Making the best of a tough year
University of California San Diego (UCSD) is recognized as one of the top universities worldwide. The UCSD math department offers prestigious graduate and undergraduate programs, with course topics ranging from foundational material to cutting-edge research.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UCSD instruction moved online early in 2020. As instructors scrambled to figure out online education, Kiran Kedlaya, Professor of Mathematics at UCSD, gave himself a bigger challenge: “Seeing the unique opportunity, I decided to open my classes up to the world,” Kiran says.
Communication is key
Kiran knew that an effective chat platform would be key for communicating with students. He had prior experience with Slack, Discord and Zulip. “I chose Zulip for several reasons, especially the threaded model (which I find sorely lacking in other chat apps), and the TeX integration.”
From Spring 2020 through Spring 2021, the Zulip Standard plan was free for all educators, as we did our part to help make the transition to online education a little easier. Having set up Zulip Cloud for his three graduate-level courses, Kiran felt confident in the communication platform, and was ready to make his classes open to all.
Teaching students across six continents
Students worldwide jumped on the opportunity to take a course with Kiran. “Of the 350 students in my classes, no more than 15% were local to UCSD,” Kiran says. A Zulip poll showed participants from as far as the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Oceania.
“Zulip became a central hub for asynchronous Q&A and posting Zoom links for lectures, whiteboard PDFs, and announcements,” Kiran says.
With students logging in at all hours of the day, Zulip’s topic model was key to making sure everyone could find the materials they needed and participate in the discussions. “Zulip’s topics, and the ability to change the topic of someone else's message, has made it much easier for me to keep things coherent,” says Kiran.
Zulip has what you need
Beyond topics, Zulip’s rich functionality smoothed out made many aspects of remote communication. Here is what Kiran has to say about the benefits of just a few of Zulip’s features:
- Discussing math: “The TeX made it super easy to discuss material from the course using proper mathematical notation, and was one of the reasons I chose Zulip in the first place.”
- Quick pulse-checks: “Emoji reactions were a nice way to collect RSVPs for office hours or acknowledge typo corrections for my lecture notes.”
- Hiding answers: “Spoilers are a great way to answer questions about homework without depriving students of a chance to keep thinking about the problem on their own.”
- Scheduling: “With global times, I could announce office hours or outside lectures without having to worry about confusion for students in different time zones.”
Education beyond coursework
What happens once classes return to campus? “I intend to continue to use Zulip as the main communication platform for my in-person classes this coming year,” Kiran says.
Zulip is also helping Kiran organize events for students, and create communities for education and research. “I used Zulip as the communication hub for a 200-person undergraduate conference that was held virtually for the first time,” Kiran says. “I’ve also started a Zulip for the number theory research group at UCSD, where graduate students and postdocs can connect to discuss reading courses, social events, conferences of interest, etc.”