less, but at around £50, this is a good investment in my opinion, and a good balance between cost and functionality.

Software

Here there is a lot of choice, and your choice in software might be imposed on you by your institution. Some tools I like:

  • For live one-to-one or one-to-n teaching, where n≤4, I really like bitpaper . Essentially you can share a whiteboard between you and your students/ collaborators, see each other, and all of you can draw on it just as if you were standing by a whiteboard. It is multi-platform, and works across all browsers. You can also cut and paste images, upload files, and share screen. This is free.
  • For recording videos, Explain Everything is a great tool. There’s a small learning curve, but again you can write on the screen , add in images, pdfs, show examples of software, and then edit a video afterwards, and upload to youtube, a VLE, or wherever you like. (Here’s an example of a fun probability problem I did to mostly try out the software.) To produce polished videos takes some time, but to record your own writing on a whiteboard is very easy. Apps exist for apple and android.
    I have used for recorded videos, but live collaboration is also possible.
    There is a free option, although the paid for option is worthwhile if you want to use any of the advanced features.
    (Note you can use this with Panopto or any other broadcast tool as well- so record whilst you teach.)
  • For lectures or one-to-many broadcast, I am yet to find a perfect option
    • Most institutions I have worked at or visited use panopto for lecture capture, and you may have a good setup in your institutional lecture rooms which negate you doing a lot more work. If you can’t use your university lecture rooms, you can also download a client to your own PC which lets you stream from your webcam and broadcast your screen. Chat rooms are also possible so participants can ask questions. Often Panopto recordings are integrated with vitrual learning environments such as blackboard.
      If your institution has subscribed to this, it is probably the best option, although the software does not run on linux, and I have found university admins sometimes put some restrictions on what is allowed- worth talking to them though!.
    • Many universities use Skype for Business (being renamed as Microsoft Teams) , and it does have a whiteboard option. I have found skype sessions quite difficult to arrange as the cross-platform support tends to be mixed. Recording can also be added on centrally (at an institutional level) or you can record using other software. It is getting better, and if your organisation already has this tool, it’s well worth checking out.
    • Youtube live has great cross-platform compatibility, but doesn’t have a built in whiteboard. You can use another whiteboard, and share your screen, and broadcast it via youtube. This is something that pretty much everyone can see, on their TV, phone, computer, wherever, so to broadcast to the masses, this could also be a good technique. Participants have the ability to chat, which may or may not be constructive!
    • Zoom is a web conferencing software that includes the ability to share a whiteboard. I like it as it works very well cross platform, and is easy to send a link to someone to join in and view on the web. There are severe limits on the free plan (one-to-one meetings and 40 mins maximum), but the paid plans (around £12 per month) are a good option for recreating a lecture environment. Ultimately, if money were no object, this is a very good tool.

I’d be interested to hear any other great solutions in the comments below or drop me an email at web (at) ben-parker.co.uk