Christine Storr, lecturer and doctoral candidate in Law and informatics at the Department of Law
Niklas Janz, professor in evolutionary insect ecology and head of the ecology division at the Department of Zoology
This year, for the first time in higher education, universities are forgoing the physical campus for online learning. COVID-19 and social distancing requirements mean institutions need to adapt and adopt more dynamic and flexible methods of instruction.
This was the challenge for Stockholm University, which has more than 27,000 full-time equivalent students, 1,400 doctoral students, and 5,700 members of staff. The university, founded in 1878, is one of Europe’s leading centres for higher education and research in science.
Moving instruction and exams online
Stockholm University began gradually implementing itslearning in 2017 as their common learning platform (LMS). Full adoption took place in February 2020, once the university shut down their old learning management system.
Niklas: Then, in March 2020 the university decided to close the campus within a week and transition to 100% online teaching. There was a bit of a scramble for lecturers to move all their teaching materials in just seven days to itslearning.
Christine: As itslearning coordinators and lecturers, we got a lot of questions because there were a lot of sudden and big changes. In the law department, we were having exams during this period and had to quickly move from paper exams to using a virtual learning environment (VLE).
“Even if it was challenging for many teachers, we were still lucky in that we had a working learning platform in our faculties. It would have been much more difficult otherwise” – Niklas
Lecturers had varying technical knowledge
Christine: The main challenge was that the teachers had varying technical skills, but they all got up to speed quite quickly as did our students. The combination of pedagogy and IT tools is very crucial to going fully online, so having itslearning as our LMS helped us continue teaching.
“It was very evident that it was an easier transition for courses where itslearning had been in use. But we did have to think a bit more for courses with field or lab intensive work” – Niklas
Niklas: So, for my ecology course, instead of going out to the field, students were divided into virtual groups working in their home environment. They had to collect and analyse data, then collaborate with their group members. It worked better than we had thought – it just required a different way of thinking from the teachers. Even if it was challenging for many teachers, we were still lucky in that we had a working learning platform in our faculties. It would have been much more difficult otherwise.
Exams – finding the ideal solution with 100% online instruction
Niklas: What we ended up doing was to do ‘continuous examination’. I used assignments and other activities to gauge student understanding. Another advantage of doing continuous testing is that it takes the pressure off the students and you encourage them to start working with the material throughout the course – instead of having one large exam at the end of the course.
Christine: This is an interesting combination of pedagogy and technical tools. With an LMS, it’s easier to have continuous assessments. So, this is something that I think we should keep doing even when we return to face-to-face instruction.
Communication issues between students and faculty
Christine: But the bigger problem that we faced was lack of contact and communication with students. Students would usually approach me after lectures to ask questions. So, for me giving feedback online, the discussion forum and announcements helped me keep in touch with my students. It kept the communication channels open – we used the discussion forum a lot.
Niklas: The relationship between student and teacher is an important part of our pedagogy at Stockholm University, but these tools are also very useful for informal discussions among students in blended learning.
Taking attendance in a class of more than 100 students
Christine: This required some ingenious thinking beyond using the attendance system. What worked for me was to set at least one assignment question based on what I had showed during class. This had a very high pedagogical value because students seemed to better understand the lectures.
Niklas: I think it’s worth noting that this is something that can also be useful in smaller classes. It can be used to gauge what the students have understood and even as motivation to pay attention and work with the material.
Blended learning for the year ahead – what we have learned
Christine: I am rethinking the way I teach and how I can make it more interactive. One thing I noticed now with students learning from home, is that it’s good to give them tasks that require more interaction to keep them engaged. It’s good for them to work in groups. So, I will continue looking at ways to develop this.
Niklas: We see that student expectations have changed with online learning. Students were very understanding in the beginning, but this might not be the case going forward and they will demand more. So, we need to change the way we approach teaching.
Watch the video for more takeaways (peer reviews!) Christine and Niklas think would be useful for strengthening online learning amid the ongoing COVID-19 uncertainties, as well as the impact of blended learning on student and teacher morale and well-being.