“It doesn’t have to be a Hollywood production"

Interview with Christian Hoppe, Head of the E-Learning Working Group

2020/04/17 by

Christian Hoppe is Head of the E-Learning Working Group at the Center for Educational Development and Technology (HDA) at TU Darmstadt. His team is currently working almost around the clock so that the university, teachers and students can begin a digital semester. In this interview, the teaching graduate who specialises in media didactics talks about the challenges and pragmatism, virtual lectures and what services and assistance TU Darmstadt is able to offer.

TU Darmstadt was already working on digital teaching solutions even before the coronavirus. What is currently the biggest challenge?

The focus up to now was on using digital tools to supplement face-to-face teaching. These tools were used as an accompaniment or as an opportunity to interact with students outside of lectures or seminars. We now have to digitalise the teaching courses themselves. It is a challenge and our team is also not very large. There are three of us in University Didactics, while a further two employees are exclusively responsible for e-learning at the university computer centre. We are thus currently working round the clock.

Christian Hoppe, Head of the E-Learning Working Group
Christian Hoppe, Head of the E-Learning Working Group

How prepared are the specialist departments? Do they have a stockpile of e-learning material that they can now call on?

Many departments already made a start some years ago, while others were a little more reticent. The situation differs widely across the departments. For example, the Departments of Computer Science, Electrical Engineering and Information Technology and Law and Economics were already very active, as were the Departments of Human Sciences and Social Sciences. According to our annual surveys, we have seen steady growth in the use of digital services of 7 percent on average each year even before corona. Alongside the recording of teaching courses, the learning platform Moodle and the various options it provides for supporting the learning process is particularly popular. However, digital tools that promote interaction in the lecture theatre or which enable examinations to be carried out more efficiently are also becoming increasingly popular.

What assistance can your team offer?

We offer a variety of training and advisory services. We have created our own corona information page on the web for this purpose, which is updated on a daily basis. We especially recommend the use of asynchronous methods because, in contrast to live courses or video conferences, they avoid the possibility of overloading the system or Internet connections. Low-threshold courses are the best solution. Lecturers can record their own lectures away from their offices at the campus and we provide the necessary tools for recording sound, images or slides. Pragmatism is essential. It doesn’t have to be a Hollywood production. The easiest format is to simply record a lecture and this method is used frequently, combined with e.g. links to the university library, who have a wide range of e-books and electronic magazines available. Interactive formats can also be used to stay in contact with students. The learning platforms can be used to set up forums so that students and teachers can share ideas and information. Tools for carrying our surveys, exercises or group work are also available and we can provide advice on which concept is the most suitable.

Why do you recommend asynchronous methods?

We mustn't forget the students. They find themselves in the same exceptional circumstances as everyone else. If we offer too many live courses, this could make the situation even more difficult for them. We don't know if everyone in a shared apartment can access these types of courses, whether the Internet connections are stable enough or whether the student has to look after children or people requiring care at the same time. It is better to restrict live contact to regular consultation sessions or for supplementary online exercises. This recommendation is also supported by the experiences of other universities.

Are universities across Hesse or Germany exchanging information?

Networks with other universities have already been established for many years and information on the theme of digitalisation is regularly exchanged between the universities. Every university has its own main area of focus. For example, the University of Kassel has set up its own digital examination centre for holding written examinations on PCs. TU Darmstadt places a strong focus on media didactic concepts in digital teaching. We can now mutually benefit from each other's experiences.

Digital examinations are a different thing altogether.

We are still at the very beginning when it comes to examinations. In the middle of 2019, we started a project on this subject at TU Darmstadt and requested information from all specialist departments. Due to the corona crisis, it is now necessary for us to look more quickly at the conditions under which we could hold examinations online. There are proctoring tools available that can monitor whether everyone is sitting at their PC and whether someone is using Google or trying to cheat. This is a subject on which all universities across Hesse are exchanging information and providing support. Data protection issues and the question of how students will respond still need to be clarified, while examination regulations and infrastructures need to be adapted. What concepts exist for large examinations involving up to 800 students? It will require a change in culture. What was previously both unthinkable and undesirable is now being included in the discussions.

What response have you received?

We have received a variety of different responses. It is a challenge that we are forced to tackle with great pragmatism. What is possible in the short amount of time available? How can we maintain the quality of the teaching? It is unlikely that we will be able to expand what is available at this time. There are teaching courses that are difficult to digitalise.

Which courses do you mean?

In the study of architecture, it is not easy to replace discussions about building plans and direct communication. Laboratory exercises in the fields of chemistry or biology are also a major issue. It is possible to produce 360 degree videos in the laboratory that can be supplemented with information about the images but it cannot replace actually working in the laboratory. Virtual reality solutions and VR goggles for virtual laboratory work are not yet available to the extent required. And this would firstly require programming of an authentic laboratory environment at TU Darmstadt in the short amount of time available to us. Our colleagues in the field of building physics are at a more advanced stage and were already offering corresponding courses specific to TU Darmstadt even before corona but they are still the exception.

What is your advice at the start of the semester?

We all have to grow with the challenges and the experience. I am sure that we will be able to offer a good range of courses for students to access at the start of the semester. Students and teachers will both have to see how they cope with the new situation at the very beginning. I think that it would be wrong to assume that this young generation is made up of “digital natives” who know everything and can easily cope with new media. The students will also have to be introduced to the new methods and provided with support. It will be a mutual learning process.

Are you available to assist with any problems?

It is not possible for us to be personally available at all times but we will provide information via websites, online workshops, training courses, videos, self-learning courses, links and clearly explained handouts and reports on the experiences of others at the university. We are currently collecting together other ideas and will gradually expand our range of services. We are being supported by a team of around 20 students who are providing us with fantastic support by taking responsibility for things such as recording the videos/blackboards in the lecture theatres or answering support queries about the learning platforms. A lot of things would be impossible without their assistance. We are all trying to cope with the situation together and I am sure that a little patience and understanding will be required in some cases.