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Digital Education Logbook

The biggest reset in the University’s history

München, 06/08/2020

Impelled by the Covid-19 pandemic, universities have adopted digital teaching methods virtually overnight. Although a novelty for many, such tools are familiar to others at LMU. Here, three lecturers talk about how they have applied them.

Lecture theaters are empty. Meanwhile, the business of university teaching has moved to cyberspace.

“What we now going through is the most significant transformation of teaching methods in the history of the University,” says Professor Jan Lipfert, Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Physics. Although the new semester began several weeks ago, lecture halls are idle and life on campus has essentially come to a halt. Students and their teachers now meet, not in seminar rooms, but in video conferences hosted by Zoom – and the announcement that ‘This broadcast is brought to you by LMU’ has become a feature of daily routine for them.

LMU’s entire teaching program – previously based in large part on classroom instruction – had to be transferred to the digital sphere within an astonishingly short time. For many lecturers, online seminars were very unfamiliar territory – but, as Lipfert points out, the physics curriculum in this first wholly digital semester lists as many courses as in previous years. “That’s quite remarkable, and it’s a reflection of my colleagues’ flexibility and their readiness to make use of digital tools in their teaching programs.

Digital education is a trend whose time has come

Lipfert himself has been fascinated by the potential of online media in university education for years. Long before the arrival of SARS-CoV-2, he had begun to consider “which teaching formats could best be presented in fully online contexts,” he says. “The design of educational programs for exclusively digital presentation is an exciting challenge, and a trend whose time has come.”

Over the past several semesters, he has incorporated digital tools as supplementary building blocks into his own lectures. Using his iPad, he solves equations ‘on the fly’ during his lectures, so that his students can follow the reasoning behind mathematical derivations. He also makes use of ‘audience-response tools’ – putting questions to his students which they can respond to via their smartphones or notebooks, for example. “Research has shown that active learning is more effective than simply listening to what the lecturer is saying. It’s very important that students think over the content and discuss its implications among themselves.”

Audience response tools stimulate active reflection

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The audience-response approach has one other advantage. In Lipfert’s experience, in the context of a classical lecture, the questions always come from the same small subset of students. However, problems posed on an audience-response platform generate contributions from more than 50% of the class. Thus, by increasing students’ engagement with the material, the tool usefully complements his lectures and the physical experiments he describes. This multipronged approach obviously works very well – in the past few years, Lipfert has received prizes for tuition from three Faculties.

He is currently giving series of lectures (including class exercises) for Master’s students online. It has been well received – and the worked examples of the exercises have been more effectively absorbed than before. In spite of that, Lipfert finds this format inherently less interactive. “I find it easier to interact with students when I’m standing in front of them. It’s much more difficult to achieve online.”

Sebastian Mader, who is in the Research Unit for Programming and Modeling Languages of the Institute of Informatics, agrees with Lipfert on this point. He has been using digital tools in his live lectures for the past four semesters. In lectures intended for large audiences, students can ask questions anonymously via a dedicated return channel – which are then answered either by the students themselves or by the lecturer. Mader also employs audience-response tools in combination with other elements of the concept of ‘the inverted classroom’.

In the inverted classroom, learned knowledge is put into practice cooperatively

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The essential idea behind the ‘inverted’ or ‘flipped’ classroom is that students learn the material independently, and small teams then apply what they have learned to practical problems in classroom sessions. Mader‘s own version of the concept is less demanding, insofar as his students are not required to study the material at home beforehand. “Instead, I start each block with a 10- to 15-minute talk, before posing the problem. The students then work in teams of four on exercises in the use of JavaScript.”

Mader himself has written test scripts, which not only check the inputs from the student teams automatically, but provide feedback on each individual step – which allows errors to be flagged as quickly as possible. “The editing program enables students who would have been able to crack the problem with a little help from me to solve it on their own – so I can concentrate on those who really need my help.” He can follow the progress being made by the different teams on his PC, and can give tips to those who run into difficulties.

His students seem to appreciate the concept. “In our experience, between 50 and 60% of the class fail to complete conventionally taught, semester-long, lecture courses. I manage to retain the interest of 70 to 80% of my students to the very end.”

The loss of the group effect

“The inverted-classroom format creates a very positive atmosphere, both within and between the various teams,” he says. This promotes interaction and collaboration, which is generally very difficult to create in the context of e-learning generally. Even in this entirely digital semester, students are able to form groups of up to four in ‘break-out rooms’ on Zoom – but Mader says that the supervision of such teams is time-consuming and sessions take significantly longer as a result.

“I can only assume that students at a live lecture pick up a lot from the people around them. – Someone begins to explain a point to a small group in the same row, which is picked up by people sitting two rows further back, or groups converse with each other and compare notes on how to tackle and solve problems.”

Lilia Diamantopoulou also has the impression that many of the lectures that go out on Zoom are more difficult for students to absorb, because the personal interactions that are part-and-parcel of live instruction are muted online. “Having to follow so many lectures and seminars online is really demanding, because the medium requires a different quality of attention,” she says. “On Tuesdays students are still willing and able to follow, but when I see them again on Thursdays, I often say to myself, very soon they’ll have had enough.”

Three locations – one digital seminar room

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The relevance of this comment is underlined by the fact that Diamantopoulou’s students were already accustomed to attending online tuition sessions before the onset of the coronavirus crisis. Only three universities in Germany offer Master’s courses in Modern Greek Studies – LMU, the Free University of Berlin and Hamburg University. In each case, a single individual of professorial rank is responsible for the subject. This prompted the three institutions to pool their resources and provide an interuniversity curriculum in the subject – which has included a significant e-learning component for the past 10 years.

This in turn explains why, prior to the advent of SARS-CoV-2, seminars led by Diamantopoulou could be attended in person by students in Munich, and followed digitally by students in Berlin and Hamburg – seated in front of their own cameras and microphones. That digital classroom is based on Adobe Connect, but since LMU acquired a general license from Zoom, the latter tool is now in more frequent use in her teaching sessions as well.

“Digital tuition works very well for her subject,” says Diamantopoulou. However, she often makes use of real objects in her lectures – original letters, rare exhibition catalogs and other little known material from archives, for example. “I do this partly in order to study the materiality of these objects and documents – things like watermarks or the texture of the paper,” she explains. “These aspects of historical records can only be rudimentarily conveyed in digitalized form, because computers are unable to transport the ‘feel’, the ‘haptic’ aspects of documentary evidence. So, digital tools have both advantages and disadvantages.”

Purely digital teaching means more work for her, because the preparatory phase takes up more time, she says. In addition, digital platforms demand much more reciprocity than face-to-face instruction. “You can’t just deliver a monolog. You have to ask questions to ensure that the message is coming across – which, of course, entails more work. And it’s important to consider what sorts of questions to put, and where they should be placed within the structure.

“It’s like speaking in a vacuum “

Mader too regrets the effective lack of a return channel in online forms. “You’re sitting at home and you speak into a vacuum. In lectures, students give lots of non-verbal feedback, which is of course completely absent when the session is going out on Zoom.” Lipfert also knows the feeling well. “Students sometimes turn off their cameras, and when that happens, I feel as if I’m addressing my remarks to my computer.”

These comments underline the fact that although digital tuition works well in the hands of Diamantopoulou, Mader and Lipfert, online formats cannot conjure up or convey the vital social factor involved in teaching. “Especially in the early stages of university studies, what the lecturer is saying is often of less importance for the impact of the lecture than who is sitting next to one and who joins whom for the number-crunching part of the exercise, Lipfert points out. “In my view, that’s the most important factor in the added value that the traditional bricks-and-mortar university provides relative to the purely digital model.”

The trick is to combine different methods

A balanced combination of face-to-face instruction, digital tools and creative use of online methods is probably the ideal mixture. All three of our interviewees regard the current digital semester as an opportunity to learn and experiment with new approaches to teaching. This in turn promises to give new impetus to efforts to firmly establish digital education methods, and promote digitalization of universities more generally in Germany.

Mader describes the present state of things as follows: “Not everything that’s digital is automatically better. But everyone can find a digital tool that enhances the quality of teaching. It’s not a question of switching over to online education from one day to the next. Gradual introduction of worthwhile digital approaches will also do the trick.”