Distance Teaching and Learning –
Experiences and Thoughts

Situation

Since the coronavirus started spreading around the world, people have seen their work environments change dramatically. This affects everybody, the employer and the employee, the teacher and the student, the parents and their children. At the Digital Science Center (DiSC), the situation has mostly affected teaching, so this text provides some ideas on how to make the best out of it.

The following content is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of possibilities, resources, and tools, though it is certainly spiced with the one or other reference. There is already a lot of good advice out there on how to cope with that situation and adapt to these new circumstances, after all. It is rather a collection of experiences and thoughts stemming from discussions among DiSC team members and inspired by discussions on Twitter. We hope it will help you gain a new perspective, sparking further discussion and inspiring you to be proactive and try out new things.

Efficient Use of Time and Resources

First off, some general advice: Before you get going, ask yourself how to achieve the desired result in the most efficient way. It is a good idea to spend some time on organising yourself and learn how to work efficiently, even if you feel you have no time for it – in the long run, this effort is most certainly going to pay off.

For teaching: If you have several groups in parallel, it might be worthwhile to record your lecture once and then reuse it for all groups. It is also possible to opt for an inverted-classroom style of teaching where your students learn about a certain subject on their own asynchronously first (e.g., from a pre-recorded lecture, reading material, etc.) and can discuss it synchronously later (during a live (video) chat session, for example). The idea is that students get substantive input in self-study and then attend a short or very targeted session afterwards to discuss the material, clarify questions, or practise what they have learned. On the flip side, you may find that students still prefer the lecture-style format they are used to and expect the live-stream session to be the main source of input, so you might end up wasting even more time.

Attitude towards Students

Flexibility vs. rigidity

One thing to remember is that your students may be struggling, too. Keep in mind that they might suffer emotionally and might have an increased mental load due to all the craziness they are going through. Depending on the overall maturity of your students, you might consider taking a rather loose approach where you emphasise flexibility over strict time slots and attendance requirements. That said, this approach might not work with all groups of students nor types of courses – some might need more handholding to make sure they do not fall through the grid and fail the course. The general observation in our team is that the younger the students, the less independent they are, therefore requiring more close-knit supervision. There was also feedback that the regularity of slots and intensive support give students a feeling that they can achieve similar skills and knowledge as in regular teaching.

Encourage vs. kick and squeeze

Both of the above-mentioned points are also a question of mindset and depend on whether you can get your students to motivate themselves. They are at university, after all, not at school, and you would want to treat them as adults. Again, this depends a lot on the group of students and on your own attitude. One approach that seems to work well in our team is to encourage student engagement by providing incentives. Before class, you can give them voluntary tasks to complete and ask them to hand those in. You can lure them with a clear reward structure: Those not handing anything in will get a negative remark for that session, the top five results will earn a positive remark, and the rest will be considered neutral. You can also send around preliminary slides beforehand with only the most important points and show a more comprehensive set of slides during the lecture. Announce it that way in the beginning to encourage people to attend your live session. Maybe, you flavour the slides with little tasks to think about and ask them to present what they have come up with – that way, you can make the class a little more interactive and at the same time check your students’ degree of involvement.

Communication and Interaction

It is important to clearly communicate what means students should use for the virtual class and how everything works (you might want to set aside some time for setting things up and for troubleshooting). It is recommendable to combine different methods and formats (online & offline, self-study & live feedback sessions).

Student interaction and exchange

One concern often voiced in connection with remote teaching models is the lack of interaction between students. They do not meet their classmates any more to discuss how they are keeping up and cannot exchange their experience and knowledge that easily any more. One solution to this issue might be splitting up students in groups during a live session of your class and let them solve tasks together. Many tools allow you to do so, for example Big Blue Button, Adobe Connect, or zoom (breakout rooms). If possible, you can also leave the meeting open even after you, the teacher, have left and offer your students to stay on and study with their classmates. Another option is to create an instant messaging or video channel (e.g. on slack, discord, EasyConference/Jitsi Meet, Big Blue Button etc.) that they can use to communicate with both teachers and among each other.

Social aspects of learning

If you opt for an inverted classroom-style of teaching, you can also shift student interaction to the out-of-classroom portion of your class with a tool called perusall. This approach has been propagated by Eric Mazur from Harvard University who has found that relegating knowledge acquisition to individualised self-study lacks the social component that is essential to learning. On perusall, which can be most accurately described as a social e-reader, teachers can upload teaching material and students can comment on the reading they were given to ask questions and respond to their classmates’ questions, effectively helping each other. Questions can be upvoted by both students and teachers so duplicates are avoided. A confusion report, compiled with the help of AI, can later be issued for the teacher. It points you exactly to where your students have problems of understanding, so you know what to discuss more in depth during the next live session. At DiSC, first tests (still ongoing) have yielded positive results.

Discussions and asking questions

It is important to communicate how discussions can be conducted and how questions can be asked. Do you want your students to use the chat to ask questions? Do you also accept questions by voice input? Do you use external tools to allow for a more structured way to take questions?

In our team, onlinequestions.org has proven a valuable tool to keep track of questions from large groups of students and to make out which are the most pressing ones. With this platform, students can vote up questions already asked, so the teacher can quickly see what is unclear or important to them. It also lowers the amount of text to read and the need to make out which questions are similar and can be clustered together.

In some contexts – particularly, if questions are complex or very specific – it may also prove more efficient for you to accept questions via the microphone – even though it might take some time until students warm up to this possibility.

Instant feedback

A lot also depends on getting feedback. On the one hand, you would sometimes want quick feedback on whether your students can hear you or have understood what you told them. Asking for visual or audible confirmation might often be impossible or impractical. Some tools, such as Big Blue Button or Adobe Connect, have a built-in survey function that you can use for simple voting or you can ask participants to set their state to agree or disagree to expresses their opinions. Consider also using Audience Response Systems, such as ARSNova, which allow you to create surveys students can answer on their mobile devices and display statistics of their voting behaviour immediately.

Structured feedback

On the other hand, you might be interested in how well your teaching approach works and where you could make adjustment. Therefore, consider doing a mid-term evaluation focusing on the aspect of online teaching to get feedback on how you and your students are doing. And of course, do not forget to provide opportunities for students to get feedback from you on their work.

Teaching Environment

Reuse of learning resources

To make life easier for you, be on the lookout for content already available online. You may find you can reuse or adapt it to your purposes. This again works better for lecture-style formats, but even if you would normally go out with your students on an excursion or work on experiments with them in a lab, you might find content that while not replacing the actual hands-on experience reflects what they would see there. There is a lot of content available online, for example on well-known platforms such as YouTube or Coursera. Sometimes, you can also look to other universities for ideas (e.g. Python 4 Everybody, U-MIntroduction to Machine Learning, LMU). For teachers at the University of Innsbruck, check out available sources at the ULB, such as videos from the Journal of Visualised Experiments.

Use of adequate tools

Not every tool fits every purpose. Often one’s success depends on the degree of technical affinity and available equipment. There may be multiple reasons why a particular tool does work for one teacher and not for the other, so general advice is difficult to provide. Here are just some points to consider:

Make use of the tools that you have available, that you and students are familiar with, and that come with technical support (e.g. platforms used at your university, such as OLAT, Moodle, Ilias). Maybe look at features you have not used yet and experiment with them.

If you need to pick up a new tool, research it and make sure it fits your purpose and the equipment you use. Look for tutorials or ask people who are already using it for help. Take time to familiarise yourself with them and learn their features. Share experience with your team. If the tool is not explicitly endorsed by your employer, make sure you also take into account privacy concerns. You would also want to consider technical requirements (pay specific attention as to whether your operating system is supported; have a look at the technology it relies on; find out whether the tools can only be run if participants install additional software and decide whether this is acceptable).

If you need to collaborate with people, but conference calling tools are not available or not an option, there are plenty of other tools for written communication and collaboration: instant messaging software like slack or discord, a shared drive, Google Drive (not for confidential info), Trello (for organising tasks in a team) etc.

Equipment

Stock up on equipment if necessary (i.e. high-quality webcam, microphone, headset etc.). Be sure to find out if your organisation provides equipment centrally that you can pick up/borrow.

Be creative – if you usually use a black or white board for teaching, for example, try a (pen) tablet instead or use a piece of paper and direct your camera to it.

The Takeaway

There is no silver bullet for successful distance teaching since it depends on a variety of factors. It is often a matter of trial and error and it is important to share experiences with others. Combining different methods and formats is also key. But with some effort, it is possible to pull off even at short notice. In the extreme circumstances we had during the coronavirus outbreak, students appreciated the effort to give them the possibility to learn intensively despite difficulties and to provide some appearance of normality. Exchanging positive feedback between teachers is also motivating. So apart from all the challenges the situation has presented, it has also been an opportunity to grow closer together and to lift teaching to a new level.

Your opinion

We would also like to hear from you: Where do you agree or disagree? What approaches and tools do you use? What has worked for you and what hasn’t and why? Feel free to tweet your remarks (or send an e-mail to disc@uibk.ac.at)

Some Links

Dos und Don’ts der Onlinelehre (in German): https://ph-tirol.ac.at/node/619

Lernen Trotz Corona (in German): https://www.lernentrotzcorona.at/knowledge-base/didaktik/

Online Meeting Tips by the Mozilla Foundation: https://foundation.mozilla.org/en/blog/online-meeting-tips/

Overview of tools by the Computer Science Department of the University of Innsbruck (only available from within the university network): https://ifi-wiki.intra.uibk.ac.at/public/distance-teaching

Overview of tools by DiSC (also available from DiSC@OLAT): http://joanna.opoki.com/share/uibk/digital.html

Community website on eLearning (only available from within the university network): https://community.uibk.ac.at/web/ecampus/community

Tools for automatic exam generation based on R by Achim Zeileis and his team, University of Innsbruck: http://www.r-exams.org/

Conference Improving University Teaching with "The Online Pivot" as a core topic: https://www.iutconference.com/

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