Virtual relationship work

E-learning tips by Alexandra Stang

2020/04/28 by

Alexandra Stang gained experience in digitally supported teaching while still a student herself. She has been working at the Centre for Intercultural Competence (ZIKK), which is assigned to the university's language centre, for almost two years. Her tasks include organising an intercultural planning game project seminar on cross-site virtual cooperation in heterogeneous teams and dealing extensively with webinars and student media projects. She offers various useful tips here.

Online-based learning requires a lot of self-organisation and self-learning for students (stock photo).

The “Digital summer semester” in focus

Lots of things are different this summer semester: Everyday life on the campus is now characterised by digital teaching and online degree courses. Curiosity and delight in experimentation, as well as pragmatism, are required more than ever during the corona crisis. How has TU Darmstadt prepared itself to face up to the challenges, what experience with e-learning can it call on and what is it offering? One focus. One series.

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Studies into e-learning have shown that the drop-out rate is much higher than that of attendance-based events – and can shoot up to between 70 and 80 percent. “This raises the question of 'why',” says Alexandra Stang. Often it is due to a lack of structure, i.e. a common thread, poor video recordings, a lack of opportunities for participation, and unclear, non-transparent work instructions. The opportunities of digitally supported teaching remain untapped, and participants can become unmotivated. The changeover is not only purely technical; “it is also about digital soft skills,” explains the expert. Successful online events mainly depended on the fact that teachers succeeded in building relationships with students and group dynamics. If teachers follow a few rules and recommendations, the drop-out rate can be greatly improved, says Stang. Here is a selection:

Do not overwhelm students or yourself at the start

Coronavirus and the decision for a digital summer semester create the need for new concepts. Online-based learning requires a lot of self-organisation and self-learning skills, which not all students will have to the same extent. It is important, Alexandra Stang continues, to select content in such a way that there is sufficient time for exchanging experiences and practising. The content usually has to be didactically reduced. “You don't have to change your entire course to digital in two weeks.” She suggests designing two or three events first, and then adapting the concept week by week against the background of realistic expectations. Stang recommends installing an anonymous feedback feature that allows students to provide feedback. “That means we can help each other.”

Learning by doing also applies in online teaching. “We have to engage in a creative process and adapt the event flexibly to the given framework conditions of the students.” It is necessary to deal constructively with the vagueness and uncertainty that arise from media technology teaching and learning settings. Digital courses require a significant amount of organisation. Stang hopes that in the future, this will be accounted for in the teaching load. Not least as an incentive to become involved beyond corona, and to develop new teaching and learning formats.

Learning from each other

Pretty much the entire current student generation has grown up with digital media and tools. Teachers can use students' ideas and suggestions to benefit everyone. Stang believes it is important that teachers and students agree from the outset which digital platforms and conference tools they want to use along with the Moodle platform so that everyone has access to them. Only then will students be motivated to participate and contribute.

Building a virtual relationship

The success of online events depends on building up a sustainable relationship between teachers and students. Alexandra Stang therefore recommends, for instance, addressing students by name in smaller webinars so they feel valued and that their contributions are taken seriously. This would boost motivation. She also suggests building bridges with small exercises on Moodle. Students and teachers could post photos of themselves in their home offices there, and tell others about their professional and personal expertise. This would make the anonymity of the virtual space disappear. Instead, they would now be able to see faces and personal stories. “This would enable all the participants to get to know each other, and facilitate group discussions and tasks,” says Stang.

Choosing the right format

It is also important in digital teaching to specifically relate the forms of teaching/learning, examination forms and learning objectives to each other. The forms of implementation vary depending on the specialist discipline and type of event. “There is a difference between having to cognitively query knowledge and being action-oriented in my work,” says Stang. Key questions help in the implementation. What learning outcomes are expected in the course? What learning and teaching methods and learning activities should be used to achieve the learning objectives? Or what e-based exam forms will allow the objectives to be meaningfully questioned? Depending on the type of event, media products created by the students themselves may be recognised as an examination submission. If implemented successfully, these could also be made available to upcoming student generations. Students will often invest a lot of time and commitment in media artefacts such as these if they know that they are going to be used afterwards.

Clear rules and what else makes sense

It is a good idea to have colleagues or even non-specialists read one's e-based event and examination concept first. Is it easy to understand and transparent, and do all the links work? This should be tested beforehand in order to avoid frustration later on.

Clear rules need to be agreed: What is the last date for submissions? Work instructions need to be clearly formulated in order to avoid constant queries. Will there be any online consultations, perhaps using Skype or Zoom? They should be offered at set times. Stang also believes that prompt feedback should be given on questions. “Within three days at the latest, because questions can often prey on a student's mind.”

Don't be scared to go offline

Digital teaching and learning requires strength. Students and teachers need to find a healthy balance between online and offline. Questions and rules should be clearly communicated and transparent to all. “Then you can go offline with a clear conscience,” is the lecturer's belief.