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“A great shame for the students – and a real drag for us”

Switching to online teaching is not enough in itself. That much is clear seven months after corona initially interrupted on-site teaching at the university. At the same time, changing guidelines and frequent teaching reorganisations have been really challenging, according to two members of the faculty’s teaching staff.

When the university closed down in March, it was (more or less) possible to digitise all of the teaching overnight because of a tremendous combined effort and mutual goodwill from both teaching staff and students. In what was an emergency situation. But here at the beginning of the autumn semester, the state of emergency is still not over when it comes to teaching.

Something that Professor MSO Jacob Giehm Mikkelsen from the Department of Biomedicine is all too aware of. He is responsible for a brand-new course on genetics and personalised medicine, which premiered at the start of this year's semester. The first module went as planned with the nine classes of first year medical students physically present for the teaching. But then a number of students became infected, the classes were sent home, and finally the exemption from the two metre distancing requirement within the core groups was also revoked again at the beginning of October.

"We’ve had to move our teaching to zoom, and we don’t yet know when the students will return to campus and the teaching that we’d actually planned. The uncertainty is frustrating in itself, but it’s even more of a hassle because the current course module includes, among other things, laboratory sessions which we can’t conduct online," says Jacob Giehm Mikkelsen, who is not only the course coordinator for ‘Genetics and personal medicine' but also teaches on the course.

Is there anybody out there?

In an editorial on Altinget Research (in Danish), Pro-rector for Education at Aarhus University, Berit Eika, stressed that physical attendance for the teaching is clearly preferable:

"The situation we are in now is not optimal, but the partial reopening is much better than the alternative. Yet another shutdown will a very big consequences. Teaching that takes place solely via a computer screen is not sustainable in the long term. The students will be hit hard," says Berit Eika together with Hanne Leth Andersen, who is rector at Roskilde University and chair of Universities Denmark’s educational policy committee.

Jacob Giehm Mikkelsen agrees. He explains how it is easy to lose a sense of where the students are with distance learning – do they understand the teaching, do they find it interesting or difficult?

"For me, teaching is equivalent to participation. When everything takes place online, the lecturer controls the session to a greater extent and the result is it becomes more lecturer-run. We talk to the students instead of talking with them," he says.

Visor causes problems with glare

Sonja Top, who is a clinical teacher on the professional Bachelor's degree programme in dental hygiene under the Department of Dentistry and Oral Health, is one of the few who are still physically together with the students she teaches in the clinic. But even that is not optimal during corona.

"Standing in the middle of the physical, clinical work, what you find is that the stricter hygiene regulations take a lot of focus. It takes a long time to change the many types of PPEs each time we help a new student

with a patient. One of the challenges is that we have to look at both a computer screen and into someone’s mouth through a visor. You don’t see as well through a visor, and the ceiling lights cause glare in the visor. This overstrains your eyes and causes headaches. Which reduces your job satisfaction," says Sonja Top, who teaches first, second and third year students.

She also explains how in August both teaching staff and students had to catch up on the backlog resulting from the closure of the university clinics in the spring, so as to enable the students to log sufficient clinical training hours to take the exam. That had to be done during a period which is normally set aside for preparing the next semester's teaching.

"We've grown accustomed to these situations, and I think we're now geared for reorganising things. The constant timetabling changes are tiresome for the students in all three year groups, but here in the clinic we’re used to being practically oriented, so we can resolve that too," says Sonja Top and adds that it is also motivating to see that how much the students want to be on campus.

Take care of the students' well-being

One of the points in Berit Eika's editorial is also that there will be negative consequences if the students only receive teaching at home. She writes:

"The price will be a reduction in teaching quality, and that will affect the students' well-being and study environment, which to a great extent contributes to academic success. We have learned a lot during the spring. One crucial thing we have been reminded of is that teaching is also a social activity that requires presence and accessibility.”

Jacob Giehm Mikkelsen can confirm the last point. He talks of how the steering committee behind the new course has discussed that they will likely have to lower their ambitions and cut some corners to ensure that the teaching is a success in a time of transition. Like the pro-rector, he is also concerned about the quality of the education and the students' well-being. He therefore believes that it is crucial to be prepared to go to great lengths to ensure the students can return to on-site teaching again:

"Limiting physical on-site attendance is a particular problem on the first semester. Everything is new for the students, and the social element, which is a crucial part of a learning process and an important element for keeping the students on the degree programme, is missing. That’s a great shame for the students – and a real drag for us,” he says.

Spot-on for the streaming generation

But there is also some good news. According to Sonja Top, the clinical theoretical teaching on the dental hygienist programme still takes place in the university's classrooms – but now in those that are large enough to ensure there is appropriate distancing. And as the lectures in the lecture theatres have been converted to online teaching, there are additional large rooms available which can be incorporated in the timetabling.

Jacob Giehm Mikkelsen also explains that the recorded lectures work well for the students. "Basically they’re podcasts, and the streaming generation that we’re teaching are used to having everything on demand. Being able to see the lecture whenever you want and as often as you want is smart. That’s something that we can develop further over the coming semesters," he says.


Professor MSO Jacob Giehm Mikkelsen
Aarhus University, Department of Biomedicine
Mobile: (+45) 2361 7253
Email: giehm@biomed.au.dk 

Clinical Instructor Sonja Top
Aarhus University, Department of Dentistry and Oral Health
Mobile: (+45) 2759 2192
Email: sont@dent.au.dk