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What have we learned from teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic this spring?

A study of employees' and students' experiences from the lockdown period this spring confirms that the rapid conversion to online learning was challenging for many. The successes that were achieved were due to the enormous efforts made by staff and students, the pro-rector stressed.

On 11 March, Aarhus University transformed itself into a virtual university. From one day to the next, employees and students had to replace the trip to campus with a walk to their desk in their home office, kitchen or dorm room.

Quite early on, the senior management team decided that it was important to learn from this dramatic shift.

"It quickly became clear that the abrupt change would demand an enormous effort from the entire organisation. At the same time, we agreed that it would be a missed opportunity if we didn't make sure we learned from the process,"said Pro-rector Berit Eika.

As a result, Rambøll was commissioned to produce a study of the most important lessons students and employees learned when teaching and exams moved online.


From 0 to 22,000 in two weeks

The study, which is based on questionnaires and qualitative interviews, concludes that many students found it more difficult to stay motivated in the digital lecture theatres. At the same time, approximately half of the lecturers did not feel sufficiently prepared to do all their teaching online.

The results don’t surprise Berit Eika.

"Everyone has made a huge effort under difficult conditions, and it’s to be expected that many people experienced challenges in connection with the reorganisation. If you look at the daily Zoom sessions, we literally went from zero to over 22,000 participants in just two weeks. That this worked– and that teaching actually improved over the course of the spring – testifies to the enormous effort everyone made. Staff really deserve a lot of recognition for their efforts," said Berit Eika. 


Not an evaluation of online teaching

At the same time, the pro-rector warned against reading the report as a general evaluation of remote teaching versus in-person teaching:

“As you know, it was really emergency teaching – especially in the beginning. There’s a big difference between this spring's scenario and the well-considered, well-prepared and balanced use of digital learning methods, which is our goal in the long term."

As a result, the challenges experienced this spring don’t give the Committee on Education pause in relation to AU’s general future use of digital learning technologies:

"I think the report confirms that in-person teaching has qualities that cannot immediately be replaced digitally. There is an energy in being able to see and talk directly to each other which also plays a major role in well-being. At the same time, we see that remote teaching can supplement and enrich in-person teaching when we do it in the right way. And that’s a lesson we can draw from this,” Eika said. As examples, she highlighted the four characteristics of good remote teaching singled out by the report: 

  • There are clear virtual ground rules for the class
  • Time is set aside for questions
  • Different online tools are used that vary the format and involve the students
  • Interaction between students is facilitated, for example in breakout rooms


The benefits of sharing experiences

The pro-rector said that the report will be an important tool for AU’s new teaching development centre (CED), which will be tasked with supporting the continued development of remote teaching:

“The study shows that lecturers got a lot out of sharing experiences with one another. It’s really positive that they succeeded in doing this at the local level, and I hope that this will be in focus when the report is discussed at the centres and departments. At the same time, we can see that only about a third contacted the teaching development centres for support this spring. “One of the core competences of the new university-wide teaching development centre, CED, is to support and guide the transition to remote teaching – and the survey shows widespread satisfaction among those who did contact the centres or the EDU-IT Hub. So if we can strengthen collaboration between the centre and the teaching programmes, I think we’ll go far.

Teaching technology is here to stay – not only during these coronavirus times, but also when we – presumably – reach the other side of this. And the report is a really good tool to continue to build on this effort.”


Snippets from the report:

  • Just under half of AU’s teaching staff felt that they were not at all or very little prepared to teach their classes remotely before the lockdown. At the same time, three-fourths of teaching staff feel that they are better prepared to teach remotely today.
  • Over 80 per cent of teaching staff who contacted the teaching development centres or the EDU-IT Hub felt that they received the support they needed.
  • Generally speaking, the transition from on-site exams to remote exams has functioned well given the circumstances. Both teaching staff and students report that they prepared thoroughly for the planned remote exams. About one-third of students feel that remote exams made it more difficult to concentrate, and that they felt more insecurity the exam situation. The former was especially due to the technical challenges that can arise during a remote exam. On the other hand, a third of students also felt that remote exams gave them a greater feeling of security.