Learning in lockdown

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Online teaching during the coronavirus crisis: over 140 students took part in th

Online teaching during the coronavirus crisis: over 140 students took part in this live physics lecture (Photograph: Guillaume Schiltz, ETH Zurich).

Shuttered buildings, empty auditoriums: classroom teaching at ETH Zurich has been suspended since 16 March. Thanks to online teaching, however, students can still attend their lectures virtually.

ETH has entered lockdown mode. The once bustling buildings are now filled with the sounds of silence. Teaching has continued, however - just in a different way. All lecturers at ETH have now switched over to conducting online courses. In pre-corona times, online learning was tried out occasionally or used for specific purposes, but suddenly it has become the only way of doing things. This seismic switch has been a great feat not only for lecturers and students, but also for the staff providing technical and didactic support. One such unit working behind the scenes is the Educational Development and Technology Department (LET).

A challenge for the institution

"ETH has an excellent technical infrastructure, so we were able to accommodate the sudden demand without any delay," says department head Gerd Kortemeyer. "But we already had robust, tried-and-true solutions in place like recording in auditoriums, the Moodle learning portal and the ETH Polybox file sharing platform, to name a few." But even though central preparations were already underway in early March to switch over to distance learning, the situation was far from easy. Normally, ETH places great emphasis on classroom teaching: the direct interaction between teachers - who also work as researchers - and their students is a defining characteristic of the university. "So in this respect, ETH had less experience with online teaching than some other universities, particularly ones abroad," says Kortemeyer. "This perhaps doesn’t line up with what you might expect from a technical university."

This means that there were very few systems and processes in place for an immediate and comprehensive switch to online teaching. "But when it came down to it, we showed our strength as a technical university by tackling the challenge in a creative yet pragmatic way," says Thomas Piendl, part of the IT Services staff for teaching. "One thing that was extremely helpful for us was the strong relationship we’ve built up over the years with our colleagues in different parts of IT Services, which helped us quickly implement infrastructure solutions that were at times unconventional."

One of the most important decisions was rolling out a suitable online teaching tool in a quick, unbureaucratic and comprehensive way. The tool of choice was Zoom, commercial software designed for video conferences and webinars. "With Zoom it’s possible to simulate the experience of classroom teaching," explains Kortemeyer. "With a few adaptations and compromises, of course."

Positive feedback from teaching staff and students

This decision has been well received by lecturers and students alike. "Using Zoom at home is working surprisingly well for me. I can see that more than 300 students are watching and can interact with them via the chat function. I’m actually getting more questions that I do in the lecture hall," reports Andreas Steiger, lecturer in the Department of Mathematics. With everyone being called upon to stay home as much as possible, students are grateful to have interesting online courses. "I’ve already received emails from students claiming that it makes being under ’house arrest’ fun," says Steiger.

The Department of Physics is also using Zoom, but in conjunction with an external camera pointing to a whiteboard in the empty auditoriums where lecturers now hold lessons. "In big physics lectures we rely on the whiteboard and the ability to demonstrate experiments in the auditorium," explains Guillaume Schiltz, who works as an educational developer in the Department of Physics. Schlitz is helping other lecturers in the department develop new teaching methods. "We conducted an overnight raid of sorts on 14 and 15 March to equip the auditoriums so that teaching staff would be able to live stream their lectures via Zoom," he explains. While teaching, lecturers can switch between the whiteboard, PowerPoint slides and experiments with the push of a button. Students attend the virtual lecture via Zoom and can also ask questions, which the lecturer then answers in the auditorium using one of these three methods.

Solutions for lab courses

Another great challenge facing ETH: how will students be able to complete their practical courses without access to the lab? For physics labs, work is already underway to create simulations that allow students to generate data and collect measurements by manipulating virtual instruments. Students should also use their smartphones to conduct experiments at home. "Every smartphone has quite a lot of sensors that can be used to run physics experiments," says Schlitz. The department is still in the initial phase of supplying students with simulations and smartphone experiments, however.

The Department of Materials was also concerned about how students would be able to continue their lab work, given all the experiments with materials and chemicals that they have to conduct. "Fortunately our lab director acted very early on in anticipation of what was to come," says Lorenzo De Pietro, educational developer at D-MATL, explaining that assistants were encouraged to record videos of experiments while it was still possible. These recordings are now being used as a basis for discussing experiments and theories during live Zoom meetings. Combined with other resources and pre-prepared data sets, students now have a suitable way of completing their lab courses without interruption. "The committed, proactive work of our D-MATL assistants was really crucial here," emphasises De Pietro. Unfortunately, some materials experiments - for instance forging metals and doing work in workshops - cannot be replaced so easily. "We will have to offer them at another time," he says.

A test of endurance

The first obstacles have already been overcome - perhaps not perfectly, but with a great deal of intensity. However, some of the next challenges will only become apparent with time. As the events of the corona crisis rapidly unfolded, everyone was scrambling: to set up their home offices, to learn how to use new technologies, to switch their courses to new formats. "We were very, very busy. I think reality will only start to set in over the next few weeks, and the psychological strain of it all will start to surface," says Kortemeyer. One worry is that students sitting alone at home in front of their laptops may simply give up in the absence of a supportive campus environment, not finishing the semester or even dropping out altogether. To combat this, Kortemeyer would like to ramp up efforts to strengthen online assessment tools.

"Generally speaking, our lecturers do really great work. It’s impressive how quickly they’ve adapted to the new situation, even if for some of them it’s their first experience with holding online lectures," says Thomas Piendl. However, he encourages people not to forget the perspective of the students amid this flurry of activity. Can everyone really take part in the live sessions’ What about students in different time zones’ Do they have enough bandwidth to join an online video meeting? Are they being offered the possibility to download recorded lectures’ These are the kinds of issues that must be considered.

"We need to be having in-depth conversations on these topics," says Andreas Reinhardt, learning innovation specialist at LET. According to Reinhard, we need to be increasingly active in asking students about their needs. It could very well be that learning patterns that functioned in the past no longer apply to our new reality. Perhaps a two-hour livestreamed lecture does not work that well in practice, and more thought will have to be given to how to plan in breaks. Or maybe students want the chance to do more assignments so that they can achieve their learning goals. What’s more, it is important for students to receive regular feedback for them to make progress.

Experience and support

Fortunately, some groundwork had already been laid for ETH’s unprecedented switch to virtual instruction. ETH has had an online learning infrastructure in place for some time now, for instance for receiving feedback on assignments, discussing possible exam questions, taking quizzes, participating in online question-and-answer sessions and holding discussions on forums. "There are many lecturers who, in a variety of ways, started investing in interactive digital learning environments earlier on," says Reinhardt. Even before the corona crisis, some classes at ETH took a blended learning approach by offering online videos, interactive scripts and simulations. These blending learning tools can now be integrated into the new online teaching environment. And not to be forgotten is the support from LET, which has now adapted its services to the current situation (see info box below).

Thinking about the future, too

Kortemeyer is already looking ahead to the future. He says that ETH does not yet have enough of an infrastructure for managing online course content. Options for archiving content, holding discussions and mixing and remixing recordings could lighten the load for many. "We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here," he explains. The incredible amount of new teaching content that is now being generated should also not get lost going forward. No matter what happens, Kortemeyer believes that ETH will be a different institution once the corona crisis ends. He could imagine an increasing organic shift to blended learning, where some lecture elements are stored online, which would enable classroom teaching to be used in different - and perhaps more efficient - ways.

LET services

Website - Options for remote teaching : Guidance and tips for lecturers, updated on an ongoing basis.

Online Teaching Forum: All ETH lecturers are invited to ask questions and share their experiences.

Refresh Teaching programme : Inspiring workshops offered over lunchtime - now via Zoom.

Virtual Coffee Breaks : Launched on 26 March for casual discussions.

Lecturers can also share good ideas on Twitter using the hashtag #ETHZonline.

Departmental educational developers, LET support services and the LET advisory team are all good points of contact.
More about LET

Martina Maerki