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Fast tracking digitalization – Online teaching in times of corona

On the corona pandemic – contributions from the University of Potsdam
Prof. Dr. Andreas Musil, Vice President for Teaching and Studies. | Photo: Karla Fritze
Photo : Karla Fritze
Prof. Dr. Andreas Musil, Vice President for Teaching and Studies.
How can teaching be improved even further? This central question takes on a new meaning in the corona pandemic as several institutions of higher education plan to cushion the effects of the current restrictions with online teaching. That’s how the summer semester could be saved. What can the University of Potsdam achieve in this regard? Prof. Dr. Andreas Musil, Vice President for Teaching and Studies, talks about this issue.

The University of Potsdam is currently under emergency on-site operations. In order to save the summer semester for students, courses are to be offered online as far as possible. How much of the usual total offer can be transferred to online formats in this situation?

An exact number cannot be specified at this point in time. Teaching staff are currently still busy transforming their offers to fit the current situation. However, it is already certain that some courses will have to be canceled because they require laboratory work, for example. Practical courses, especially practical school training, had to be abandoned or were scheduled for the summer semester and cannot take place at all or only in a changed format due to the pandemic.
In principle, we are trying to offer all critically important courses that students need to successfully advance their studies. A delayed graduation due to the pandemic should remain an exception.

Where does multimedia teaching currently stand at the University of Potsdam?

We are noticing that our teaching staff are handling the restrictions caused by the pandemic in a very creative way. Many courses can be transferred into an online-based format. The departments are proceeding in very different ways depending on their subject’s culture and the type of course in question. Some can make use of video recordings from previous semesters, so that a kind of virtual lecture can take place. Others use this situation as an opportunity to try out various digital tools in order to design their courses in an appealing way.
All teaching staff have been encouraged to remain reachable and adequately supervise their students instead of only creating self-learning offers.

What needs to happen next in order to advance the digitalization of teaching at our university? Which technological requirements need to be met?

The functionalities of our proven services, such as Moodle, Box.UP or Media.UP, are currently being expanded so that even more collaborative teaching-learning scenarios can be developed and, in particular, asynchronous course formats can be realized. In addition, campus licenses for new useful software are currently being negotiated so that students and teachers remain capable of acting. Unfortunately, the preparation period for the new semester is very short so that we cannot offer extensive training. However, the teaching and media department of the Center for Teaching Quality Development ZfQ provides support in this area with helpful advisory offers (Online Lehre 2020).

What role does the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) with its proven online competence play, which is closely linked to the University of Potsdam through the Digital Engineering Faculty (DEF)?

The DEF is already attuned to digital elements in teaching due to its close ties to the HPI and its digitalization-related program contents. At the same time, the HPI is a partner of the University of Potsdam and thus not directly responsible for university teaching in other departments. Many of the HPI's offers are freely available, so that teachers at the University of Potsdam can also decide individually to incorporate them into their courses.

What concrete steps are you taking to convince teachers to offer more online modules? Especially now that you are pressed for time?

Feedback from the faculties was optimistic across the board, so that not much persuasion is needed. I am positively surprised that even departments with little experience in online teaching find agreement on how to organize courses in the best possible way. This is often achieved in close consultation with colleagues who are currently in the same situation. It is therefore very encouraging to observe that good teaching is being discussed within the University of Potsdam and in cooperation with professional associations or other universities.
At the same time, it must be acknowledged that not all courses can be conducted in online-only formats. We hope that the regular university operations can be resumed soon, in order to be able to offer courses that have been lacking so far, e.g. in block seminars.

Can the libraries ensure that sources and literature are available to the required extent?

Although the libraries are closed, the extensive online offer is still available. Many specialized journals can be viewed online via the UB catalog. An increasing number of recent publications in particular can also be made available under an Open Access license. In addition, the library's subject librarians can procure the relevant e-books or provide excerpts from the non-lending collection at the request of the teachers.

Which digital skills are now in high demand – for teachers and students?

It is certainly a challenge to expand one's own media skills at such short notice. Dealing with new digital tools probably causes some initial uncertainty. Knowledge of data protection or copyright regulations also needs to be much more prominent than usual.

It is particularly challenging for the teachers to expand their pedagogical repertoire to include media-pedagogical skills at this time. Proven attendance formats cannot always be transferred 1:1, so that it has to be considered which (online) scenario and which tools are best suited to convey the intended study content.
Students are in a similarly challenging situation. We know that there is no such thing as "digital natives" and that students must also be allowed to adapt to the new learning situation. The primarily written encounters during the courses now probably also require new routines: It may not be possible to work on study contents to the usual extent or quality, practice phases have to be consciously planned, time for reading and writing needs to be found. In this context, teachers are encouraged to adapt their teaching and to motivate students even at a distance.

It must also be noted that some students do not have the possibility to use a computer or the internet. This is partly due to the personal economic situation, but also partly due to home regions that are still not digitally connected to the necessary extent, making it difficult to study at a distance. The University of Potsdam makes every effort to make virtual participation possible for our students and can lend tablets or laptops in case of absolute emergency, especially for students with impairments.

Do you generally consider it to be an added value for the University of Potsdam if teaching is increasingly digitalized? And the students? Will they benefit from this? And how?

The added value does not result from digitalization per se. Nevertheless, I believe that the forced exploration of new teaching-learning formats is also an incentive to rethink one's own teaching and, if necessary, to upgrade established courses with new teaching methods. Students benefit from the courses, which will hopefully be more diverse and competence-oriented. I am curious to see how this "learning-by-doing" phase will change the attitude of our teachers and students towards digitally-supported teaching. I am generally optimistic that everyone will be open to accepting the innovations and master them together in the best possible way.

Is this going to change the competition among universities? Do you think that students will increasingly enroll at universities that offer a wide range of digital courses?

I don't believe that students will judge a university by whether it was able to offer virtual courses during the corona pandemic. The University of Potsdam will also not be converted into a digital distance learning university on a permanent basis. Nevertheless, I hope that our teaching staff will continue to discuss good teaching after this special semester. In the long term, this could therefore improve the quality of teaching at the University of Potsdam. This seems to me to be a very relevant criterion when choosing a university.
The quantity of digital courses offered does not offer indications on the quality of our degree programs. Only the goal-oriented and adequate use of digital elements, which is based on the requirements of the discipline, the teaching staff and the students, can be of lasting benefit to the University of Potsdam.

Overview page of all contributions from the University of Potsdam on the corona pandemic