This has been quite a challenging and breath-taking week!

Since my research & teaching is about the strategic uses of digital media & technologies in education, this will be a good opportunity for myself to document and reflect upon my own experiences and actions of remotely teaching students for a week now, while I normally meet them in rather small groups and interact with them rather personally.

And I am very eager to see what our colleagues have gone through, what challenges they have faced, which creative and innovative solutions they have developed and what we will, collectively and individually, be able to keep using in the future to keep developing the quality of our teaching activities, online and offline.

As early as Friday 13th March, just after we got the message to turn our on-campus teaching into online and fully distance teaching, my colleagues and I set together, virtually of course, to prepare for this transition to happen as quickly and as smoothly as possible. We cared a lot for our students’ ongoing learning processes, since we had seen some excellent developments in our seminars over the last weeks and did not want this crisis moment to bring it all to a halt. 

For one course (Scientific Reading & Writing), we were quite lucky, if I may say so in a moment of crisis, that we had reached a phase of the learning process where students were anyway supposed to take an active role in the co-construction of knowledge. They should start to read self-chosen scientific papers, to extract knowledge from them and to write their first humble attempts at a review of the scientific literature, in order to find answers to a self-chosen research question in the field of education. Previous semesters this had been the time where some students felt that coming to the on-campus sessions where not too helpful, because they could not easily concentrate and focus on their reading. So we uploaded a short video message on moodle (which we produced quick-and-dirty with the help of a screen recording and videoconferencing tools), explaining that we wanted them to keep doing what they were doing towards establishing their bibliographic sources and towards writing their review, while re-explaining that we would be there for them, that we would answer their question in the moodle forum and that further instructions would follow ASAP. We did indeed organize for that course a live video conference (via the webex service) during the week to keep in touch with our students and to give them live feedback on their current work; we also tried to answer their more specific questions to reassure them that they were on a good track, but also that they still had some journey to do towards the final semester report. The students now need to find digital means to communicate and collaborate on their group work, but I am pretty sure most of them will manage, and we provided them with some links to useful tools with which they can establish or expand their personal collaborative learning environments.

For another course (Introduction to the Analysis of Qualitative, Quantitative and Experimental Data), where we would at this point normally do separate workshops on the analysis of these three sorts of empirical data in educational research, I have – so far – done one live video conferencing session with the 10 students who have chosen to study the analysis of experimental data, during the time slot normally allocated for our on-campus session. We had a very productive session (and it was even shorter than normally) where we co-constructed a list of (interconnected) questions that they would work on over the next weeks to produce together some sort of textbook where we will explain to ourselves (and others) what experimental research in education is, what it can achieve, what its limitations are, how we can test causal claims in the field of education, how we can measure educational constructs, how we represent the results of such experiments or quasi-experiments and how we analyse and interpret such results. I will hold regular video sessions to see what they have achieved, what is on their to-do list, what they struggle with and what their questions are… and to keep in touch with them, socially and emotionally. I think it’s our role as university teachers now to also support our students emotionally, given that some of them might show symptoms of the disease sooner or later. I also realized last week that such a crisis and the associated use of technology for remote teaching and learning acts as an amplifier of phenomena that where present before but maybe less visible. One student had technical difficulties to fully connect to the video conference, we did not hear nor see him, nor did he see or hear us; he could only see and read the text chat and write to us there. Technology can indeed act as an unwanted tool of exclusion and we need to be aware of this and try to mitigate or erase these effects right from the start or find post-hoc solutions to avoid them! In our case, I had foreseen to record the session and make it available to all students afterwards, which I think is good exclusive education thinking and doing; in addition one of the students spontaneously (well, she has had a course on exclusive pedagogy) started to write short summaries of the activities that we were collectively doing in our live session in order for the other student to be able to follow what we were doing. That was quite a heart-warming moment for me! She could have easily focused on our discussion and forget about this “mute and blind” student, but she did not! She showed extraordinary solidarity with someone left-behind (unwillingly) by the current learning environment and helped him participate (at least a bit more). And she helped us all to have a transcript of our session, in addition to the video recording.

For yet another course of mine (Education in the Digital Age), this crisis feels a bit surreal… because this course is precisely about the Digital Revolution in and around Education. We study, together with our students, its various impacts on our culture, on our social lives, on our very relationship to knowledge, to power, to others and to ourselves, on how we humans learn, on what we value as worthy knowledge and required skills and attitudes for a digital age, on how we need to rethinking curricula, pedagogical activities and (physical and virtual) learning spaces for a digital age, but also on how we, as teachers, can support our students learning better or differently with the help of digital media and technologies (from instructional software tools to digital games, via multimedia and hypermedia consumption services and production tools). Being forced to transform this course (which is normally co-taught as a collaborative and co-constructing knowledge seminar) will be an excellent opportunity for ourselves and our students to experience learning activities that are fully online, digitally mediated yet socially powered and self-directed yet teacher scaffolded. Our students will produce (as foreseen anyway) personal digital portfolio where they document and reflect their auto-socio-construction of knowledge processes, they will show us their knowledge and understanding of the various topics of this course and we will evaluate them based on these documentations and reflections (as we would have done under normal conditions, just remotely). We also organize regular live video conferencing sessions (2 groups of around 50 students) to keep in touch with them, to re-explain our written instructions, to hear their questions, but also to have them present their collaborative findings. So far this has worked quite nicely. The fact that our two groups are a bit out-of-sync has been quite a challenge for us (in fact one group has had one session less during the weeks before the stop of on-campus classes and is thus “lagging” behind the other group), because we need to give specific instructions to both groups about the topic of the week, the preparation work to do and the learning activities to perform. It would have been much easier if the same instructions would count for both groups for a given week, but that’s live… we just need to be systematic, to think ahead and to coordinate via video conferencing and, so far, I think we did a fantastic job in supporting our students for this course.

Last but not least, we have co-organized and co-held a three-to-many video conference session for our 6thsemester students which was supposed to happen on campus, in a lecture hall, where we, three teachers, informed them about the procedure to submit their proposals for the topics they want to work on for their bachelor thesis next winter semester. We showed them a slideshow and commented it live, they asked questions in the text chat or by (virtually) raising their hands and orally asking them. Overall this session went very well, I think, even if we had a few minor glitches. We made the recording and the slideshow available to all students afterwards, so that they can re-watch them as often as they wish.

I also supported other colleagues from our department in setting up their video conferencing session, advising them on which other tools to use and on how to modify the task they instructed our students to do. I posted many relevant resources into the “teachers space” on moodle of our study programme to allow our colleagues to find good advice on how to substitute their live teaching activities with digital ones, on how to enhance their digital lectures and seminars (by making them more interactive), on how to digitally support their otherwise in-class analogue creative and co-creative learning activities. I have also collected many interesting resources about online teaching & learning and shared them via social media (Facebook and Twitter) with the broader educational community. I have discovered so many creative ideas from teachers from all over the globe, but also boring and uninspiring worksheets simply send out to their students.

All this was very demanding, and I have been working from 6AM to 11PM every day, with a few pauses (of course), but it was also very stimulating and rewarding, because I truly felt that we all gave our best, that we tried to surpass ourselves and were kind and understanding with each other (maybe more than otherwise).

All in all, I have the impression that we were halfway ready for this crisis, since we have been doing blended learning with our students for years now; via moodle, we have been providing them with resources to read, watch or listen and we have had instructions for in-class session on moodle too. We have been used to implementing a self-directed co-constructive learning approach, which can of course also be done at a distance and online. But, given that we could not easily and quickly clarify our instructions, which is normally the case in the classroom or workshop room, we had to be much more precise in our written instructions and did hold, in addition, live video conferencing sessions to be able to give additional input and answer students’ questions, but also to hear them and their voices, to see their faces and to keep in touch socially and emotionally.

After a week of hard work and “running around”, I feel connected to the entire community of the university, maybe more than before! I am proud of our institution and how it has been managing this crisis, I am thankful for all the excellent support, technical and moral, that we get, at all levels.

As a side note, I have tried to contribute my small and humble part to our rector’s call for solidarity and service to the local and national community. I’ve organized a live streamed session on a Saturday morning (21.03.2020), where I read a book for children, their parents and grand-parents, which I had produced together with classes at the fundamental school of my children, as a parents’ representative on the school board. Here is an archived (and mirror-reversed!) version of it: https://vimeo.com/399714376. I hope you enjoy it. There is no story behind the text, the kids created it to “programme” my verbal utterances, nothing more, nothing less. Don’t look too far to find a hidden story.

I hope we will all be back on campus soon, safe and healthy; but I might also then miss my home office sometimes… because, after all, the commute way was much shorter… and – on occasions – my trousers too :-).

Robert REUTER

P.S: Parts of this got featured in the University newsletter:
https://wwwen.uni.lu/university/news/latest_news/remote_teaching_uni_community_shares_impressions_after_first_weeks