Examinations via Skype.

My experience with an examination via Skype.

In 2012, I taught two lectures via Skype at the University Centre of the Westfjords, while actually physically sitting in Norway. That experience is described in this post. When writing that post, I remembered that I also have experience in doing examinations via Skype. Except that experience was as a student, not as a teacher. In 2011, I defended a Master’s thesis at the University of Hamburg while, again, being physically located in Norway. How did that work out?

Defending a thesis via Skype is not that uncommon these days and actually a very easy, cheap and environmentally friendly way of defending when you no longer live in the place where you studied (or when you cannot travel there for other reasons). The way it worked in my case was that I had two opponents on the call, and since we were all to cheap for the upgrade, we could only hear each other and did not have a video connection. Which made it less stressful for me – when I am video-skyping, I tend to focus on my own video way too much, and thinking about how weird my hair looks or how I should sit in a specific position to block something behind me that would otherwise be visible. This tends to take away brain power from the topic I should be focussing on. Since I knew both their voices, there was also not an issue with knowing who was speaking at any given time (if you are ever on a call/skype with a group of people and there is even one person who doesn’t know everybody else really well: Please make sure to always announce who you are when you start speaking!).

I had to give a presentation, which I did by sending them the slides in advance and asking them to look at specific slides while I was talking about them. Thanks to my friend Nadine who let me borrow her apartment, I had a fast internet connection and privacy. What more do you need?

The only stressful time was waiting for them to call back after the exam when they were discussing my grade, but I guess that is a really stressful time no matter the setting.

So yes – examinations via Skype are actually a good option! No bad experiences here.

Hydrothermal springs

Hydrothermal springs that you can visit without a deep-sea submersible.

When teaching about hydrothermal springs, I usually use a video a friend of mine took of hydrothermal vents on the mid-Atlantic ridge on the WHOI submersible Alvin. But being on Iceland now, there is much better material available which students can even go and experience themselves.

In the Blue Lagoon close to Reykjavik.

I am too chicken to take my camera under water in the Blue Lagoon to film the hot springs, but there are other hot springs all over Iceland that are less scary, for example this one that my friend Astrid found in the middle of a meadow.

View from the top into the hot spring – do you see the bubbles breaking the surface?

And here I even dared take my camera under water.

View of the hot spring under water – that’s where the bubbles come from!

Granted, this is not quite as impressive as a black smoker or the Blue Lagoon. But the water in the whole little lake was warmer than about 40 degrees Celsius, and the hot spring is sitting randomly in a field. That’s hand-on geothermal heating for you!

On drawing on the board by hand in real time

Drawing by hand on the board in real time rather than projecting a finished schematic?

It is funny. During my undergrad, LCD projectors were just starting to arrive at the university. Many of the classes I attended during my first years used overhead projectors and hand-written slides, or sometimes printed slides if someone wanted to show really fancy things like figures from a paper. Occasionally people would draw or write on the slides during class, and every room that I have ever been taught in during that time did have several blackboards that were used quite frequently.

These days, however, things are differently. At my mom’s school, many classrooms don’t even have blackboards (or whiteboards) any more, but instead they have a fancy screen that they can show things on and draw on (with a limited number of colors, I think 3?). Many rooms at universities are similarly not equipped with boards any more, and most lectures that I have either seen or heard people talk about over the last couple of years exclusively use LCD projectors that people hook up to their personal laptops.

On the one hand, that is a great development – it is so much easier to show all kinds of different graphics and also to find and display information on the internet in real time. On the other hand, though, it has become much more difficult to talk students through graphics slowly enough that they can draw with you as you are talking and at the same time understand what they are drawing.

Sketch of the mechanisms causing westward intensification of subtropical gyres – here the “before” stage where the symmetrical gyre would spin up since the wind is inputting more vorticity that is being taken out by other mechanisms.

The other day, I was teaching about westward intensification in subtropical gyres. For that, I wanted to use the schematics above and below, showing how vorticity input from the wind is balanced by change in  vorticity through change in latitude as well as through friction with the boundary. I had that schematic in my powerpoint presentation, even broken down into small pieces that would be added sequentially, but at last minute decided to draw it on the whiteboard instead.

Sketch of the mechanisms causing westward intensification of subtropical gyres – here the “after” stage – the vorticity input by wind is balanced by energy lost through friction with the western boundary in an asymmetrical gyre. Voila -your western boundary current!

And I am convinced that that was a good decision. Firstly, drawing helped me mention every detail of the schematic, since I was talking about what I was drawing while drawing it. When just clicking through slides it happens much more easily that things get forgotten or skipped. Secondly, since I had to draw and talk at the same time, the figure only appeared slowly enough on the board that the students could follow every step and copy the drawing at the same time. And lastly, the students saw that it is actually possible to draw the whole schematic from memory, and not just by having learned it by heart, but by telling the story and drawing what I was talking about.

Does that mean that I will draw every schematic I use in class? Certainly not. But what it does mean is that I found it helpful to remember how useful it is to draw occasionally, especially to demonstrate how I want students to be able to talk about content: By constructing a picture from scratch, slowly building and adding on to it, until the whole theory is completed.

Why do we get an Ekman spiral?

Visualizing an Ekman spiral using a deck of cards.

To state this right upfront: this post will not explain why the surface layer is moving at a 45 degree angle to the wind direction, and if anyone has a great idea for a simple demo for that please let me know! It will also not explain why the layers are turning further and further the deeper down you go. But what I am trying to do today is give an intuitive understanding for why all the theoretical layers in the water column turn in response to the surface layer and hence why an Ekman spiral develops if we accept that the surface layer is turning relative to the wind direction.

Demonstrating the formation of an Ekman spiral using a deck of cards.

You will need a deck of cards. Bonus points if they are “salmon fly” cards like mine (seriously – who could walk past a deck of cards with salmon flies on them? Plus I needed a deck of cards because I was already in Iceland when I realized I wanted to show this demo).

All you do now is put the stack in front of you. Put your hand on the top card, twist gently while applying a little bit of pressure. Voila – your Ekman spiral develops! It is turning the wrong way round, but the main point is that the twist is being transferred downwards from layer to layer and not only the top layer twisting while the other layers stay motionless.

And because people seem to always like movies:

Q&A pairs

Have students group in pairs, develop and answer questions.

It is really hard to come up with exam questions (or even just practice questions) that have the right level of difficulty so that students feel challenged, but confident that they will be able to solve the questions.

One way to develop those questions is to not actually develop them yourself, but have students develop them. So what I did in CMM31 was to ask students to group in pairs of two and develop questions that they thought would be fair exam questions. So they should be difficult enough that students have to think and employ a lot of what they learned during the course, but they should not be so difficult that they are impossible to answer.

You would think now that students would come up with really easy questions in order to trick you into giving an easy exam, wouldn’t you? There is a way to avoid this: After students have developed the questions in pairs (and made sure they know the correct answer), you can go around the room and have everybody share their question with the rest of the group (see? now having a difficult question makes you look smart!). The rest of the group answers the question, the person who asked the question has to say whether they are happy with the answers, or add to the answers if they feel like important aspects were not mentioned. Plus since there is an instructor in the room, he or she can always comment on the answers.

I usually say I give the students 10 minutes to come up with the questions (so 5 minutes each) and it then ends up being something like 6 or 7 minutes each. Since I’m sitting in the same room and listening in on the conversation, I can adapt the timing so it works best. Then it usually takes about 3 minutes to answer each of the questions so that everybody, including the instructor, is happy. So depending on the size of your group you might want to split the group into smaller groups so that exercise doesn’t take up too much time.

I find that using this Q&A pair method gives me a pretty good insight into what concepts students perceive as difficult, and how well the group as a whole can answer the questions. Since it is not the instructor asking the question, it seems to be much easier for students to throw in ideas (and I make sure that as the instructor I am not standing in front of the class, and when students start talking to me rather than the group, I point out who asked the question and that they should be talking to that person).

It does take up a lot of class time, but it is using class time for concepts that students feel are important and worth talking about.

Interference of waves.

Movie on wave interference – two wave fields arriving perpendicular to each other, interacting and leaving.

When talking about waves, it is often difficult to explain that wave heights of different components of a wave field can be added to each other to give a resulting wave field, but that each of those components continues to travel with its own direction and speed and comes out of the wave field basically unaltered. Students learn about constructive, destructive and complex interference (see image below), but it is hard to realize that those interactions are only momentary.

Constructive, destructive and complex interference of waves.

When I was on my way up to Isafjördur to teach CMM31, my friend Astrid and I happened to find the perfect example for the phenomenon described above. We were in Gardur in southwest Iceland and took a sunset walk to the lighthouse.

Old lighthouse in Gardur, southwest Iceland.

The lighthouse is located at the end of a pier and we observed a spectacular wave field. Two distinct fields were meeting each other at an almost 90 degree angle, interacted and left on the other side still clearly recognizable.

Two wave crests meeting at approximately 90 degree angle.

The waves met, interacted, and left the area of interaction. Watch the movie below to get an impression!

Standing waves.

A seesaw to visualize how standing waves move in an enclosed basin.

In enclosed basins, standing waves can occur. In the simplest case, they have a node in the middle and the largest amplitudes at the edges of the basin. The movement of the water’s surface then closely resembles that of a seesaw.

A seesaw. Largest amplitudes at the ends, node in the middle.

Extremely simple but extremely effective visualization!

Progressive waves on a rope

Visualization of progressive waves: wave form and energy move forward while the rope itself stays in place.

When I talked about waves in GEOF130 recently, in order to explain the concept of progressive waves, I showed a drawing from one of the textbooks, where someone was moving a rope such that waves traveled on the rope. The idea was to show that for progressive waves the wave form and energy travel, while the matter itself stays more or less in place, only moving up and down or in circular orbital motions.

The look I got from one of the students for showing that drawing confused me a bit and I am still not sure whether it was a “I have no idea what you are trying to tell me!” or a “Duh! Are we in kindergarden?”, but I think it was probably closer to the former. So from now on I will carry a piece of rope on me to show this in lectures and to have students try themselves.

A wave shape traveling forward on a rope, while the rope itself stays in place.

I filmed a quick video because it was difficult to watch the wave while exciting it myself, but it turns out it is even more difficult to hold a camera more or less steady while exciting waves at the same time, plus the movement is pretty quick even for a camera as awesome as mine. Anyway, if you want to procrastinate learn more about waves, watch this!

Long-distance teaching.

My experiences with giving a lecture via Skype.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I taught two lectures at the University Centre of the Westfjords, Iceland, in 2012 while physically being in Norway. How did that work out?

Teaching via Skype is a great option for when travel is not in the cards, be it for environmental, economic or other reasons. But I can tell you – it is a lot more stressful than teaching in person because you miss out on all of the non-verbal clues that tell you whether or not students are following. But I would do it again any time!

Why did it work out well? I think there were several important factors. In no particular order:

1) I over-prepared. I tend to be over-prepared, but in this case I put a lot of time into preparations, and I even talked through both lectures with a friend to make sure they were structured in a way that was easy to understand.

2) I had all the important key words on the slides. I always try to make sure to have key words on my slides so students can write down any weird technical terms that I might use and forget to explain, but in this case I defined everything on the slides.

3) I had an ally physically present in the class room. I think this was probably the most important reason for why things worked out really well and why my stress levels didn’t go through the roof when we realized that the internet connection was too weak for a two-way video. When departing for a research cruise from Reykjavik and visiting someone at their marine research institute, I happened to walk into the lab of the person who was responsible for the course, Hrönn. Hrönn and I clicked immediately and so while I was on Skype talking to the class, I knew I could rely on her to make sure things went well on the other end and to give me all the crucial information that would otherwise not have been communicated – if students got bored, if students looked like they did not understand, if everybody had left the room and left me sitting there, talking, if the connection was so bad people couldn’t understand me, etc.. Even though in the end she did not have to do anything, it helped enormously to know that she was there and would let me know if things went wrong.

4) I introduced myself to the students. I put up a picture of myself, talked about my background, where I was living, why I was interested in oceanography, why I was skyping in to give the lecture. During the lecture, I mentioned examples of how the topic was relevant to my personal life and told stories of my own experiences. Teaching via Skype adds a lot of distance – I tried to still be visible as a person and connecting on a personal level as much as possible.

5) I sent the slides before the call. This might seem obvious, but it really helped to know that they had the slides in Isafjördur already and that in the worst case if the internet were to break down, I could just deliver my lecture via speakerphone.

6) The slides were numbered with clearly visible numbers in one corner. Again, it might seem obvious, but it was really helpful to be able to say “go to slide 16” rather than having to go through “go three slides back, see the diagram? No? Then try going back one more. Still no diagram? I’m talking about the slide with ….”.

7) I made sure I could see the students. Since the internet connection was very slow, we could unfortunately not have a two-way video call for the whole duration of the lecture. But what we did was this: They showed my slides via a projector (thankfully they were numbered!), my video stream was initially, until the connection became too slow, shown on a laptop that was moved to face the class, and I could see the class via that laptop’s webcam. I could only see shapes and not distinguish facial expressions, but when I asked them to nod or shake their head in response to a question, I could see them respond. Next time, I would maybe even try using the ABCD card method or some other way to get more direct feedback in a Skype lecture.

8) We had tested the technology before. We knew what part of the classroom was visible via the webcam so we could ask the students to sit there, we had tested connecting via Skype, we had the telephone numbers on hand as a backup and we “met up” in Skype a couple of minutes before the lecture was supposed to start. But maybe this should go under the “over-prepared” heading.

All in all – I can’t stress the importance of preparation enough, and if you are to teach via Skype: Make sure you have someone in that class that you know and trust to be your ear on the ground to let you know if things don’t go the way they are supposed to.

And have fun! In the evaluation of that course, people explicitly mentioned my lectures as a highlight of the course, and I got really positive feedback. So teaching via Skype might be a bit of a hassle, but it is definitely possible to teach well via Skype.

Teaching in Isafjördur

Teaching a block course at the University Centre of the Westfjords, Iceland.

For those of you who were surprised that lately they didn’t recognize my students any more and the view from my office window was greatly improved: I am excited to be in Isafjördur in the Westfjords to teach the first two weeks of CMM31 “understanding the ocean” as part of the Master’s in Coastal and Marine Management.

Welcome to Isafjördur!

I visited the University Centre of the Westfjords by chance, really, when two years ago a research cruise ended in Isafjördur and I got in touch to ask whether they wanted to bring their students on a tour of the research ship. From that a connection developed and I taught two lectures on waves and tides at the University Centre of the Westfjords last year – except that I was sitting in my comfy office in Norway then and taught via Skype [more on how that worked in a later post]. While that was certainly an experience, this time I am actually physically present, and I’m very glad about that.


When preparing for the course I got an email from Dagny, the program’s academic director, who wrote “You will find that this is not a typical uni environment, hopefully in a good way.” And she was so right! It is not a typical university environment, but in the best way. I am so excited to be here and definitely hope to come back again next year! :-)

P.S.: The tag CMM31 marks posts that are about things I’ve been teaching while in Isafjördur.