Distance education on the agenda
2 April 2020
As a consequence of the outbreak of the coronavirus and the Swedish Government's recommendations to begin distance education, Uppsala University has switched to online teaching from 18 March. Felix Ho, Associate Professor at the Department of Chemistry – Ångström is someone who has worked a lot with online and digital tools for teaching.
How does teaching exclusively online differ from ‘normal’, on-campus teaching?
“When teaching is done exclusively online, both the teachers and the students need to adapt to new ways of working. Many students are used to on-campus teaching and it can be quite the challenge to start entirely taking control of and structuring your own learning. Teachers can help students to organise their studies using digital tools and set up virtual meeting schedules that create a kind of routine. But I think it’s even more important that teachers don’t just try to reproduce online exactly what they would have done in the classroom. You have to think differently when you can’t meet up physically.
“Then there’s another very important aspect: Teachers really should think about how to facilitate and promote student activity and discussion with each other, even though they are physically in different places. The physical separation in distance education entails new challenges for students who are used to being able to meet physically and collaborate. Teachers should be encouraged to consider and promote the social aspect of learning.”
What teaching methods work better than others online?
“There are a variety of forms of online teaching and they all have their own strengths and weaknesses. You should choose the method according to what you want to help the students achieve. A good form of online teaching is to give the students material to read and exercises to do on their own before meeting online, for group discussions and question time. But you have to remember that you can’t just post two hours of lectures online and hope that the students are going to sit through that. Shorter recordings providing highlights or key points can be useful, and complemented by discussions and self-study. Another good idea is to set up regular virtual "office hours" when the teacher is available to take questions from the students.
“Of course, not everything can be shifted online, like many laboratory exercises and experiments, although some computer labs can be done by distance. But the teacher can still provide the students with materials such as video clips and interactive simulations that can prepare them for future lab exercises on campus.”
What technologies are needed for distance education?
“Most teachers and students will already have the basic equipment needed conduct or participate in online instruction: a computer with a built-in microphone and camera. You can also purchase external cameras to connect to a computer. The headphones with microphone that come with your mobile phone are often good enough, or you can invest in a headset with a microphone. If you want to be able to draw on a presentation on your computer screen, you can get an electronic pen tablet. Other simpler solutions can be to use a tablet computer or whiteboard that you use and then hold up to the camera so students can view what you have written, or you can simply point the camera at the table while writing on paper. It doesn't have to be especially hi-tech.
“With regard to software, many are using Zoom, a digital tool for e-meetings and teaching. It can be used for group work, seminars and lectures online. You can also record meetings or lectures so that it can be viewed afterwards. Another good tool is screen recording software that allows you to make video recordings of your computer screen and audio while you are talking. There are a number of such programs that are free to use for educational purposes. The teacher can also use their mobile phone to record short video clips. Video clips recorded in advance can be a particularly interesting alternative where you have bigger courses with many students who would otherwise need to stream lectures at the same time.”
What are the challenges of online learning?
“Teachers might feel nervous about getting the technology to work optimally. But it doesn’t all have to be perfect. In the current situation, it is just a matter of finding solutions that are good enough for the time being. You can then improve things as you go along. While there is a risk that these virtual meeting services on the Internet might not be able to cope with the increased traffic, there is generally no cause for concern about lack of capacity. However teachers should have a plan B if students cannot log in to the e-meeting. You can inform students in advance about where they can find the recorded material after the session, as well as when you will be available for any questions.
“Many teachers have already used digital tools to supplement their teaching, but there hasn’t been such a great need before to put more time into learning about how to teach online. That said, there is now going to be a huge boost in teachers’ digital skills, and fabulous new ideas are emerging all the time!”