The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting measures of social distancing have been a large shock also to the university landscape forcing to switch teachers to pure Online Learning (OL) measures. Currently, OL is like teenage sex. Everyone wants to do it, but no one knows how it works.

While OL activities used to be more of a luxury for very engaged teachers and often required them to convince other parties (e.g. the head of the department), the situation has now completely reversed. In fact, there is the call by higher hierarchies to implement these measure. While in theory a mix of online learning and face-to-face interaction would be probably optimal, now all teaching has (!) to  take place in a remote learning online platform. This is a huge investment for teachers – especially for those that already teach courses for years and thus have developed a very mature offline material. Hopefully, this initial teaching pays out in the future as the online material can be reused in further editions of the course, when face-to-face interaction is feasible again. In fact, the new material might greatly enhance the existing offline teaching.

In order to provide good online teaching several challenges have to be overcome. In this post, I will focus on regular lectures. While other concepts such as thesis supervision can go on more or less as before, formats such as seminars based on individual discussion come with their own challenges.

First of all, there are technical challenges. Students might not be able to have access to the necessary hard- or software or lack a reliable internet connection. One general issue with OL is that too much time could be devoted to technical issues, thereby sidetracking from the important issues of the actual content. At least at this point of time, I, thus think the technical solutions should be as simple as possible.

The second key problem is the lack of interaction. It is recommended to record lectures in advance. While this aids at having a clear presentation (teachers can have several takes or edit out erroneous parts), this goes at the cost of lacking interaction. This also makes it very boring from the perspective of the teacher basically only taking to his computer for the length of a complete lecture. This is especially important for abstract courses in math that require development of material on the board. The lectures should be enhanced by live sessions in which students have to solve problems and get individual feedback by the teacher in break-out sessions. There might also be a lack of interaction between students themselves. Thus, group work sessions should be promoted. Moreover, peer feedback / grading can be a tool to both reduce the (now higher) workload of the teacher and also to enforce student interaction.

It is good to acknowledge that students are aware that even teachers are now re-learning to teach in an altered environment. Thus, they are more lenient if not everything works out perfect. On the other hand, teachers also have to be aware that students have to learn who to learn in this new environment and thus also be a bit more patient here.

The practice of Online Learning