Arijan Goharnia “only” has to write his Master's dissertation. The 25-year-old is in the last year of his Master's course in environmental engineering. His problem: his final dissertation includes numerous laboratory tests, for which he has a six-month deadline. But the TU laboratories have been closed for a long time because of the corona crisis.
Goharnia is writing his dissertation on the pollutant behaviour of microplastics. One aspect is how many and what kind of pollutants accumulate on microplastic particles that are absorbed by fish and so are able to enter the human food chain. He wanted to carry out various test series in the laboratory on what is known as the sorption process. He is unable to write his dissertation without the results. But now there is hope again. “I've had an email telling me that the labs will be open again soon, although with limited access,” he says.
Experimental videos explain a lot, but not everything
Goharnia works as a tutor, supervising Bachelor’s students reading chemistry. The faculty demonstrates the laboratory work, currently not possible to the usual extent, using explanatory and experimental videos. But it is a solution, “even if it doesn't replace the physical lab experience,” he finds. Technically everything works well. “Which surprised me a little,” he laughs. Students are guided to the appropriate Zoom meetings with lecturers and tutors via a link on the Moodle learning platform. “The lecturers kept it all very simple, which is really cool,” he appreciates.
Does he miss his fellow students? He stays in touch with them through video chats and online meetings. “So it's not that bad. Our health is paramount. We should take advantage of digital media and its benefits such as video calls and chat features.” But he is already looking forward to the time after the pandemic.
Fellow student Janis Wilbert found the back and forth at the beginning of the pandemic and the uncertainty of whether and when the TU might close, difficult. “Some of our fellow students found it stressful, especially during the exams.” Because of the spontaneous closure of the library and university, he missed the familiar structures and workflows. “The productive working atmosphere in the library is gone,” he laments.
The Master's student in environmental sciences struggled a little with his entry into digital learning at the beginning of the semester, and found it more difficult than usual. Which module works how? When are the consultations, and when do questions for the next lecture have to be posted by? “Due to the spontaneous change in the situation, there was no uniform approach to anything,” he said. “And although many of the lecturers seemed to be prepared, initially they were overwhelmed. But things are constantly improving,” he notes with appreciation. Obviously there is no “manual” on how to set up digital teaching. Everyone organises their lecture differently. Wilbert would like experiences to be shared more.
"Many are responding to the challenge appropriately and providing an exciting, functioning semester."
All in all, he concludes, digitalisation allows for more efficient learning. What he finds positive is that changing rooms or campuses and the tedious getting there and getting around are no longer necessary, and people generally feel less hurried. Some of the staff also appreciate the advantages. He quotes one lecturer who is pleased that he is receiving far more interesting questions from his students because they are able to prepare better for them thanks to the video cast and were not tired after a 90-minute lecture.
Wilbert hopes that more e-learning will be used in the future and that lectures do not fall back into the old patterns. The digital semester would cause teaching staff to question their lectures again. “Many are responding to the challenge appropriately and providing an exciting, functioning semester,” he finds.
Integrating experiences in everyday university life
Karolin Ludwig is working on her dissertation for the Bachelor of Education Body Care. She likes being able to organise her time herself. “However, it does call for a higher degree of self-discipline, because it is much easier to be distracted at home”. At the moment it feels to Karolin, 27, like doing distance learning.
“I see advantages in being able to upload lecture videos that can be stopped and edited at my own pace, which makes it much easier to write up on them.” Working in the online seminars is going well, so far. Ludwig finds there is a big difference in “being able to look my partner in the eye, see reactions, and interact better during a lecture”. Given the shortness of the preparation time that teaching staff and the university had for the digital semester, though, the process has been surprisingly smooth and good, she finds. In most cases, it was bad programs or fluctuating Internet connections that made it difficult to work online. Like many students, she also hopes that the new digital experiences will be incorporated in everyday university life in the future.
For Darya Kurdyukova, who is working on her Master's in environmental engineering, everything has been going well so far. She has to complete modules that do not require an internship. Some lecturers, she reports, have moved the frontal lecture into the digital space without changing anything. Interaction is only possible by asking occasional questions in a chat session or surveys. “I have hardly noticed the changeover to 'digital', except that I no longer have the long way to university – which is even better.”
In another module, the lecture was converted into a kind of digital consultation. Students need to deal with the material beforehand and ask their questions online. “I find this way of doing things really sensible because I can work through the material and understand it in peace, and questions can be clarified promptly. There isn't usually time for that in a normal lecture.” Students are actively involved. Kurdyukova uses the question-and-answer session for checking herself. “It really helps me to process the material in time.”
“Feels almost like a normal lecture”
In another event, every week a lecturer uploads a guideline with work assignments including slides, literature, reflective questions, short research activities or presentations in Moodle. “That's something I could also really do with in normal lectures. It enables you to look at the material more deeply, which improves my understanding of it and supports the learning process.” However, an exchange or question-and-answer session is necessary to keep at it.
Because of the pandemic there are no excursions, which she regrets, but she hopes that they may happen later on. Overall, the practical element is missing. Lecturers also provide additional texts, online tests and videos in order to offer good learning options. An offer that she hopes will continue after corona. “It improves the quality of the lecture immensely.” Her conclusion: the digital format feels almost like a normal lecture, “but it also offers the unique opportunity to try out lots of new ways of doing things that should have long been part of the learning process.”