Teaching from Covid-19 – How universities can teach digitally (2)

So far, the potential of existing platforms for online teaching has only been used to a small extent. In the following, three scenarios will show how digital university teaching could be made attractive. They are based on previous experience in the classroom and with hybrid academic conferences.

Scenario 1: Three screens for presentations and plenary discussions

Ideally, lecturers should have at least three screens available for online teaching:

  1. One screen for the required teaching material, taking notes during teaching (and possibly searching for digital teaching resources not shared with students)
  2. A screen for the visual part of teaching with presenting, showing and demonstrating
  3. A screen for observing student interactions so that they can be acted upon

Screen A can be partially replaced by printed material in case of emergency. Screen B may need to be divided into different content or even split between two physical screens. It is also used to show the students’ presentations. Screen C can be used not only to follow the chat among students, but also to have students show something. Of course, it is important to be able to display the same documents differently on screen A and screen B, and to be able to save data from screen C on the teaching material from screen A. The multitude of screens may seem surprising and superfluous at first glance. Ultimately, however, it virtualises the situation in a classic teaching setting. In this setting, lecturers use a PC or other documents as screen A and project something onto a screen (screen B) for all to see. In addition, they interact directly with the students, which is now done online via screen C. The students are then shown on screen B. The lecturer’s work is also virtualised. In the current situation with distance learning from the home office, screen C often has to be dispensed with. This then leads to double frustration: On the one hand, lecturers feel as if they are talking into a “black hole”. On the other hand, students have the impression that their feedback is lost and that they are not included. For students, three screens are also an advantage:

  1. A screen for visually following the lecture
  2. A screen for taking your own notes
  3. A screen for interacting with others

Their own contributions to the lecture should be shown either on screen A or screen B, depending on the context. On screen C, the lecturer can be observed. This is also analogous to the on-site situation, where students follow a presentation (screen A), take notes on their notebook or paper (screen B). Another screen C is then again not necessary on site – although it is quite common at universities for students to exchange information with each other in a class chat directly in class. Screens A, B and C are logical concepts in both cases. However, it makes sense to assign these concepts 1-to-1 to concrete physical screens, because this renunciation of adaptive assignment makes use more manageable and thus considerably simplified.

Scenario 2: Shared board(s) and floating professor for breakout sessions and project work

For online breakout sessions, virtual workspaces are needed, which are ideally also used by means of three screens:

  1. A screen for collaborative development of artefacts that supports different applications, specifically
    1. a shared board – i.e. a whiteboard that can be used jointly – to collect ideas and develop concepts together
    2. shared text and presentation documents to document and subsequently share the results of the work
  2. A screen for social interaction with videos of participants and the ability to show each other objects
  3. A screen for creating private learning notes

This scenario can also be used for project work, with the difference that messages can still be exchanged asynchronously via chat on screen B and that the project status should also be made visible on this screen. It is important for lecturers to be able to easily create such workspaces and assign students to them as needed, either on the basis of explicit considerations or purely randomly. In addition, it is important that they can easily move between workspaces to see how well the work is going and whether ex needs explicit assistance. It would even be ideal if they could see several rooms at the same time. Loosely based on Sudhir Venkatesh’s Floating City, we can speak of “floating professors”, who also need three screens for this. However, not all products used in class offer all these possibilities.

Scenario 3: Hybrid teaching

Hybrid teaching poses a major problem because it creates a two-class society among the students and requires lecturers to interact fairly with both classes. Which setup is preferable in each case depends on the size of the group of online participants and the demand on the quality of interaction. If there are only a few online participants, the recording of the classroom supplemented by distributed room microphones is a good solution for them. In the classroom, a screen should also be projected onto a screen on which the online participants can be seen and symbolically raise their hands if they want to ask questions or give answers to questions. It is important that both groups can see each other to create a minimum of equality. If, on the other hand, there are many online participants, it is recommended that lecturers also use a second private screen. This corresponds to the 3-screen scenario of online teaching, whereby instead of the third private screen there is the projection in the classroom, which is also shared online. Students on site can – with the appropriate apps – participate in the class chat via smartphone or notebooks. Students at home, of course, have the advantage of three screens as in the full online class. If there are only a few students on site, a scenario in which they are all equipped with headsets makes sense. For lecturers, a plugged-in microphone is preferable to a room microphone. But experience with hybrid academic conferences shows that in many settings, room microphones are a good solution when speakers change frequently and discussions are interactive.

Requirements and improvements

A prerequisite for active online participation is a fast and stable internet connection. Showing one’s own contributions must also be limited to presentations that this connection can handle. This restriction applies to lecturers as well as students. Online teaching is therefore not equally possible from every location in the world. From hospitals, for example, it is often difficult, as the experiences of the last few months have shown. In addition, of course, sufficient screens are needed at the place of participation. Ideally, the collaboration tools and operating systems will also support such a setting in the future, so that one does not have to construct it laboriously oneself. Closer linking of the individual work tools – teams and PowerPoint, for example – would also make work easier. It is possible that the intention was to create intelligent aids for first-time users with the best of intentions. In the stress of the teaching situation, however, intelligent tools are often more of a burden than a help. A clear layered architecture logic and a well-defined conceptual model would greatly improve the user experience (UX). How many participants can be handled well in an online lecture is – similar to a conventional lecture – a question of aspiration and didactic ambitions and skills – always provided that the software used and the reserved cloud resources allow for the respective number of participants and thus run stably. The latter has not always been the case in recent months (and days) – among other things because the providers increased their resources and this usually entails short-term technical problems. In principle, an online lecture can also scale better than an on-site event by eliminating restrictions due to room size or acoustics, for example. And it offers additional possibilities such as recordings. These are possible virtually free of charge and are very much appreciated by the students

Advanced scenarios

Scenario 2 can also be used for project work, as outlined. This also enables teaching and projects with students from different universities in different countries – or even different continents. In 2004, the University of Zurich launched Rolf Pfeifer’s AI Lectures from Tokyo, the first experiment in global teaching as part of the conventional lecture programme. There are currently various institutions and initiatives for global teaching, but it has not become established at Central European universities. For the time being, the state-of-the-art is “only” the implementation of projects abroad as part of selected lectures. (At the Department of Economics of the Bern University of Applied Sciences, for example, in the Bachelor’s programme on sustainability and in the new Master’s programme “Digital Business Administration”) The future will promote global teaching – and not only in the sense of MOOCs, but also in the sense of conventional lectures for students from different universities. As in other areas of public life, the health crisis is proving to be “yet another good thing” for higher education institutions because it is driving digital transformation. (Even if this does not change Aunt Jolesch’s wisdom that God wants to save us from everything that is still a good fortune).


Our thanks go to all the colleagues with whom we were able to exchange ideas in the day-to-day teaching – especially Andreas Ninck, Simon Burger and Nina Gasche – as well as Anne-Careen Stoltze for the editing. For us, the students’ participation in the digital transformation process was and is an important source of motivation. After all, all three sides belong to successful digital teaching: Lecturers, students and technology.

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AUTHOR: Reto Jud

Reto Jud is head of the Business Information Systems program at BFH Wirtschaft.

AUTHOR: Reinhard Riedl

Prof. Dr Reinhard Riedl is a lecturer at the Institute of Digital Technology Management at BFH Wirtschaft. He is involved in many organisations and is, among other things, Vice-President of the Swiss E-Government Symposium and a member of the steering committee of TA-Swiss. He is also a board member of eJustice.ch, Praevenire - Verein zur Optimierung der solidarischen Gesundheitsversorgung (Austria) and All-acad.com, among others.

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