Hal Tasaki: How an old-fashioned college professor transitioned from audio to online learning

Hirotaka Nakagawa

Jan 27, 2021

Hal Tasaki, who teaches in the Faculty of Science at Gakushuin University, was forced to put his classes online due to the pandemic. What started as an audio lecture, like those heard on radio programs in Japan, has evolved into a class that also uses Zoom and mmhmm.

We talked to him about how he made the transition from in-person classes to an online format to put the students first.

Were the online classes started after the pandemic?

Yes, I'm an old-fashioned college professor! I used to write formulas on the blackboard with a piece of chalk...that was my style. But then this pandemic happened, and I had to do everything online. I thought desperately about what to do, and I wanted to make it feel like I teach my students in-person when I conduct online classes. In the beginning, we even didn't know what kind of environment the students had, such as the type of computers they had. We were worried that some students might only have smartphones, or that the internet would be too slow if everyone used it.

So I came up with this idea of audio only lectures, where I provide the handwritten lecture notes in PDF format in advance, so they could download the notes and listen to the audio. I launched the class in this style. With this method, they can take the class even if they only have a smartphone.

As for the first-year students, they have not physically been to school yet, so I've never met them. But they are my students, so I did my best to teach them. After class I would get their feedback via email, and reply to them. It’s been a fun exchange.

It's just like the world of late night radio shows.

In my regular classes, I teach seriously of course, but also try to make my students laugh by telling some jokes. And I wanted to make them laugh in the audio based instruction as well, just by using audio alone, it was a poor environment, but I think I established a good relationship with my students. It was a start.

And then I added the videos little by little. It was hard to explain something like "suppose that there are three vectors in the 3D space which are orthogonal with each other like this..." using only voice and pictures, so I started shooting videos with Zoom, and that's when mmhmm came in.

How did you encounter mmhmm?

I saw it on Twitter. It was when I was struggling to create content for my classes. I saw Phil's demo on Twitter and thought, "This is it!” and I immediately signed up for the beta version. Then I talked about it to people around me, and they asked me, "What's it for?”  When I thought about it, I wasn't sure [laughs]. But I thought it would be something absolutely amazing.

I want to use something similar to the blackboard in my online classes, so I use mmhmm's slides - I set up GoodNotes on my iPad and share that screen on mmhmm. Since I don't write on the spot, I use handwritten notes.

Normally, I make sure that I appear in a large format at the beginning of the lecture, and for the rest, I appear in the right corner in a smaller format. When I was not used to the operation, my image sometimes hid the equations and formulas. I received feedback from a student saying “you were worried that you hid equations, but it's okay because I have the PDF lecture notes. I'm rather happy to see Professor Tasaki's face, so that I can feel more like I'm taking your lecture." That almost made me cry.

When I first started my lecture with just Zoom, I was just in a small rectangle on the edge of the Zoom screen because I was sharing a screen. It's very different to see me on a shared screen using mmhmm.

On the other hand, I continue to offer audio files and PDF lecture notes as well. I call it "data plan friendly". I think most students have enough data to watch videos, but I want them to be able to take the classes with low data plans. I put the videos on YouTube. At the very least, I think it's right to design it the way you can listen to the audio with the PDF notes. That way, the explanations will be more thorough. There are a lot of equation transformations in my classes, but unlike using the blackboard, all the equations in the notes that I share with students are numbered, and I talk like, “you can get the equation X using the equations Y and Z” so that you can understand them even if you only listen to the audio. I asked which class, audio or video, they were taking when I started the video and some students said they would prefer the learning through radio style.

Hal Tasaki in his online lecture with a hand-written note

What is the machine environment like?

MacBook Pro and iPad only.

When something new comes out, it looks great, but sometimes people think that it's difficult to use and only a few people will be able to use it, but that wasn't the case with mmhmm at all.

Do you also use the camera built into the MacBook Pro?

I use the built-in camera. I'm a very low-tech person. A lot of people in the physics field like new technologies, and some people write scripts and codes by themselves, but I don't. I do what I can do with just the existing stuff. When something new comes out, it looks great, but sometimes people think that it's difficult to use and only a few people will be able to use it, but that wasn't the case with mmhmm at all. I like it because I can enjoy something good in a very easy way.

I'm sure all the other professors are struggling as well. Do you exchange the tips of online classes?

It's not efficient for each person to create new solutions at such an occasion. I have many followers on Twitter, so I rely on them. When I ask questions, they all answer me right away. And even the radio lecture style classes, when I shared my expertise so that anyone could do it before the start of classes in April, people saw it and referred to it. Some people started making summary pages, and we exchanged as much information as possible with each other in this difficult time.

After all, I want to teach properly. It is my responsibility to teach my students. So I thought really hard about how to do it. And since I had thought so hard about it, I thought “let's make it public”. 

You're also using it for conference presentations.

The Physical Society of Japan meets twice a year. The fall meeting was scheduled to be held in Kumamoto originally, but it was held online, all using Zoom. I used mmhmm for my talk. It's cool to use it not only for lectures, but also casually in webinars and when chairing international conferences. I used to think it cool that some people write a script by themselves to display a timer on the background of the chairperson's screen at conferences, but I realized that it is super easy to do the same thing by using mmhmm to display a desktop timer. Here is my short demo. Now I always display the remaining time when I chair a meeting, and they like it.

Mr. Tasaki with a timer displayed behind him

The other day I attended a webinar about the interior of black hole, and for fun I used a moving background (Marbled). As soon as I showed up, someone said, "Wow, Hal, what is that background?” and I responded, "I’m inside of a black hole". One of the good things about mmhmm is that this kind of fun can be done casually.

Also, there is an international organization in my field of expertise, mathematical physics, and we have weekly seminars there. In the past, the only time we got together was for international conferences, but now that online meetings are the norm, we can meet every week. We're talking about continuing this even after the pandemic is over. Of course we've always wanted to do this, and we knew the technology was there to make it possible. But we never had the opportunity to learn how to use it. Now that people have learned it, I think we'll continue to do it. (Here is the record of the seminars.)

What do you think about the future of online classes?

In my personal opinion, I think the online, on-demand classes will also remain. There are parts I would like to see in person, but there are also parts that can be done online.

There, however, are a lot of things to think about. Some people might think that once you have a perfect video, you can just watch that video for the next year and beyond. But if we go extreme with the idea, it would mean that everyone should just watch the lecture video of the best person in Japan teaching the class. That's definitely not the case. I still think it's important to make good use of online while maintaining the fact that a real person is teaching that class, and is teaching it now, this year. I'm trying to figure out how to combine face-to-face teaching and online better.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mr. Tasaki also makes lecture videos in English using mmhmm. Here is a recent video. Samples of his lectures (in Japanese) can be found here.