5 Tips From Education Experts on Effective Remote Instruction

Solid learning objectives and assessing students are among the keys to success highlighted in a recent IEEE conference

3 min read
Illustration of a professor on remote learning with students
Illustration: Shutterstock

THE INSTITUTE Professors around the globe hastily turned to distance learning in order to finish the spring semester after schools shut down this year because of COVID-19. The situation was a challenge for the many educators who had little to no experience conducting their courses online.

Many academic institutions are now offering remote and hybrid courses, according to theHarvard Business Review. It is essential for faculty to know how to deliver course material successfully via remote instruction.

To help prepare teachers for the challenge, theIEEE Education Society andIEEE Educational Activities recently held a virtual conference,Effective Remote Instruction: Reimagining the Engineering Student Experience. Taught by leading experts on remote instruction, the five-day event—now available on demand—provides educators with helpful resources and tools.

Screenshot from session on Effective Remote InstructionImage: IEEE

Thanks to a generous donation from the IEEE Foundation COVID-19 Response Fund, the program was offered free to all attendees.

Here are five takeaways from the conference that educators can use.

Develop good learning objectives.

A learning objective is a statement of what the students should be able to do if they have learned what was intended. The objectives should be clear, observable, and relevant so that students understand what is expected of them.

“Online learning, as with any type of learning, starts with learning objectives,” says IEEE FellowSusan Lord, professor and chair of integrated engineering at the University of San Diego.

Use scaffolding techniques for remote labs.

Scaffolding divides a learning task into parts with distinct learning goals. Great for remote laboratory coursework, scaffolding might include techniques such as content blocking, which divides activities into stand-alone graded parts; task skeletonization, which uses partial solutions to mimic proximity mentorship; and directed reading, which stops lab progression until the reading is completed. Scaffolding also includes active quizzing, which stops lab progression until the assessment is successful; and simulation exercises, which allow data collection using virtual components and equipment.

Scaffolding “can help students achieve the same student learning outcomes seen with in-person classes,” said IEEE FellowRussell Meier, president of the IEEE Education Society. Meier is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

A great tool for administering a remote lab is a lab kit, which can help ensure that students have the appropriate materials. There are various ways for students to obtain a lab kit, including buying it from the university or the manufacturer. Or they could use a remote laboratory.

Collaboration strategies should be taught, not assumed.

Engineering instructors should train their students to be effective team members. In the workplace, team members are mutually accountable for achieving the purpose, processes, goals, and outcomes of a project.

“We cannot assume that every student knows how to work in a healthy, high-functioning team unless we show them how to do it,” says IEEE MemberTraci M. Nathans-Kelly, a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s College of Engineering.

Professors must take a managerial role, just like in professional settings, and be willing to intervene and advise teams that have problematic environments.

Assessments should align with the course objectives.

“Assessments are a form of feedback, and are increasingly important in this online environment,” says IEEE MemberCandice Bauer, a lecturer and the director of student affairs and assessments at the University of Nevada in Reno.

Assessments should measure whether learning objectives have been achieved, Bauer says. Students need to understand a course in order to be successful, so instructors should know what they want to focus on to gain insight on student learning.

Protect student data and your network.

E-learning platforms can pose security threats to networks. Make sure your institution has adequate security and digital forensic processes in place. Network security can help detect an attack. If a network becomes compromised, digital forensics experts can investigate and help get legal support as soon as possible.

“Digital forensics is mandatory,” saidCihan Varol, associate professor of computer science at Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, Texas. “While security is focused on protecting you, digital forensics will legally secure you.”

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.