Reflections on a digital semester

These are challenging times for teaching at universities, questioning long-standing practices. And challenges spark creativity and motivate you to rethink your own practices. Here are some first reflections on my experiences, on interactions, conversations, and obsession with written exams:
  • Interaction is king, not content. Content is easy to turn digital. Most of it already is. We have the slides, we have supportive videos, we have the digital modeling, development, and visualization tools. We already transformed all of our digital content back to a physical environment by projecting on a wall, way too often by printing it out and handing it out to use in a physical environment. Well, our ways of making it available were not perfect, not even close, and that’s something we start to realize now. But what is really the challenge is the interaction between students and between students and me (and, to a lesser extent, between colleagues and me). Learning is social. And that social dimension of learning changes when there is no longer the physical campus and classroom as a place for meeting. That does not mean that it becomes less, worse, or whatever. It becomes different. Instead of meeting face-to-face on a regular basis, you communicate via various channels. Group chat is a great tool for that (such as RocketChat, but also Teams, Slack or others), complemented by ad-hoc online meetings and communication mediated by artefacts (documents and annotations)
  • Seredipitous interactions. That’s the real challenge. You meet students in the hallway, on the stairs, before and after the lesson in the classroom, on the campus outside, or even on the street or in the tram. These are organic opportunities for interactions, for establishing trust and communicating in a very informal way. Students can also meet their peers in a similar fashion, which leads to strengthening their social ties, which in turn influence team work in the courses. This is hard to replace online. Providing room for smalltalk is one way (which naturally emerged in some courses – as a surprise to me) as well as elements for getting to know each other during the lessons, but the trust formation has to take place throught other means, and particularly as a teacher, you have to be aware how you send trust cues to your students, particularly in your feedback. Developing personal relationships online is not impossible, but is harder, and you need to spend more time on communicating values, avoiding misunderstandings. One particularly successful approach is to make the course more participatory, which must include the way students are assessed. Because this is the test for trust where the power imbalances play the biggest role.
  • Synchronous first, asynchronous second. Anytime, any place has always been a promise of technology-enhanced learning, but the experiences in the past weeks have shown me that for a university context synchronous is a priority, not just because we are used to, maybe addicted to the audience like theater stage actors. Synchronous creates much lower-threshold opportunities for interaction, it creates trust and atmosphere, it is the basis for participatory approaches and for overcoming a bit the inherent asymmetry of teacher vs. student, and it create a rhythm for the whole group, which is harder to do asynchronously. So you might see it as old-fashioned, betraying the space of new opportunites by sticking to web-conferences and smaller-scale one-on-one or student group meeting, but this is essential for motivation, and relationship-building. This does not mean, however, that synchronous is everything. On the contrary. The synchronous meetings are the anchors, and need to be complemented by asynchronous spaces, ranging from proving materials and recordings of the synchronous meetings, via polls and other feedback instruments, to individualized chat-based (or still email-based) support.
  • Recordings. I have heard a lot of worries about recordings. That by providing recordings of synchronous teaching, participation drops. Everyone just watches the recordings. And to keep up reasonable attendance, you need to play with the fear of missing out. Nonsense, to put it bluntly. It does not have a big effect on attendance, neither for recordings of face-to-face lecture, nor online lectures. Because interaction matters and provides value. However, you also should not forget about students who need to work, or have other conflicting obligations, or are just ill. With the recordings, you help them to catch up. So offering recordings is a must, and is also used by quite a large share of students just to look again into parts of the course when they work on assignments or prepare for the exam.
  • Exams (or passing exams, or exam grades) are not the ultimate goal of a course, but an imperfect tool to (i) to provide a formalized summative feedback on learning outcomes, (2) to provide a somehow certified indication to others about strengths and weakness, and (3) an extrinsic motivation to deepen learning. Not more, but also not less. Whether that needs to be a score, or a qualitative assessment, is a different story, but usually we are embedded into a system that expects a certain kind of representation. Universities are still places where the written exam is the glorious finish of a course experience, everyone in a room at the same time, within the same time box, sitting at a distance so that no interaction is possible (but not enough distance that it would count as the social distancing required in these times), with the same exam questions. Then afterwards, without any interaction between teacher and students, scores are assigned and translated into grades, and that’s many times the only feedback students get. I always had the feeling that this was not doing justice to the efforts both sides (teacher and student) had invested into the course, and it was a lame and sterile final event that hardly gave the appreciation to the journey we travelled together. With all the efforts needed to ensure adequate hygenic and physical distancing standards, it now seems absurd and completely fallen out of time. So use the opportunity to think about better forms of assessment, and there are plenty out there. Particularly portfolio-inspired approaches (where the assessment is not a one time event, but the result of ongoing feedback along the whole course. Be courageous, and particularly include the students in the shaping of the assessment. Respect their concerns and expectations.
  • Educational tools are not designed for participation in the sense of participatory decision-making on the learning process. They are tool much focused on the asymmetry of higher education. It is not about teaching and listening, giving assignments, submitting, and then grading them. It is about a real and authentic conversation where very often general purpose tools are much more suited than specialized educational tools. WordPress works better than LMS, Enterprise Chat solutions better than specialized communication tools for teachers and students. Choose what fits to your values, do not adopt the role model these tools try to embody.

These are exciting times, and there is much more to say. So this will be continued in a second part.