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Life and Work: Teaching in the Time of COVID: A Tale of Three Universities

Universities have had to show great versatility as being not only institutions that teach, but also organizations that learn. In the following article, academic members of the SWE research advisory committee, working in three countries, reflect on their experiences teaching during the pandemic.
A New Version Of Our Conference Tradition

In adverse circumstances, actions that might have been rejected at other times may become the best option. The pandemic and accompanying measures to socially distance confronted every higher education institution with the unprecedented challenge of teaching and learning from afar.

Pivoting from classroom to online instruction was a complete disruption of normal operations and caught the university community off guard. Many of us had only taught in our classrooms supplemented by online learning management systems (LMS), such as Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, Google Classroom, and other services used to manage and support instruction. Changing teaching methods midstream posed an immense challenge.

From an instructional design perspective, lessons taught in the normal face-to-face classroom need restructuring to be effective in an online setting. But in this crisis, we were expected to change our teaching methods — quite literally — overnight.

Life And Work: Teaching In The Time Of Covid: A Tale Of Three Universities

Empathy for students

Personally, the thought of teaching my scheduled undergraduate engineering design seminar online was daunting. I was faced with the question of how to reframe a collaborative workshop, where students work in teams to develop a concept from design to prototype, into an online distance learning experience.

Starting on day one of the lockdown in Austria, my department began holding daily meetings on Microsoft Teams, where we shared our progress in adapting to the new situation. Being a member of the IT and systems management faculty at the FH Salzburg University of Applied Sciences ensured our technical dexterity, as well as the need to show our prowess and ability to adapt to these new circumstances. As a faculty team, we were determined to offer our students opportunities to complete the current semester workload online and discussed how best to accomplish that.

Fortunately, I had previously implemented many features of the LMS into my normal classes, and at the beginning of the lockdown used them to teach asynchronously, posting recorded voice-over PowerPoint presentations for students to follow at their own pace.

During the first weeks of the lockdown, I participated in several online workshops and was introduced to new virtual tools and collaborative spaces on various platforms. My own online learning experiences not only taught me how to use the platforms and tools, but they also enabled me to develop empathy for my students by experiencing firsthand what it was like to be thrown into an unfamiliar learning environment.

Even at the best of times, not every student is equally motivated, and the uncertainty caused by the pandemic is an additional factor that could negatively influence their outlook on learning. As an educator, it was imperative for me to be aware of the students’ well-being at this stressful time, as well as allowing them enough time to process the content and tasks associated with the course.

Providing an engaging learning opportunity for my students required investing a significant amount of time to implement new methods and prepare the interactive online workshops I envisioned. Providing this learning environment in a limited time frame was a source of stress.

When the engineering design workshops were up and running, my students responded well to the new format and actively participated. After taking part in discussions to find topics of interest, they worked in project teams to design digital solutions to problems facing society.

Central command was my home office, which consisted of my private computer, my work laptop, tablet, and smartphone. Sometimes I felt like an air traffic controller as I directed students into breakout channels to do group work, opened interactive whiteboards with prepared activities, set timers, posted assignments, and gave direct feedback on their progress. To encourage communication, I asked students to turn on their cameras and frequently visited the project teams in their breakout rooms; or, they called me, and we met for a video chat on their project status.

The importance of providing the students opportunities to interact was something that I had underestimated. Many of them were somewhat isolated and really missed student life and the informal exchanges that take place at university. In addition, adjusting to virtual communication took some getting used to; therefore, it was important for the group dynamic to make time for small talk. The effects of social distancing and isolation on our ability to learn, focus, and be motivated could not be overlooked.

Life And Work: Teaching In The Time Of Covid: A Tale Of Three Universities

Lessons learned — by the instructor

At The University of Maine, Karen Horton, P.E., professor and coordinator, mechanical engineering technology, encouraged her students to stay connected by providing evening Zoom office hours. This made her easily available to students, and more than a third of them sought her out, “which is far more than would have normally shown up for office hours.”

The downside of teaching online was that it required more time. Developing, posting, and providing students with online teaching materials and the additional resources needed to teach online meant that her workload increased by 50%. “I went from typically working about 40 hours to working 60 hours. But it was absolutely necessary to invest the additional time in preparing the online lessons,” she said.

Transforming from an offline to an online classroom requires a higher level of clarity in instruction and documentation for the sake of students’ understanding. Additionally, there is the time-consuming learning curve associated with effectively using the learning platform and online tools for teaching.

To prepare for distance learning classes, Horton explained, “I reconfigured my teaching material by breaking down the long-form lecture into shorter recordings of about 15 minutes and posted them as asynchronous videos with PowerPoint presentations.” This proved effective — so much so that, “when we do return to normal operations, I will continue to provide lectures asynchronously with required assignments and have smaller groups doing in-class exercises.”

For Horton, there was an unexpected benefit from the experience. “By dividing my lectures into shorter parts and giving more required assignments, I was able to improve outcomes and could encourage student engagement by promoting self-review of provided solutions,” she said.

Meanwhile, in Germany

The coronavirus crisis hit just as Caterina Cocchi, Ph.D., began a new position as professor of theoretical solid-state physics, at the University of Oldenburg, Germany. “I was scheduled to teach quantum mechanics, when it was announced that throughout Germany, universities could only deliver the current semester courses in digital form.”

Life And Work: Teaching In The Time Of Covid: A Tale Of Three Universities

Much like her counterparts elsewhere, “the pandemic forced me to reconsider my teaching methods,” she said. “I was already familiar with Zoom and had used it frequently for scientific exchanges with colleagues and collaborators.”

Faced with this new challenge, Dr. Cocchi, who is also chair of theoretical solid-state physics at Oldenburg, said, “My concerns focused on how distance teaching could work without student proximity and a blackboard to write on. At the beginning, I didn’t have an iPad to use as a whiteboard, so I switched to slides for my livestreaming lectures. To my surprise, it worked like a charm.” With this one example, along with many others, she notes that “the biggest lesson I learned during this emergency is that I should give myself credit for being creative and flexible.” 

Just as she was settling into the routine, another problem emerged when a student population of more than 15,000 tried to connect simultaneously to the online courses. Faculty were warned that they were exceeding infrastructure limitations.

“Livestreaming (my preference) was strongly discouraged, as it was expected to overload the bandwidth. Many colleagues decided to record their lectures and post them on the internal teaching platform for students to access. I didn’t like this idea and decided to livestream my lectures. Now, I am glad I did.”

With the benefit of several months behind her, Dr. Cocchi reflected on her decision to continue livestreaming her lectures: “Even though I couldn’t see my students, at least I knew they were there. I could watch them connecting online, and they had the chance to ask questions over chat and even engage in simple polls. If I had uploaded my recorded lectures, the distance between us would have been much greater.” With a touch of humor, she added, “I already felt more like a radio DJ than a teacher, but at least I could broadcast live. Recording lectures would have turned teaching into delivering a series of podcasts. I love podcasts, but quantum mechanics cannot be learned while doing the laundry or working out.”

Summing up her experience, Dr. Cocchi said, “What I most appreciate about teaching remotely is that I am at home. I don’t have to worry about public transportation, and everything I need is just a click away. Still, it is difficult not to see my students. Even if they don’t ask questions, just looking at their faces is enough for me to know whether they are following the lesson or not. These interactions are missing on the digital platform. My only wish is to be able to meet my students once or twice.”

Expressing a sentiment shared by her colleagues, Rishelle Wimmer, in Austria, and Karen Horton, in Maine, United States, Dr. Cocchi said, “There is nothing more precious for me as a teacher than to see the spark in the student’s eyes when he or she comes to understand a new concept.”


  • Rishelle Wimmer, SWE Editorial Board

    Rishelle Wimmer is a senior lecturer in the information technology and systems management department of the FH Salzburg University of Applied Sciences. She studied operation research and system analysis at Cornell University and holds a master’s degree in educational sciences from the University of Salzburg. She currently serves on the SWE editorial board and the research advisory committee and has been the faculty advisor for the Salzburg SWE affiliate since FY17.