Contributions, reflections and comments by Gunnar Karlsson

Covid University

One might rejoice that Swedish institutions for higher education were able to switch to online teaching during the spring of 2020 and thus were able to continue to offer good education despite the pandemic. Or one might remark that it takes a globally threatening plague with thousands of dead to make them change.

Faculty members of universities and colleges like to remind those around of their long history, dating back to the medieval universities in Bologna and Paris, despite the fact that their own university is at most two hundred years old or, which is even more common in Sweden, fifty years old. History is used as an argument that the university is an institution you do not meddle with. And yet, there have been major changes since the Middle Ages: few university teachers would probably appreciate being both paid directly by the students and punished by them for late arrival and for skimming over difficult parts of a subject, as was the case in Bologna in the beginning when then the students ruled.

But let us rejoice.

One of the most important prerequisites for a successful transition was that the Swedish university network (SUNET) offer the video conferencing tool Zoom from its own servers that managed sessions for as many as 500 students, and SUNET integrated it with the institutions’ login to keep unauthorized people out (thus avoiding both anonymous students as well as outsiders). My own university has also provided good pedagogical and technical support for learning platforms and other tools.

I was about to commence a course with 150 engineering students when the pandemic broke loose. In addition to a lot of trifles, I was faced with two challenges when being ordered on Friday afternoon, March 13, to move the lecture in the morning of March 16 from the lecture hall to Zoom. The immediate difficulty that arose was a lack of opportunity to practice (I had the weekend!). It is turned out that it is not possible to set up a session with simulated participants to practice: for instance, to give someone the floor, post quiz questions to the class and then post and discuss the results, and to divide the class into discussion groups. Remarkably, there is no opportunity to practice without an audience! What other performers would accept that? Those in improv theater perhaps.

Our penchant for acting as the sole teacher became a burden. Our, or at least my, attention was not enough to simultaneously lecture, while checking for risen hands and giving the floor to those who want to ask, and to post prepared quiz questions and take questions that came in the chat function while reproving the occasional childish comment there. This was the second challenge for me. It would be been better if I could have left the handling of discussions and questions to someone who assisted me, in order to focus on teaching.

But not everything was worse. In the course is based on projects with individual follow-up that we held online. It worked as well as at a personal meeting. When time allowed, there were also some interesting conversations about how it is to study from home. One student said that it was the best situation ever because it was quiet, which does not often happen in the lecture hall or in the study spaces on campus.

For the examination, the usual process has been digitized straight off with the students divided into meeting rooms with exam proctors who monitor them via camera and microphone. In practice, this means that the students have free access to all information that can be searched online and to each other via chat and file sharing, all those means that were not heard and seen by the proctor. As a teacher, you try to prevent cheating by allowing open book and other aids that anyhow cannot be prevented from being used by students. We shorten the exam duration to reduce the time for illegal cooperation, but at the same time know that it affects those who work more slowly (and perhaps more accurately); we do several hopefully equivalent versions of a problem where the system randomly distributes the alternatives to the students. All of these tactics are used to complicate unauthorized cooperation. However, the number of disciplinary cases has increased at several higher education institutions.

My conclusions from the spring are that our tools are good but not good enough, and our way of teaching in classrooms does not work well when transferred straight online. It is in front of a class that we teachers get direct contact with the students and this contact decreases to zero when the medium becomes digital and the groups larger (and students turn off their cameras). If society returns to the usual non-pandemic situation in the near future, most of us will probably choose the classroom with the customary working methods and the student contacts we are used to.

What may we project from today’s situation towards the future? We have now made a first-order digitalization of the university with our regular teaching methods implemented with new means: It only improves through better systems. The activities in society that have come further with digitalization, and also see clear benefits, have more fundamentally changed their working methods and processes based on the new possibilities and expectations.

Higher education must go through the same change process to see the benefits of digitalization. This work is made more difficult by the fact that those who currently are our target group – young full-time students on campus – do not necessarily see much improvement but merely changes, as during the past year. And those who may become winners of further digitalization are not yet served by the university and thus have no influence over the institution’s development. That group consists of professionals who need new skills and retraining.

Continuing education after graduation is not an extensive activity for most institutions of higher education. This is really surprising because the need for further education is already significant and it increases when entire industries, such as retail, are restructured. When reflecting on this lack of regard for an urgent societal need, you might be excused for complaining that changing a university is like moving a graveyard: you get no help from the people inside (a parable of unclear origin).

There are however examples of what can be done for a higher order of digitalization of the university. I was involved in a work that led to the idea brochure KTH Education 2027/2028 which gives a fictional view of engineering educations for the academic year when KTH celebrates its 200th anniversary. The brochure contains many suggestions for improvements that can be realized in the long term, some even in the near future. For example, admission to the university is for life. This means that you can always come back to take additional courses, or retake a test to re-assess knowledge when needed. All of this could be offered today since the marginal cost would be negligible in the beginning. Should there be great demand, you may request funding for continuous education.

It is also shown in the brochure that students in the imagined future mix work and studies according to need and their own plans. Some read the least number of necessary courses in order to work with what they want, and then they continue to educate themselves along their professional lives. A degree in engineering becomes a milestone and not a final stop of education. Others alternate years of work with longer periods of full-time study to advance and perhaps change careers. Everything is possible because all students have constant access to all courses which can be followed both on campus and online and at any pace.

The brochure is available and has aroused some interest from people outside the university but less from those inside.

An objection to the vision is that we already teach at full capacity and thus cannot be expected to engage in continuing education as well. This might be true in current forms of offering education. University studies in Sweden are however mostly based on self-study with elements of teacher-led instruction. It is interesting to extend that mode to minimize the role of the teacher to a course where students can manage completely on their own, not individually but with support from each other.

Peer instruction is an excellent form of teaching. Public schooling in many countries was based on mutual instruction (also called the monitoring method and the Bell-Lancaster method) where older students (monitors) taught younger ones. It was not until several decades after public schools were established that the education of teachers had expanded so that all classes could have trained teachers. With the monitors, the schools lost instructors with the intuitive understanding of how to learn, which a person of almost the same age has after grasping something for him- or herself. We have similar experience with our undergraduate teaching assistants who are closer to the students in terms of learning material in a course that they themselves have recently completed. These TAs may help in a different way than a teacher who does advanced research on the subject.

A possibility in the future is that teachers provide well-defined courses that students can work their way through with support from previous course participants and teaching assistants from the university. The teacher’s role is thus to define and provide the contents, design learning activities, and then to examine the students. Now when there are good online courses, MOOCs, the teacher’s task may even be limited to the examination. By rationalizing the education we might avoid that the teacher becomes a constraining resource, to allow the university to offer education to more people, especially those working.

My hope is that we shall provide education to all groups of society in the forms needed and that we do so online by continued development of our teaching practices from the swift start we have been forced into.

Then there is reason to rejoice.

ONL211 Blogg