Course Planning during Covid

Trying to transition a physics course to fully online

Drexel is on the quarter system. And because students could not stay in dorms safely, Drexel announced that all classes during the spring quarter would be fully online.

I have never taught a fully online course. I have never taught a course during a pandemic. I have never taught the course I was planning before (PHYS 115, Contemporary Physics III).

The announcment that all courses would be fully online was made right before final exams, so I didn't even get to practice with one class online during Winter Term. I did get to practice with giving an online final exam through BlackBoard - but that is a different story. What I did learn was that I did not want to give online exams.


The class I am teaching is the third course in a three course sequence for physics majors. It uses Matter and Interactions, and I am in charge of content starting with magnetism. There are not quite 20 students in the class. It typically meets three times a week with a two hour long recitation/lab that has students engage in computational projects using vPython. I am teaching this class because the person that typically teaches it is on sabbatical, so there is an existing syllabus.

Also, I have the priveledge of having a stable family, good internet, a new computer, and two weeks of spring break (not spring break) to plan. So here is what I have come up with.

Starting with a survey

Since I had no idea what they wanted out of this, I decided to first survey the students. Where would they be (14/16 in Eastern Time Zone), what would their internet access be like (most fast, but not all), did they prefer graded or ungraded (pretty even split), synchronous/asynchronous/mixed (this was a mixed bag), and what are their concerns.

Course Design

As Rachel Scherr said, “I didn't sign up for this. They did not sign up for this.” Everything is a set of decisions, and here are the decisions I decicded to make.


The responses about this were pretty mixed, with some strongly requesting synchronous. My students will all be in North America, and the provost strongly suggested doing synchronous. So I decided a mix, with the week effectively starting on Wednesdays:

Wednesday - Synchronous - Introducing new material

Friday - Asynchronous - Conceptual development activitie

Monday - Synchronous - Problem Solving workshop

Graded or Pass/Fail?

Students were pretty split on this, so I went with graded, based on the assessment system that I am working out.


I will set up a series of homework assignments (6-10 problems/week) that need to be written up with explanations. They will submit assignments each Monday, each problem will be graded with a rubric, and each week they can re-submit problems that they want to improve upon. The class is small, so I can do this - not sure how this scales to much larger classes.

Computational assignments, they will have four computational assignments. They are going to do these in GlowScript, which is pretty similar to vPython and should run on everyone's laptops.

Participation, I am going to ask that people are engaged - by synchronously participating, by doing activities, or if they can not attend synchronously by watching the videos that we make in class.

Check-ins. I think it is going to be important to check in with students about half way through the quarter, so I built in one week with just one:one meetings.

Finals. We are not going to have one. I see no reason to have one. I would rather have students do some sort of presentation (their favorite problem of the quarter?) But we won't have a final.


With this, I need to have a set of tools that I am going to use and some that I have the students use. Here are the tools I am going with and why.

Synchronous Meetings

We have Zoom, we'll be using it.

Virtual Whiteboard

While I present material, I want to be able to write on a whiteboard, so I have decided to use Bitpaper <>, I can write on my Google Chromebook and have Zoom display what I am writing. Initially I thought students might work together on their own whiteboards, but I am concerned about requiring that. I might try it depending on how things go. I considered Google Jamboard, but like the display of bitpaper a bit better (particularly the eraser).

Online Computation

This class uses vPython. I do not. So evaluating tools such as trinket, jupyter notebooks, google collaboratory, or GlowScript was a challenge. The first two use vPython from emacs (I say as if I know what I am talking about). But basically, the students all said GlowScript was the best option. The projects will have to be adapted, but hopefully I can have some serious help on that front.

Classroom Communication

When I have taught online before with classes that have a coding component, I found having a Slack for the classroom to be pretty useful. Plus it lets them coordinate times to talk about howework etc. They were into setting up a Discord server. But I am older so Slack it will be.


I learned about Gradescope and wanted to give it a try anyway. But it seems to do all the things I want / need to be able to do and maybe will do it faster. Since we have a rubric that we will use for all assignments, it should be pretty useful. Plus it allows multiple resubmissions and re-grades.

With these decisions out of the way I can actually start planning what we are going to do!

Eric Brewe
Professor of Physics and Science Education

Physics Education Researcher