Online lectures pose major challenges for students and lecturers alike. We need to rethink and make more use of contemporary didactic tools. The result will be a sustainable change in university teaching. The greatest challenge of synchronous online teaching is the interaction with the many participants. Online coaching of individual students or small groups works much better compared to this. It is even possible to coach several small groups at the same time as a floating professor (see part 2) in the breakout sessions – and better than in traditional on-site teaching. But in face-to-face teaching you are almost always confronted with a black hole: One has the impression of teaching /dev/null. For one thing, few students are willing to turn on their cameras. For another, it is more difficult to perceive reactions even when the cameras are on. There is also no community spirit: students influence each other much less, for better or worse. The result is often extremely boring for both sides – lecturers and students. There is no liveliness, there is no humour.
Experience shows that a reliable way to deal with this problem is to teach with two or three lecturers who are present online at the same time. If they communicate with each other, address the students with distributed roles and the chemistry is halfway right, this improves the lecture experience for everyone involved:
- Lecturers experience less stress and can lecture or give feedback in a more relaxed manner.
- Many teaching inconsistencies can be avoided because you can come to each other’s aid when the other person is talking his or her head off, accelerating to Formula 1 speed or getting stuck on a detail.
- It is easier to respond to questions and discussions in the lecture chat because not one person is doing everything at once.
- It is easier to use sophisticated digital tools to break up the lesson.
- Technical problems can often be solved without effectively interfering with teaching.
- Special talents of individual lecturers – such as spreading human warmth – can be targeted and students are offered a richer mix of skills.
- Students end up experiencing more colourful, educational and less monotonous teaching.
- In most cases, students are more willing to actively participate in class, to ask questions or even, conversely, to be questioned by lecturers.
- Demanding didactic practices are easier to realise, for example the realistic practice of communication situations.
- There are more innovations because lecturers can distribute tasks in the process.
If team teaching is not possible, students can also take on additional tasks. For example, they can observe the chat, point out image or sound problems. A more active role up to moderation is also possible. However, such a role is often not popular; most students prefer to concentrate on following the event. In line with the nature of the medium, both sides – lecturers and students – have various possibilities to communicate synchronously with each other in synchronous online lectures. One can choose between interaction in the live broadcast, interaction in the lecture chat of the video conference or in private chat with other participants. This is a clear advantage of online teamteaching compared to conventional teamteaching. In both cases, online and on-site, the success of teamteaching depends largely on both passing the ball to each other and interrupting each other. Complementary teams often find it easier than very similar teams, as long as they share the goal perspective and strive for joint success. It is similar to cooking: Two or three times of the same thing tastes more insipid than a combination of different flavours that have been harmoniously combined. Of course – need we mention this? – it is a no-go to start a discussion among students over their heads in the style of the Chicago economists during student presentations. However, it is quite possible to get students to defend their position in front of everyone against critical objections from a lecturer in respectful role-playing.
Structuring and rhythmisation
The days of reading aloud or reciting manuscripts are long gone in most lectures. Free speech by lecturers has become the norm, while breakout sessions and input by students (often referred to as flipped classrooms ) are valuable didactic elements in both conventional and online teaching. The fact that not everything works as intended sometimes becomes a problem. More often, however, it creates excitement – and lifelong memories of individual events. Where it does not destroy the sense, it is advisable to structure online lessons in smaller parts than conventional lessons. However, the big arc of tension should not be lost, or rather it should be explicitly pointed out again and again. For the decisive benchmark is the countless instructional videos that are available: Following synchronous online teaching must be more attractive than getting small teaching units on YouTube, which often explain individual things much more perfectly than 95% of lecturers manage in their best live teaching moments. To stand up to the Youtube benchmark, you need a group experience. A recognisable thread is just as important as entertaining variety, which makes it possible to mentally get back into the lesson if one has lost the thread in between. An occasional change in the lecturer’s presentation is not enough to break the monotony of the lecture. Fortunately for us lecturers, however, gathering online knowledge is much more time-consuming than attending lectures, so that the Youtube benchmark usually remains a theoretical one.
Interaction tools and demonstration culture
In addition to contributions from students and a small-scale structuring of the lecture content, tools that require student interaction are helpful – from survey tools to ad hoc tests without grade relevance (for example, a quiz) to serious games. The results of ad hoc evaluations make it possible to benchmark one’s own position with the position of the entire student body and thus, among other things, to determine one’s individual position. In this way, they become a suitable starting point and/or the subject of a substantive discussion in the plenary. These are almost always (but not always) possible if actively requested by name. However, in order to really defeat the black hole, one must dare to try – no matter how often it fails – to establish a culture of showing. Those who present something should necessarily have to show themselves in the picture. In the case of presenting teams, this applies to the whole team. Those who have already been in the picture as presenters should also be asked to stay in the picture. The latter requires commitment from students and is not always successful. However, the goal is to have a visible audience.
In real life, many good ideas and intentions fail because of the necessary time resources. That’s why, for example, there will never be perfect corporate communication in large companies and compliance will always be a problem. The experience with computer science has taught us an interesting principle: eliminate the need for communication as much as possible – and invest all energy in making sure that the remaining necessary communication takes place in the most favourable context possible. This is the principle behind DevOps and the secret to success of multinational or multidisciplinary computer science projects. Applied to teaching in Covid 19 times, this means: First, we should push self-study – and with concrete, interesting and challenging assignments. Secondly, we should outsource many tasks of classical lectures, for example, instead of motivating interest in content in the lecture, let students solve problems in practice in “live cases”. Thirdly, we should design the remaining lecture units, which have been significantly reduced in scope, in such a way that students encourage each other in their learning. It is difficult to significantly expand self-study in the short term, because that requires a lot of one-off effort. But building an attractive self-study should be a major goal, beyond the Covid 19 period. Possible without effort is recording the lecture, which is highly appreciated by students and hardly reduces attendance at live online lectures (see Nordmann & McGeorge’s research on this). More costly, but also more attractive, are self-made video clips of the lecturing team. However, the real challenge of self-study – and of university teaching in general – is to support learning through targeted pre-structuring, assignment and at least exemplary feedback. Higher education must first and foremost teach disciplinary competencies – that is, thinking in the specific perspectives of a subject discipline. This can only be achieved through exercises, properly designed practical tasks and feedback, feedback and more feedback. For all the benefits of increased self-study, direct contact with students remains a necessity. Much can be done through one-to-one coaching or small group coaching, but for efficiency reasons alone, doing away with synchronous lectures altogether is not an attractive option. We have to learn to make it attractive online. But we will benefit permanently from the experience gained beyond the crisis.
- Mathias Krammer, Peter Rossmann, Angela Gastager, Barbara Gasteiger-Klicpera: Ways of composing teaching teams and their impact on teachers’ perceptions about collaboration, European Journal of Teacher Education 41/4 (2018)
- Sophie McKenzie,Rachael Hains-Wesson, Shaun Bangay, Greg Bowtell: A team-teaching approach for blended learning: an experiment, Studies in Higher Education (2020)
- Catherine Minett-Smith, Carole L. Davis: Widening the discourse on team-teaching in higher education, Teaching in Higher Education 25/5 (2020)
- Emily Nordmann, Peter McGeorge: Lecture capture in higher education – time to learn from the learners, PsyArXiv (2018)