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‘Covid-19 has brought about a rethink in teaching’

The measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic have posed a serious challenge to colleges and universities; classroom-based lessons and lectures, as well as examinations, had to be replaced by online formats in a short time. Dr. Tamara Rachbauer and Associate Professor Ulrike Hanke, both experts in university didactics and participants in the women mentoring programme mentUP+ at the University of Passau, see this adjustment or change as a great opportunity. Here follows a discussion about the advantages of digital exams, the prerequisites for successful online teaching, and the chances of survival of the classic lecture.

How should online teaching be designed to enable students to get the most from the classes and lectures?

Associate Professor Ulrike Hanke: In online teaching, there needs to be a combination of asynchronous phases, i.e. phases of self-study, and synchronous phases with joint video sessions. In my experience, the vital thing in online teaching is building relationships with the students, which you have to do much more consciously than usual. Building relationships among students is also important. In face-to-face classes, they sit next to each other, and afterwards they go to the café or the library together. As a teacher, I do not have to do much. However, with the virtual presence classes or lectures, there is little room for social exchange and this is why more time and investment is needed here in order that students can also build relationships with each other. Introductions at the beginning, or questions about their current circumstances, are just two examples. If this works, virtual teaching can also function very well.   

Do teachers need special skills to manage this virtual relationship-building?  

Hanke: A prerequisite is the understanding that the building of relationships is important. This also makes my role as a lecturer more multifaceted. I am not just the expert in my subject, who stands in front and imparts knowledge. The idea that imparting knowledge is the only task is, unfortunately, still widespread in university teaching – fortunately, however, this is changing. Even before Covid-19, many colleagues were already brightening up and introducing seminar discussions or debates, for example. In online teaching, this is even more important in order to be able to get through to the students at all.

Due to the pandemic, Dr. Tamara Rachbauer and Associate Professor Ulrike Hanke have not yet met in person, but exclusively virtually. Their exchanges in the mentoring tandem were nevertheless very close and productive. 

In digital examinations, how does one manage to test the students’ competencies which actually need to be tested, rather than their ability to look something up or google it as quickly as possible?

Dr. Tamara Rachbauer: The challenges of digital examinations are similar to those of traditional face-to-face examinations. Keyword: Constructive Alignment. This means that learning objectives, the teaching and learning setting, as well as the examination form, should be aligned with each other in the best possible way. It also makes sense to test a theory-practice transfer, in other words, first the theory is asked, and then the student is asked to explain it by means of a practical example. This has been established in jurisprudence for quite some time. There, you test with case studies which also works very well online. The advantage of digital examinations is that they can be taken from any location, and there are no problems with having to decipher handwriting.  It is also easier to save or secure the exams, because everything is already available digitally.

Constructive Alignment:

Constructive Alignment is a teaching concept in which learning objectives, the teaching/learning setting and examination form/s are co-ordinated in the best possible way. In practice, this means that, when planning a lecture/course, the lecturers/teachers start by defining the learning objectives to be achieved; they then adapt the teaching/learning methods to agree with these, thereafter choosing the examination form/s in such a way that the stated learning objectives can be assessed. These three elements, i.e. the learning objectives, the teaching/learning setting and the type(s) of examination are also known as the golden triangle in Constructive Alignment (Gallagher, 2017;

So, are there no disadvantages to digital exams at all?

Rachbauer: No, I cannot see any. Apart from the already mentioned advantages, the inspection is much less complicated because no exams have to be selected. Entering the marks or grades is also more time-saving than with exams taken in person. However, a requirement for virtual exams is, of course, a stable internet connection. The server stability at the University of Passau has hitherto been problem-free. Luckily, there have never been any crashes, even when hundreds of examinees are accessing the system at the same time. However, students have had problems, even in these cases though, we have always been able to work around these.  

PD Dr. Ulrike Hanke

Associate Professor Ulrike Hanke, associate professor at the Pädagogische Hochschule Freiburg (University of Education, Freiburg), has been working as a freelance trainer and consultant in the fields of university didactics and library didactics since 2014. She participated as a mentee in the women mentoring programme mentUP+ and formed a mentoring tandem together with Dr. Tamara Rachbauer. Photo: Ulrike Hanke

In the future, will colleges and universities be able to avoid offering digital exams, in addition to traditional exams?

Hanke: It is hard to say. Covid-19 certainly has brought about a rethink in teaching. In fact, many are now questioning more critically whether exams, in which only knowledge that can be looked up is tested, is still justifiable and in keeping with the times, because you cannot test something like that virtually. In didactics, it has been the consensus for some time, that open-book examinations are much closer to everyday working life later on. It is completely unrealistic that later on, in my job, I would not be allowed to Google, look things up, or go to the library when I have to solve a problem. That is absurd, nobody works like that! Examinations in which only memorised materials is to be reproduced have always been didactically questionable. Thanks to Covid-19, this is now becoming clearer, even to those who previously did not want to acknowledge it. Due to the many advantages of virtual examinations, I do assume that they will become widely-used at colleges and universities.

Ms. Rachbauer, as head of the DiTech-Teams, what experiences have you had in respect of the acceptance of innovative teaching concepts? Is there a generation difference? Is it more the younger people who are open to it, or is it a question of type?

Rachbauer: At the beginning, I thought it would be the young generation who would be more open towards it but, actually, it really is a question of type. Those who were open to new things and had experimented before Covid-19 took part in the online-workshops in which we from DiTech had presented various methods for virtual/online teaching. The employees from the Sprachenzentrum (Language Centre), for example, were very open to new ideas. They wanted to know, inter alia, how one can use a portfolio of work which would allow students to record and upload podcasts or interviews and give each other feedback during the asynchronous phases – and also how to get everyone involved and participating during the synchronous online phases.

Dr. Tamara Rachhuber

Dr. Tamara Rachbauer, the academic adviser at the Chair of Education/Primary & Pre-Primary Education supports and advises teachers/lecturers and students in all questions pertaining to online teaching and digital testing in her capacity as the head of DiTech (Transferforum Didaktik-Technik). She participated as a mentee in the women mentoring programme mentUP+ and formed a mentoring tandem together with Associate Professor Dr. Ulrike Hanke. Photo: Valentin Brandes

Keyword: Blended Learning. What opportunities does this learning/study model offer in comparison to the traditional face-to-face classes/lectures?

Rachbauer: I have offered Blended Learning ever since I started my teaching activities. I have never done anything else. Right from the beginning, it has been important to me that the students not only exchange information about the content away from my lectures by chance, but also specifically. This is why I like to design courses with ILIAS, so that work assignments can be posted online, commented upon and sent back during our classroom sessions. In my experience, this combination enables me to work on a topic much more intensively, because the students come to the classroom events already prepared and exchange ideas with each other. Moreover, I declare the small assignments as workload right from the outset, so that the students have one less assignment or media production at the end of the semester. 

Blended Learning:

Blended Learning, otherwise known as mixed or hybrid learning, describes a combination of face-to-face classes/lectures and online teaching/learning settings. In times of Covid-19, face-to-face events, have had to be conducted in the form of synchronous online phases (video conferences), followed by asynchronous online phases. A typical Blended Learning event begins with a face-to-face class/lecture or, due to the pandemic, with a synchronous online phase (video conference). In the synchronous online phases (video conferences), the learners/students work on the seminar content, together with the teachers/lecturers, in order to achieve the same level of knowledge. For the asynchronous online phases, the learners/students receive, for example, access to a learning platform on which they find the scripts from the video conferences and in-depth documents, links, etc., in combination with a specific assignment. The students then work on the tasks at their own individual pace.

So, can the students be relatively easily motivated through Blended Learning to become active and happy to learn during the semester?   

Rachbauer: Absolutely. I often use the Inverted Classroom method here, in which students acquire the actual learning content in asynchronous phases at home, in the form of self-learning videos, for example. The synchronous online phases can then be used to apply what has been learned, to discuss and clarify any open questions. At the beginning, the classes or events where I introduced the Inverted Classroom were very poorly attended. No more than four or five students took part. All the others wanted traditional classes/lectures. However, by the second time, there were considerably more. The four or five students had apparently told the others how helpful this Inverted Classroom had been. In the meantime, this method has become very much appreciated by the majority of students.

Inverted Classroom:

Inverted Classroom, also known as Flipped Classroom in a school context, is a teaching/learning setting in which traditional face-to-face classes/lectures and self-study are interchanged. In a typical Inverted Classroom, the seminar begins with asynchronous online phases, upon which the classroom/lecture hall teaching or, due to the pandemic, the synchronised online phases (video conferences) then build. For the asynchronous online phases, students are given access to a learning platform from where they can access recorded lectures, scripts, blogs, etc., which they can use to independently work through the seminar content at their own individual pace. In the synchronous online phases (video conferences), it can then usually be assumed that the students are all at the same level of knowledge. Here, a more in-depth and extended discussion of the seminar content takes place.

In the 2021/2022 winter semester, face-to-face classes/lectures will probably only be possible on a small scale.  What advice do you have for teachers/lecturers who are currently preparing their lectures/courses for the winter?

Hanke: I would design the lectures/courses as Tamara has described and organise them in line with the Inverted Classroom method as here you can switch back and forth between real and virtual presence relatively easily. It does get difficult when I prepare a lecture with live attendance and then realise that I have to work with Zoom again – that doesn’t work. I cannot give a 90-minute lecture using Zoom, I would lose too many students. However, if it is clear from the outset that knowledge is acquired mainly through self-study and that face-to-face lectures/classes are primarily to deepen knowledge and discussion, then it is just as possible virtually, as it is in a lecture hall/classroom setting. At the moment, I find it more difficult to teach in a classroom than in a virtual room due to the distancing rules and the obligation to wear a mask. Group work is not as easy to conduct with a mask as it is unmasked in a breakout session.

Will the classic lecture survive the pandemic?

Hanke: No, I don’t think so, as students are increasingly appreciating Blended Learning. What they are missing at the moment is, above all, campus life, social contacts and the personal interaction, but certainly not the 90-minute lecture hall monologues.

Rachbauer: I agree that, at the moment, the personal interaction is missing from the university routine. However, in my experience, the lectures can be brightened up. If you record them on video, intersperse them with tension-relieving exercises and formulate exam-relevant questions in between, which are then discussed and clarified in a face-to-face class/lecture, then the lecture, too, can survive the pandemic. According to a survey we recently conducted at the Lehrstuhl für Grundschulpädagogik und –didaktik (Chair of Education/Primary and Pre-Primary Education), the majority of the students surveyed were very satisfied with this format and would like to see it continued after Covid-19 as well. I am therefore optimistic that the (classic) lecture will not be one of the Covid-19 victims.

The interview was conducted by Dr. Benedikt Kuhnen

Doctorate and mentoring programmes at the University of Passau:

The mentUP+ women’s mentoring programme

Since 2013, and by means of the mentUP+ women’s mentoring programme, the University of Passau has been pursuing the objective of supporting outstanding women in science and research on their respective career paths, thereby contributing to the development of great potential and an increase in the proportion of women in leadership positions. Based at the university’s women’s representative office and/or the gender equality office, it is aimed at outstanding female Master’s students and junior researchers at the University of Passau who aspire to a leadership position. The core of the programme are the so-called mentoring tandems, each consisting of a mentee and a mentor. These mentoring tandems are supplemented by seminars, workshops, coaching sessions and networking meetings. You can find more information here.

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