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University teachers talking about digital teaching

Digital teaching requires new pedagogies. Sofia Ramström, Magnus Hansson, Annika Göran Rodell and Niklas Eriksen talk about the challenges of digital teaching - and how they have addressed them.

Sofia Ramström.

As a senior lecturer at the School of Medical Sciences and examiner for the Programme in Medicine's fourth semester, Sofia Ramström will need to prepare for online teaching again this autumn, even if some teaching will take place on campus again.

“This past spring, we had to put in many hours to get online teaching to work, and some placements had to be cancelled. So, we needed to find alternative ways for the students to practise and demonstrate their skills.”

One solution allowed students access to pre-recorded, patient case simulations and medical record excerpts, based on which they trained in writing their own medical record.

“Although they weren’t the routines normally used, we felt that students, in general, were understanding and actually pleased that we had found solutions that worked well enough.”

On-campus video recording studio

Another challenge was that many of the guest lecturers who teach in the Programme in Medicine do not have access to the programs used at the university. For example, health care employees cannot always use Zoom.

“We solved this by offering access to an on-campus video recording studio. Guest lecturers could book the studio and get assistance from the administrative staff, either with filming their lecture in advance or broadcasting it live. It has been used frequently and is much appreciated,” says Sofia Ramström.

“Flipped classroom” – a model that is here to stay

Sofia Ramström and her colleagues agree that some of this spring’s new practices will continue to be used going forward.

One example is the “flipped classroom” model. This model was implemented because the regular half-day seminars with infection-control doctors were necessarily restricted to one doctor for one hour due to the current situation. A flipped classroom is an instructional approach where students receive the learning material prior to attending a lecture in order to prepare, instead of the other way around, receiving work to be done after the lecture.

Students are therefore well prepared before the lecture begins, meaning time is used more effectively.

“Together with their study group, our medical students went through the infection-control doctors’ presentation in advance, writing down questions if something was unclear or that they felt was thought-provoking. These were then turned in beforehand, allowing the lecturing doctor to focus their lecture on the things the students were particularly interested in.”

Make room in the schedule

Sofia Ramström tested this learning model in preparation for one of her own lectures. She felt that it worked well, leading to some fascinating effects.

“I observed how students answered each other’s questions during the lecture via chat. It was exciting to see this dialogue and that they helped each another out.”

However, it is essential to allow time for students to study before lectures.

“When we organise courses or design the schedules, we need to make sure there is preparation time so that students can familiarise themselves with the material ahead of time. We shouldn’t make things too easy for them but ensure that they have the right conditions.”

Tutoring via shared screen                                              

Another experience from the spring that Sofia Ramström will draw on is tutoring students remotely rather than face-to-face meetings, often working much better.

“When I supervise via Zoom, I can first share my screen and show how the program is used, then let the student assume screen sharing. This way, they can then do the same using their data, while I’m observing and providing guidance. We can even edit the document together. This is a method I’ll definitely continue using in the future. This also means that I’ll be available more often for supervision now that we know it works so well remotely.”

On the other hand, one thing Sofia Ramström is pleased not to have to do digitally – all examinations this autumn will be given on campus.

“As an examiner, I cannot be sure who is taking an exam when it’s done digitally at home. Neither can I be certain that there is no cooperation, books or other tools being used. Also, if you suspect that someone has cheated, it is very problematic to prove. We’ve worked hard for on-campus exams this autumn, so we’re quite pleased.”

Camera turned on during seminars

Another change this autumn is that all students must have their web camera turned on during seminars and group work that require attendance, and where you are expected to actively participate to receive a passing grade.

“It’s impersonal when students turn off their camera, making it difficult to see who you're talking to. In the beginning, we recognised the fact that not everyone had a web camera. But now I think that everyone can find a solution, at the very least by using a smartphone."

Despite the problematic spring that required quick changes, Sofia Ramström can see that there were advantages.

“We got a crash course in systems that we’ve had for a while but hadn’t put to use. So, it’s been a learning experience,” summarises Sofia Ramström.

Text and photo: Anna Lorentzon
Translation: Jerry Gray

Magnus Hansson sitting outside on a bench with his legs crossed, in front of a wall of plants.

Magnus Hansson is both proud and impressed by what he and his colleagues at Örebro University have accomplished this past spring during the corona pandemic. However, he quickly realised that it was not enough to toss the usual teaching methods into a computer.

“At the beginning, I used a camera on a tripod at home to record my lectures, but it’s a hell of a job lecturing for plants. They’re a tough audience,” he says jokingly.

With no interactivity or feedback from students, it is challenging to keep sharp. After reviewing YouTube viewing statistics for his lecture, he could see that only half of his students had made it through more than half.

“In a lecture hall, you can switch between monologue and dialogue, conveying a coherent story, and keeping students’ attention in a completely different way. But it doesn’t work the same way when glaring into a computer screen. Holding a three-hour monologue is a tough gig to pull off.”

Divide the lecture into smaller blocks

His tips include dividing up the lecture into several smaller blocks, based on various themes.

“You can have four different blocks, including an introduction explaining the setup. It's also essential to offer time for questions or a forum for dialogue and discussion afterwards, even if the lecture is pre-recorded."

Magnus Hansson has also asked his students about their experiences from the spring semester. Most were positive and felt that things worked well, despite the occasional technical problem. This is where Magnus suggests that teacher responsibility plays in.

“You can’t just blame things on technical snags or that we’re using several different systems. Students expect us to manage the technical workings, to publish links in good time, and not just sit there talking into a muted microphone. We have to step up our game and fix things ourselves,” emphasises Magnus Hansson.

Clear guidance to prevent procrastination

Perhaps the biggest challenge for many students is establishing good study routines – and avoiding procrastination. Magnus Hansson believes that it is even more critical than before to clearly state what students need to do to keep up.

“We already have course and reading instructions, but I believe it necessary that we also offer other types of study guides. That way, students can tick off course tasks as they go along – so they don’t fall behind.”

Many students feel that it is unfortunate not meeting other students. Which is something that worries Magnus Hansson – above all for new students.

“The entire first year is about socialising and getting used to student life. This means creating a structure, developing new habits and forming a network. Which isn’t something that can be replaced by digital means. So, this is a challenge that we should talk more about.”

More time for dialogue

Magnus Hansson looks back on the spring semester 2020 as an important period of learning, and he hopes that we will learn from this experience we have all gone through. He emphasises that this means working in a longer perspective. For example, by re-utilising previously recorded lectures, time is freed up for focusing on other things.

“This makes it possible for us to form teaching activities in a new way. Teaching factual knowledge works digitally but performing analysis and converting knowledge into practice necessitates dialogue. So, perhaps we can use this extra time for more dialogue with students,” he says.

Together with several students, he has developed a webpage, where he collects material like presentations, lectures, templates and links. The main advantage compared to Blackboard is that he can re-use the same material the following semester, without having to upload everything again.

In an effort to meet students’ social needs to some degree, he shares Spotify playlists with music relating to lecture themes. He is also working on refining the design of his presentations.

“We need to be better at packaging our lectures and presentations, to stimulate students’ ability to embrace learning,” concludes Magnus Hansson.

Text and photo: Anna Lorentzon
Translation: Jerry Gray

 

Two pictures in one. The first picture is an empty lecture hall; the second is a portrait of a smiling Annika Göran Rodell.

When teaching at Örebro University suddenly went digital, and students were no longer on campus, Annika Göran Rodell faced a real challenge. How do you change a practice-based course with an aesthetic methodology, where students usually do experimental work on rendering meals in a studio at RHS in Grythyttan, so that it works online?

“My first thought was, ‘Oh my god, how are we going to set tables without using the utensils that we have in our cupboards here in Grythyttan?’ It’s not going to work.”

She then called Cheryl Akner-Koler, professor at Konstfack (University of Arts, Crafts and Design) for inspiration. Cheryl Akner-Koler contributed to creating the conceptual framework used at RHS.

“With an open mind, we tested various methods on Zoom, made prototypes and simple sketches, along with a Konstfack alumnus who helped us test these ideas. We used materials and utensils which we had at home. It was invigorating when she suddenly said, ‘just imagine that the client is blind.’ It was my lightbulb moment!”

Constructing a quiet composition

The solution was that students had to create a neutral place to work in, like using a white sheet as a background, instead of showing their study room or living room at home.

“A busy background detracts from what you’re doing. Some use virtual backgrounds, but that creates a fluttery image that’s strange when you’re moving around. I think it’s better working authentically, in a more studio-like, neutral surrounding. Tilting your laptop’s screen to show what you’re doing with your hands, like holding different objects, for instance, without the background being a nuisance.”

Annika Göran Rodell also chose to use silence as a method in her teaching.

“When the students showed their creations, they were totally quiet. It’s fascinating and easier to focus when you’re allowed to let things their take time, not just focusing on a face and what they’re saying. Reflecting in this way is quite different.”

The chosen scenario meant that students needed to appreciate the standpoint of a blind client, especially when considering how to describe their compositions. The metaphor emphasises the importance of inclusive design, which is often lacking in the catering business.

“They developed a more colourful language to describe their composition, both descriptively and aesthetically, based on the conceptual framework we’ve developed for the culinary experience. By making use of mood boards, where they set up their own compositions two-dimensionally, everyone could all follow along with their story,” explains Annika Göran Rodell.

Improvising in front of the camera

The semester’s last course was a real challenge. Fifty students – who usually would have constructed a restaurant environment in the Gastro room at Måltidens hus and practised cases of difficult meetings via role-play – were to present their cases remotely. The solution: hire an actor to play out the case.

“We used a whiteboard as a storyboard, so students could improvise various scenarios in front of the camera.”

The story included difficult meetings between both staff and guests and staff and management.

“It was like theatre. How does it feel? Do you see others as a subject, or do you turn yourself off and view your guest as an object? Are you reactive, or are there other things affecting your actions? It’s all about discovering where inside the reaction comes from. An intervention is different all depending on whether it comes from a scared, angry or neutral position.”

Building confidence is essential

According to Annika Göran Rodell, it is all about building confidence and creating a safe room, where students dare to act out freely.

“This worked because I know my students, we’re not an anonymous group. Trust is a prerequisite to do things like this, even remotely.”

Annika Göran Rodell hopes that her methods can inspire other teachers working with case-study and practical elements.

“It is possible to build it as a process. For example, give students a challenge to examine something in their surroundings. Next, let them meet in breakout rooms to report what they’ve examined, then get a new task. Afterwards, they move onto a bigger group or the whole class and recount, perhaps by using an object, film, pictures or body language. It’s possible for digital learning to be full of life and energy if we use all our senses,” she says.

However, developing new teaching methods takes time.

“It’s important to respect our students’ time and not just drop new ideas and methods on them. My advice is to try it yourself, so you know that it works. And brainstorm ideas with colleagues.”

Text: Anna Lorentzon
Photo: Petter Koubek and Hans Lundholm
Translation: Jerry Gray

Annika Göran Rodell’s three tips:

Find a sounding board ­– a trusted colleague with whom you can try out new ideas or practices.

Dare to leave your comfort zone and test something new – but test on yourself first, students are not guinea pigs.

Use all your senses – it is also possible in Zoom to work with sight, hearing, haptic, the body and improvisation. Limitations only exist in your mind.

A smiling Niklas Eriksen sitting outside on a bench.

In the middle of March 2020, when the university went over to remote learning, finding quick solutions was the first task at hand.

“Initially, much of the focus was on the technical details and just getting things to work. Teaching mathematics isn’t usually based on oral lectures; instead, knowledge is conveyed by drawing  and writing on a board – a method not limited by a keyboard,” says Niklas Eriksen.

His solution was to use a tripod (he found one in a closet) to which he rigged his mobile phone. Tilting the phone downwards, he could film a paper that he drew and wrote on with a regular pen. Later, he replaced his mobile with a web camera.

“It was all done quite easily. In this way, students saw me via my laptop as well as my paper via a web camera sitting on a tripod.”

iPad works as a whiteboard

The mathematics division then purchased three iPads, which provided a more longterm, sustainable way of teaching via Zoom.

“When we do arithmetic exercises remotely, the iPad is logged in with its own identity, which we call Tavlan or board. That way, I can choose to share my screen and use the iPad as a whiteboard in full screen, drawing  and writing formulas in different colours, and I can also mark things with a circle. In the upper right corner, I select "view options” and “annotate” to allow others to write in the same area. I can choose to save what I’ve written, but the disadvantage is that I can’t upload it again,” says Niklas Eriksen.

Drawing is done using an Apple Pencil, which is somewhat more natural than trying to use a mouse.

When a student needs help and raises their hand digitally in Zoom, Niklas asks if others want to join in a review, carried out in a breakout room.

“While in the breakout room, I can't see if someone writes in the chat, but if they raise their hand, I see it when I rejoin the main room.”

More students passed the course

Niklas Eriksen has also overseen computer coding laboratories. One student at a time shares their screen, presents their programming code and explains what they have done.

“Remote coding labs have worked just as well as in a classroom,” he points out.

However, there are also disadvantages to remote teaching and learning. Everything is slower, moving between breakout rooms takes time, and the regular chitchat is lost. It is also Niklas Eriksen’s experience that it is tricky to spot students who do not themselves ask for help, while digital learning works well for those students who are active and look out for themselves.

“My students are in their second year of the Master of Science in Engineering programme, so they are a determined group. As a matter of fact, we’ve had a higher throughput with coding labs this spring than previous years. Perhaps that is because students spend less time commuting back and forth to campus,” ponders Niklas Eriksen.

Taking advantage of distance learning

Not being able to see your students is not a big problem for teaching mathematics.

"For the most part, I've got my back to them, since I'm often writing on the board. Mathematics is not so much about equations and discussing things face to face, but more about drawing  and writing.”

Niklas Eriksen feels that the changeover to teaching digitally progressed rapidly, and that he and his colleagues learned to use the various digital teaching tools right away.

“In the beginning, I think we all tried to shift our usual classroom teaching over to a computer, and it was sort of the same only worse. Now we're trying to taking advantage of digital learning. I think we will learn more and more to teach in shorter chunks, make use of polls and the opportunities of regrouping and working in breakout rooms. We are much better prepared this autumn than I thought possible,” he concludes.

Text and photo: Anna Lorentzon
Translation: Jerry Gray