Finding the right rhythm

First digital semester – an experience report

2020/05/14

For the first time ever, an entire semester is being run digitally. This is a challenge not only for the lecturers, but also for their students. So how do students cope with this, and what do they want? Where do they see any problems, and what is already working well? A student of sports sciences and Dr. Annette Glathe of the Center for Educational Development and Technology at the TU report on the first experiences.

The digital semester is challenging for lecturers and students alike.

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.

Learn more

Many students will have felt like Dagmar Heiss did in the first days of the digital semester. Heiss is studying sports science on the teacher training course “Master of Education Sports Sciences / Body Care”. She has already experienced e-learning services in her studies in the past, and yet still felt overwhelmed in the early days. “In the first week I was a little bowled over by the sheer amount of information that was posted on the various portals (TUCaN, Moodle). Numerous groups were formed via email and WhatsApp, and the first thing I had to do was get an overview of when I had to be at my computer in a Zoom meeting for a lecture, when to do which tasks, and when to submit them in Moodle,” she writes in a brief review of her experiences that we asked her for.

Now Dagmar Heiss has found her bearings. “I'm well in the swing of things, and I really do have to praise the teaching staff because the communication (within my courses) works extremely well and the efforts for the best possible sequences on the part of the lecturers are clear to see,” she says.

As head of the “Department for Continuing Education and Counselling” at the TU's Center for Educational Development and Technology (HDA), Dr. Annette Glathe is aware of the many efforts by teaching staff. And she also points out that a confusing flood of information and tasks can demotivate students. “People think, I can't cope with all this,” she says. A feeling that the HDA wants to avoid among teaching staff and students alike, which is why the central institution offers advice on how to use and handle e-learning tools.

In November 2019, a student at the TU Darmstadt determined the general mood among students for the HDA. As part of a student project for the university portal www.einfachlehren.de, the student asked about 40 fellow students from various faculties at the TU Darmstadt for their assessments of what, in their opinion, made a good Moodle course. This resulted in an overview of what students expected of the way their lecturers used Moodle. And although it may not have been statistically representative, “… many students will certainly be nodding in agreement,” Glathe believes.

What it has shown is that students would like, among other things, for

  • lecturers at the TU not to use different “storage places”, but to use a single, standard learning platform;
  • Moodle courses to be clearly structured in sections or folders;
  • the framework conditions of an event to be clearly defined by teaching staff, and for them to state their expectations and to provide important information right at the beginning of the semester, in the first lecture;
  • lectures to focus on content that is relevant to the exams, and for the uploaded materials to be useful in helping students to prepare for them,
  • lecturers to create and upload a guide for exams or homework that shows them how to prepare well and what criteria are used in grading.
  • “Reliability and clear statements are important,” says Annette Glathe. Students want clearly formulated tasks and set times when, for instance, slides or exercises are uploaded by lecturers so they are not constantly checking and having to look for them. Communication channels must also be clearly identified, and where, how and when questions clarified.
  • On the practical side, students also want:
    • lecturers to use other media such as videos or interactive activities in Moodle,
    • the slides that are used in lectures to be uploaded ahead of them,
    • all documents to be uploaded as PDF files,
    • questions to be clarified in Moodle forums or in a consultation instead of by email.

The exchange and interaction among students and with lecturers are of tremendous importance, says Glathe. Accordingly, the Moodle platform is becoming increasingly important, and is also working very well at the TU. “Moodle is really being boosted, which we at the HDA are very pleased about,” she adds. However, Zoom is now also often being used for group work or live video conferences.

Trainee teacher Dagmar Heiss is gaining a lot from the digital semester. In her review, she writes: “In recent semesters, I have dealt with the increasing digitalisation in my teacher training lectures, as more and more digital media can / are being used. The current situation is, of course, something entirely different, and certainly an even greater challenge for schools. That's why I find the experience that I am gaining from this online semester valuable as well as excellent preparation for my career later on.”

“I am working on a Master of Education in Sports Sciences / Body Care. In recent semesters, I have dealt with the increasing digitalisation in my teacher training lectures, as more and more digital media can / are being used. The current situation is, of course, something entirely different, and certainly an even greater challenge for schools. However, I find the experience that I am gaining from this online semester valuable as well as excellent preparation for my career later on.”

“In the first week I was a little bowled over by the sheer amount of information that was posted on the various portals (TUCaN, Moodle). Numerous groups were formed via email and WhatsApp, and the first thing I had to do was get an overview of when I had to be at my computer in a Zoom meeting for a lecture, when to do which tasks, and when to submit them in Moodle. But now, in the second week, I'm well in the swing of things, and I really do have to praise the lecturers because the communication (within my courses) works extremely well and the efforts for the best possible sequences on the part of the lecturers are clear to see.

I also think recording the online lectures is very positive, because I can now watch them at any time and at my own pace and take notes. At the moment, I feel this helps me to absorb the lecture content much better. However there is, of course, no social interaction or the possibility to ask directly about something during the lecture, and of course there is no direct feedback for the lecturers.

But I could certainly imagine a combination of online lectures/online teaching and the lecture hall being a successful concept in the future.

By the same token, these factors are also dependent on students' own technical equipment, Internet connections, the living situation and so on. In that respect, I count myself as very lucky, but there are probably many other students who do not find it quite so easy to work at home for various reasons.”

Student Dagmar Heiss