Remote teaching reduced informal meetings but increased new academic skills

The coronavirus pandemic this spring made it necessary to take a rapid digital leap in university teaching. We collected experiences from teachers at the Faculty of Science on remote teaching and the potential for drawing inspiration from the changes for future teaching.

In March, the Faculty of Science transitioned to remote teaching at a rapid pace. Even though the transition was not smooth or easy, many new good practices were established during the spring.

The Faculty surveyed teachers’ experiences by carrying out interviews conducted by project planner Aino Haavisto. The interviews, conducted in the late spring of 2020, demonstrate that the teachers have been happy with many of the practices born out of necessity.

Only a handful of laboratory courses from among the Faculty’s course offering had to be entirely cancelled. Fieldwork associated with certain courses also had to be cancelled or organised in another form, but at the same time, one laboratory course in physics was carried out in the field, using students’ personal equipment.

“One of the biggest benefits of the course that was organised in this novel way was that using personal equipment made the level of the course assignment ideal. It was impossible for students to get lost in theory by choosing overly difficult topics,” said the course teacher in their interview.

Teachers missed informal encounters

The majority of respondents thought remote teaching went surprisingly well, and organising courses remotely was mainly successful. Immediate colleagues and degree programmes provided the most significant support to teachers.

Presenting group work and giving other presentations worked well via video link. The coordinator of a practical course in programming said that they would also consider holding assignment presentations remotely in the future.

Structured interaction was smoothly transformed into remotely conducted activity, but almost all interviewees stated that they missed having opportunities for informal discussion: encounters in the hallway or questions asked during lecture breaks.

“Conducting research and learning are both social processes. It’s not easy to move the entire process of growing into a member of the academic community online,” a respondent noted.

New kinds of academic skills

Teaching content did not change, but some change was seen in the academic skills learned in the process.

“I had thought that I can’t require group work on the online course I teach at the Open University since the participants are located all over the country. However, this spring was proof that working in groups is also possible remotely. Maybe group work will also be included in the Open University course in the future,” one respondent said.

In several courses, teachers and student groups discuss assignments after they have been completed by the students. Some verbal discussions were conducted via video, but in many courses, the share of written assignments grew.

“The purpose of discussing completed assignments is to teach students to talk about science. Written peer assessment may have realised this learning outcome even better than before,” one teacher said.

As contact with students could not be maintained on campus, teachers expanded their communication repertoire. Many of them asked about their students’ contact preferences: email, instant messaging or video conference applications?

One teacher established a separate time for questions to complement their lectures, during which time students had the chance to ask questions pertaining to the course using either a remote connection or a chat service.

Video connections turned out to be a well-functioning way to handle a range of things, and students attended video sessions even across time zones.

“Many students were grateful for having more time to take part, not having to travel to Kumpula. Particularly students who are already in employment hoped for the opportunity to continue completing courses remotely in the future,” one of the respondents said.

What will teaching look like in five years?

The teachers of the Faculty of Science identified both opportunities and problems in the forced digital leap of spring 2020.

One interviewee envisioned a future where teachers would try out new modes of teaching with a broader scope. All in all, the interviewees wished for the expansion of the toolbox available for web-based teaching.

At the same time, teachers who had provided their teaching partially or entirely online prior to last spring said that a lot of development had already taken place and that no radical further transformation was yet on the horizon.

“MOOCs (massive open online courses) are moving towards increasingly authentic learning experiences, instead of being composed of multiple-choice questions and similar content,” one respondent mused.

According to the teachers, the greatest challenge for teaching in the future is inclusivity: how are students integrated into the academic community if attendance in person becomes increasingly rare?