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Teacher voices: When the courses went digital

Published Jun 24, 2020

When KTH suddenly switched to distance education, exams and lectures moved from classrooms to digital meeting rooms and streaming channels overnight. How has it been to carry out a course completely remotely without warning?
Teachers Johan Spross and Lotta Snickare talk about what has worked best for them.

"Video lectures provides repeated opportunities for understanding"

Johan Spross

Johan Spross , Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering, has taught the course AF1601 Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering, which is normally a traditional course with lectures and calculating workshops, where students learn theoretical concepts and practice design calculations. Also included is a laboration, which suddenly needed to take place online.

How do you feel the transition to digital teaching has gone?

The transition has worked surprisingly well, although of course it has required a lot of extra work from the entire course team. I have understood that the students greatly appreciated the recorded video lectures, which makes it possible to go back and listen again. It seems to provide repeated chances for understanding for the ones who may not get the hang of it the first time. Judging from the course survey, video lectures was perceived as a satisfactory alternative to a traditional lecture by at least some students. Since it was not really possible to ask individual questions during the break, it happend that I got more questions in full class, which gave the opportunity to clarify concepts to everyone.

Do you have an example of something you tested in digital teaching that worked very well?

Since we did not have the opportunity to have lab work with the students, we did a video lab so that the students could at least see the equipment. Course assistant Ida Samuelsson and I examined the properties of clay with different methods, which my colleague Carl Wersäll filmed and posted on the course webpage as short videos. The students were then asked to write a lab report based on our experimental data. Of course, it was not as good as actual lab work, but we managed to examine that course element anyway. And Ida, Carl and I had a fun morning in the lab!

When it comes to doing calculation exercises in Zoom, it has worked out ok, but one problem has been that the student groups do not talk to each other that much. Thus, there is often extra work for teachers and assistants who have to answer the same question over and over again. We have to think about a solution for that for the autumn courses. According to the students, the group work has also been more challenging, since they find it difficult to communicate their thoughts to the others in the group when they cannot write, draw and talk at the same time.

How did the digital examinations go? Have you any other examples of something tested in the examinations that worked very well?

We had a four-hour home exam with free access to literature without Zoom monitoring. Since the students normally bring the course book with their own notes in, it was not a huge step from the regular exam. The grades were more or less distributed as usual.

I was initially worried that the students would give themselves extra time by continuing to write on the exam during the scan time. I solved this by requiring that the students filled in their calculated answers in a form in Canvas within 10 minutes of the end of the exam. Then I could give them plenty of time to photograph and submit their solutions.

How has the collegial exchange worked, have you found ways to disseminate material and ideas with each other?

We have been fortunate to have many involved in the course, so we have been able to bounce ideas with each other internally. My best advice is to talk to others. Take a Zoom coffee with a colleague - it is also just nice to talk to someone when you are mostly working alone from home.

"I've been able to use what happened in society during the pandemic as an example"

Lotta Snickare

Lotta Snickare , Department of Real Estate and Construction Management, has taught the course AI1125 Organization and Leadership, with the course start on the same day that KTH switched to digital teaching.

How do you think the transition to digital teaching has gone? Do you think there are benefits?

It has gone really well, and it's been fun! I have had a lot of contact with the students during the course, even though we have not been able to meet. Both during lectures and seminars via Zoom, and there has been a lot of e-mails through Canvas. I have sent more e-mails, informed more, this year - and also had more seminar assignments than in previous years - and I have received more e-mails from the students.

It has worked out well to change to digital teaching, but I quickly realized that it is a completely different thing to teach via Zoom compared to in a classroom! It needs to be tackled in a slightly different way. This particular course I have taught several times before and I usually have a lot of exercises and discussions during the lectures. It doesn't work as well in Zoom, it's hard to get an open discussion. A digital lecture needs to be much more one-way, it provides less dialogue than in the classroom.

In the beginning I noticed that it was hard for some students to get into the natural pace that comes from starting a new course, attending seminars, studying together etc. I also experienced that several students had a lot of time at the beginning of the course when many were sitting at home by themselves. Some even sent in the assignment for the first seminar before I had given the seminar! I then realized that I needed to handle this a little differently, and added an ongoing seminar assignment that went along the whole course. The aim was to help the students study continously despite the isolation. The assignment task was to study a theory model every week and then apply it to the ongoing social development (with covid19) - or to the Robinson season that started so timely on TV just at the start of the course!

Because my course is about organization and leadership, I have been able to use what happens in society during the pandemic as an example. Of course, this is more difficult for other subjects.

Do you have an example of something you tested in digital teaching that worked very well?

I had contact with a publishing company just before my course's start as they wanted to promote an interactive e-book version of the course book we have used before. I declined - as I thought it might come with technical issues. This was the weekend before my course would start, so only days before we were told we couldn't have teaching on campus. I was due to give the first lecture on the same day that KTH locked the premises, so I had to quickly move it a few days (to learn to use Zoom!) and call the publisher again. They offered the whole course the e-book for free, and it has worked great. The students read a chapter and do an interactive quiz to see that they have understood the concepts, and are then offered to re-read the parts they have not passed etc.

The second course week my husband became ill in covid19 and I quickly realized that I would soon be too. So I started recording a number of lectures in advance so that the course would not suffer. Just as I thought, I also fell ill during Easter. So I was lucky in that I had been able to prepare so that the course could continue anyway! It wouldn't have worked if it wasn't a digital course. The students have said that they appreciate being able to listen to the recorded lectures when it suits them, take a break and get a coffee, and also to re-listen to lectures before the exam.

How did the digital examination go? Do you have any example of something you tested for the examination that worked very well?

I think the exam worked very well! We conducted a home exam where the students were free to use all course material. Of course, it is not possible to use knowledge questions in this type of examination, so they had to apply theory. The results were exactly in par with what they usually are on the course. The exam was carried out during the same time as the regular exam. I posted it in canvas myself - the same way that I post seminar assignments. I posted it exactly at 2pm and then they had four hours to complete it. However, things got a little stressful in the end. Many tried to upload their answers at 5.59pm! I got some panic calls from students but we managed to sort it out.

Will you continue with these examples in the Autumn?

I will definitely continue to use the book, and I will continue to record lectures. There are lecture halls at KTH where you can record yourself which I intend to use, it will probably be even better. I would also like to continue with this type of exam, preferably in combination with a KS that tests more factual knowledge. It feels fairer than a regular exam as the most important thing is that the students can show that they can apply the theories.

I also talked to a colleague, Johann Packendorf, who also had his course this period. I got the tip to give the students the task of writing a learning diary, and that would have worked so well on this course. It is difficult to keep track of the students when you cannot ask anyone after the lecture why they have not submitted the seminar assignment, been absent from several lectures etc. Some students were sick themselves, and in some cases I did not know until after some time. So for the next distance teaching course - I have a course that starts in period 1 - I intend to instruct the students to send in reflections on what they have learned each week, and something about what the week has been like. Both to create the conditions for continuous learning and to quickly notice if someone lags behind. I also intend to be available in Zoom for example an hour every Friday morning to provide students with a more informal way of asking questions, the way that can usually be done in the corridor after the lecture.

This is the first article in the ABE school series of interviews of teachers' views of the transition to digital education. Do you have examples of digital teaching or examination methods that has worked really well? Would you like to share your experiences? We are looking for more teachers to interview for upcoming articles! Contact us at info@abe.kth.se