Let’s learn to teach and study online

Aune Valk, University of Tartu Vice Rector for Academic Affairs

We are still experiencing extraordinary times. Exams take place online to a large extent, and the coronavirus shows no signs of slowing down. Considering the current circumstances, we have decided to begin the spring semester mostly online. Practical classes that cannot be conducted otherwise may be taught in the classroom. Based on the experience we gained in spring, we confirm that the decision does not mean that we are postponing the studies until March. Studies will begin in February, just in another format.

How to go on with studies in March we will decide in the first half of February. Hopefully, in March or April we can start returning to normal studies in small groups. If necessary, we can use research-based calculations and available data on the size of rooms and ventilation.

In spring we had to manage learning, working, and often also organising personal life online overnight due to the emergency situation. It was difficult, but we forgave each other for our mistakes, because the circumstances were extraordinary. Now we all teaching and studies, including exams, mostly take place online again. Online learning and teaching is complicated mostly because generally we have not intended to learn or teach in that way. Any change is controversial. It involves extra work and the inconvenience of learning something new, as well as diverging understandings of the necessity, possibility and usefulness of the change. This in turn shows that the need to inform and explain is many times bigger than under normal conditions, when everything runs as agreed.

So as to learn from our experiences, let’s recall the general wisdom on e-learning and a few lessons from last spring.

  1. Lecturer is responsible for selecting the form of study
    1. The lecturer selects the form of study but, before making any changes, must consult the programme director and/or vice dean for academic affairs. The university is more than just individual courses and this sets certain limits to the choices.
    2. When you have to do something for the first time, or for some reason you have not been successful in it so far, your faculty’s instructional designer, academic developer, or the e-learning support specialist of your institute can give advice and help you. Almost anything can be done online, if you just want to!
    3. Changes must be communicated to students, and the reasons for changes must be explained to them. All changes must be entered in the study information system.
    4. It is important to lay down rules for participation in a course, and to follow the rules. The e-learner’s handbook is there to support you.
  2. Study outcomes depend largely on the activeness of students and teaching staff
    1. It is very easy to be present online without being actually present. While students would prefer more online learning, teaching staff are discouraged by students’ passive participation: webcams are off and it is like speaking into a black hole. It is important for lecturers to know how to encourage and evaluate active participation: organise discussions in smaller groups, plan longer presentations by students, and take these into consideration when grading. But even more important is for students to prepare for class, to contribute, to serve as a model, and to follow the rules laid down for the course.
      Dear student! Be present, think along, turn on your webcam and microphone and voice your opinion without worrying what others might think. Speaking under your own name, with your own face, is a natural part of academic education, which supports both the teacher and other students in this difficult time. If the learning process requires active participation, it is elementary that the webcam is on. Understandably, in some cases it is not possible due to technical problems, but it must not become the rule.
    2. Experiences gained in spring showed that both lecturers and students were annoyed by the lack of physical meetings. Students evaluated more highly the courses in which teachers gave them a possibility to participate in webinars instead of, or in addition to, reading materials on their own at home.
  3. Let’s trust but also verify
    1. Before Christmas, the Student Union posted their proposals about online exams in the programme directors’ mailing list, referring to the tips for adapting assessment. Students found that “academic fraud should not be an argument against using online exams and pass/fail assessments” and that exams could be adapted so that “instead of factual knowledge, the focus should be on the application, synthesis and analysis of facts and theories”. The students’ proposals definitely deserve support. I would like it very much if we could remember this difficult period for a strong learning culture, including honesty in assessments and exams. Unfortunately, there have been cases of cheating in online exams or cases where the teacher set such a restricted time limit for the exam that does not allow analysis.
    2. Dear students! I hope you act like mature learners and understand who you are studying for. It is also worth remembering that according to Study Regulations, in the case of academic fraud, students are reprimanded or deleted from the matriculation register.
    3. Dear members of the teaching staff! Let’s appreciate analytical skills higher than factual knowledge and, if necessary, ask students to take the so-called pledge of honesty. Besides setting a time limit for answering, it is also possible to fight dishonesty by changing the order of questions and placing each question in a separate page, changing values in math problems of the same type, etc. Like during face-to-face exams in a classroom, we can also use surveillance in online exams.  There are several possibilities: SEB (Safe Exam Browser), the Moodle quiz proctoring plugin or video proctoring of tests. Instructional designers can advise and help choose the most suitable method. To avoid technical problems, see what risks you should consider when setting up tests and proctoring exams.
    4. Proctoring is inconvenient for everyone; it is time-consuming and puts an extra load on network speed, but it is inevitable to ensure reliability.
    5. Students who do not want to sit a proctored exam at home may take it at the university library. If necessary, a webcam set for video supervision can be borrowed at the borrowing desk on the second floor of the library.

Although changes are inevitable in the current situation, the core values of teaching and learning remain unchanged. At the initiative of the Student Union, the good practice of learning has been agreed, and the teaching staff follow the good practice of teaching. In both documents, cooperation is highly valued. In difficult times it is helpful to keep in mind that by learning together to teach and learn, we will hopefully come out of this crisis smarter and stronger.

Further information: Aune Valk, Vice Rector for Academic Affairs of the University of Tartu, 526 7930, aune.valk@ut.ee