May 06 2020

The Remote Learning Diaries: Stepping Up to Fix Hardware Problems

A University of Florida graduate student shifts gears to online-only learning — and picks up a new hobby in electronics repair.

When my spring semester of graduate classes started at the University of Florida at the beginning of March, there were rumors among staff and students alike that instruction would soon be moving online. It took less than a week for these rumors to become reality. 

As this is my final semester at UF, I was a bit disappointed with this development. However, the university and my professors have handled the situation very well, and the resulting online learning environment has surprised me with both its quality and reliability. This is not to say the experience has been without its struggles. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, I have been called on to use new and different technologies in my coursework, resulting in some technological hiccups to be overcome along the way.

As a CDW campus intern at UF, I’ve been involved in many conversations concerning the implementation of Zoom across campus. Zoom’s videoconferencing technology was set to replace Cisco Webex and Skype campuswide, so it was a hot topic of discussion even before the campus closed and our lectures moved to Zoom Rooms. Still, I hadn’t ever used the platform myself. Thankfully, it was very easy to learn and includes many useful and fun tools for setting up meetings and keeping them interesting. 

MORE ON EDTECH: Here's the Best Zoom Remote Learning Tech Tip

While Zoom has worked well for classes, my preferred personal communication application of choice for talking with my friends is Discord, a community-focused collaboration and chat platform popular with gamers, where the conversations are mostly audio- or text-based. My friends and I have had many game nights and late-night conversations on Discord to try to stay close even as we maintain social distancing.

Using Remote Learning Challenges to Develop a New Skill

My personal computer is a Chromebook that I bought on eBay a year ago for $80. It’s small, lightweight, has a 10-hour battery life and a nice keyboard, and it can do 90 percent of the tasks I need it to, including accessing Zoom videoconferences. However, as an information systems major, there are a handful of more powerful tools I need to use to complete certain assignments. 

For cases that require more robust processing power, I often use my girlfriend’s computer. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, the Wi-Fi chip on her computer stopped working. This made it nearly impossible to do the work we were assigned, and with a stay-at-home order in place, no repair shops were open.

I decided to get creative and learn how to repair smaller electronics — starting with my girlfriend’s laptop. I ordered a high-quality Intel Wi-Fi card online to replace the one included in the laptop. I also ordered a special Torx screwdriver set to open the laptop up and poke around inside.

I was able to successfully replace the card and get the Wi-Fi working again in about 20 minutes, which was a major win for me. It also made this relatively new laptop much more than the word processor (and paperweight) it previously served as.

How to Improve Online Proctoring

The biggest problem my university currently faces has to do with the proctoring of online exams. Ensuring that students are obeying the rules and following the ethics that would apply to in-person classes is a critical problem that all universities will need to solve for during this time of online instruction. At UF, a number of solutions have emerged: Two of my classes are using a newer service called Honorlock, which is an artificial intelligence-powered software that runs in your browser. It records the screen, prevents the test-taker from accessing additional tabs and uses AI and the computer’s webcam to determine whether a student is looking away from the screen. If it believes that a student is doing so, the service will alert a real person to analyze the situation and confirm the AI’s suspicion.

These functions may sound great at first, but my major has shown me how valuable data is. Students should have a voice regarding whether or not these companies have access to our data. Instead, we were forced into using the software with a harsh ultimatum: Use Honorlock or take a zero on our exams. As it stands, Honorlock could be using student webcam data to train its AI facial recognition technology without the consent of students. If there is another solution or product that gives the university complete control of the software and keeps information on university (not third-party) servers, using it would be more fair to students.

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