Moving a theory group online

Most people experience a major disruption in their routine because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing measures that counteract it. Research groups like us are no different, although as a theory group we have it much easier—we don't have lab equipment to look after.

Here is the situation: you are leading a research group, or perhaps you are a member of one. A pandemic strikes, and everyone is told to work from home. What should you do?

Here is our checklist. It isn't very exciting, and might look obvious to many, but we still are going to share it: perhaps you find something useful. Or maybe we forgot something—definitely reach out to us in that case via twitter or by email. We also plan to update this note if we learn anything new.

People first

These are stressful times, and many will need support or will be caught off-guard. You and your group members should be the highest priority.

  • You don't have to do everything on your own: if you feel overwhelmed, ask a group member of a colleague to help.
  • Ask everyone how they are: do they need something, are they stuck returning from a vacation?
  • If your team members want to travel to their families or relatives, try your best to accommodate that.
  • Chances are some of your teammates are fresh from abroad or a different region, and don't have local contacts. Check that they are doing fine.
  • Plan a daily informal tea/coffee moment with a video conference call. This allows your team to relax a bit and to keep in touch. To this end, make sure you make time yourself to join.

Coordinating research

Under normal circumstances researchers in the group can easily catch up by asking others if they noticed they missed something. Now it is much harder: all interactions must be planned.

We were already well on the way towards having everything online—our group has about 15 members, and at this size centralization starts to be important.

Email

First of all: stop using email for research. If you or anyone else forgot to include a collaborator, that person will never catch up. All discussions about projects should have a historic record viewable by any group member.

Same goes for any other medium that does not allow new joining members to view history: skype, whatsapp, and most other instant messengers.

Group chat

Majority of research discussions are informal and with a lot of back-and-forth. This is best supported by a group chat. Get one. We are using mattermost, which has an open source version, and there are plenty of others that you can host on your own. If you want a solution now, Slack is a popular commercial choice that has a free tier. You can use it right away, but you are likely going to run into its limitations.

Video

The same principles that go for chat apply to video conversations: ensure that everyone who might want to join would be able to do so. For that use video chat services that allow joining by link. There's plenty available now: https://meet.jit.si, https://talky.io, https://zoom.us, et cetera. Jitsi is an open source choice, zoom is the most popular commercial solution with a free tier.

Move all project discussions to video chat, and arrange them using the channels accessible by the complete group—so by group chat.

The lockdown is also not a reason to interrupt group meetings or seminars—just move those online, they work really well. Additionally, video conferencing also allows to record the meeting, so even if a group member cannot join at one moment, they can watch it later.

Notes, code, and data

Before you could drop by everyone's office and jointly look at the work. This has now changed, and therefore all the work should be accessible online.

An immediate solution is using the online storage provided by your institution: (drop)box, owncloud, google drive or anything else. As a minimal first step you should ask all the group members to upload all their files to a shared folders.

A better idea is to use a git version control repository. The easiest here is to put all your projects under version control using on of the major hosting providers: github (by far the most popular), gitlab, or bitbucket.

We use a self-hosted open source version of gitlab at https://gitlab.kwant-project.org/, but once again this requires more work to set up.

Education

The students' learning conditions have now taking the turn to worse regardless of our efforts. Therefore our goal now should be to accommodate the students in any way possible.

Publishing materials

Any and all notes or other learning materials that you have should go online right now: doesn't matter if it's a 99% finished book, a bunch of low resolution photos of your handwritten notes, or dozens of powerpoint presentations. If you are allowed, make them public (if you aren't—shame on your university rules). It is hard to ensure that everything will work smoothly, and redundancy helps.

A minimal approach here is once again to upload the files to e.g. Dropbox and share a link. You can also upload the materials to an online repository, such as Zenodo.

Our solution is to have a git repository that automatically combines into a website. Here's for example our solid state physics course, and here a course on topology in condensed matter.

If you want to follow that path, check out for example the Jupyter book.

Teaching

The reason why online education is still not ruling the world is its lack of interactivity: immediate interaction and correction of errors and misconceptions is crucially important.

For that reason try to run live lectures. In our experience using a tablet with a stylus is a quick replacement of a blackboard, and allows to deliver a question to a couple of hundred students while still being able to answer questions in real time (we used zoom for that).

Remember though: circumstances are going to be different for every student, and some will not be able to join your lectures. To accommodate this need, you should also record the lecture and publish its video online. For example here is how we did it.

Answering questions

Finally, you should also try your best to provide one-on-one feedback and accommodate the student team work.

A chat room or a discussion forum is a good option. Chat rooms are better for smaller courses and become too chaotic with the increasing student activity. For a forum you can use the tools bundled with the learning management system of your university, although those can be janky. Discourse is a pretty good open source forum software, which also offers cheap educational hosting.

You should also try to plan video discussions between the course team members and the students. Here is a simple recipe:

  • The students organize themselves working in groups using any of the public video chat services. There's https://meet.jit.si (which is open source), https://talky.io, https://whereby.com, Microsoft teams, and a bunch of other options.
  • If they want help, they fill out a minimal google form, which contains a URL to their chat room and optionally any other information you consider relevant (question description, etc).
  • The course team monitors the spreadsheet with the google form answers (those have live updates), and whenever they see a request, they mark that request as being taken, and then follow the URL to answer the question.

Look around

You might be all set and lucky—great for you. You will certainly have colleagues around, who have it worse. Offer your help and experience, give advice, share your resources: everything counts.