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.
As Dr. Christiane Brockmann was suddenly confronted with 700 freshmen in environmental sciences instead of the usual 70 students due to the arrival of the G8 dual age groups in the 2010/11 winter semester, she had to respond quickly to the new situation. “Naturally, I still wanted to interact with the students”, says the lecturer. And this is why she had already tried out e-learning tools such as the Moodle learning platform ten years ago. She contacted her colleagues across Germany to discuss the available options, exchanged best practices and experience and used an audience response system (ARS), or in other words a polling tool, in lectures for the first time.
It was not only her students that experienced “Aha! moments” but she also had them herself. The chemist still remembers well “how shocked” she was when only ten percent of the students gave the correct answer to a poll on one particular part of the course that was carried out using ARS. In subsequent discussions with students, it became clear that most of them had not understood the question due to the use of a specialist term.
Removing inhibitions using playful exercises
“It is often language barriers and not the course content itself that are a problem in chemistry. The students are not yet familiar with the specialist terms”, she says. It was understanding this problem, amongst other things, that led to the development of a Moodle exercise that Christiane Brockmann still uses today as a fixed e-learning component. “I start to precisely explain how to use Moodle and the different functions and tools at an early stage”, she explains.
One example is a small exercise in which students are asked to define specialist terms and these definitions are then subjected to a peer assessment process. Brockmann calls it the glossary exercise. All of the participants receive a randomly selected term which they then have to briefly explain and upload to the learning platform. The “peer assessment” functionality in Moodle allocates each of the uploaded definitions to four other students, who each provide peer feedback in accordance with prescribed guidelines. After the definitions for the terms have been revised, they become an important source of learning material that can be used by everyone on the course as they prepare for their examinations.
The feedback exercise has been well received and around 60 to 80 percent of students participate in it. It is a voluntary exercise but the work is awarded a bonus point. The lecturer is keen to highlight one particular effect: The students practice continuously. “It is important to remain on the ball. And thus stay mentally sharp and agile for the examinations.” Brockmann and her tutors then provide their own input on the feedback given by the students. “Constructive criticism is very important for freshmen”, she emphasises.
In Brockmann’s experience, some of the young students do not immediately come to terms with the technical tools and Moodle in the beginning. This is why Christiane Brockmann initially provides students with detailed verbal and written instructions and uses the tools in a playful manner. “That was the moment when we achieved a good level of participation in the exercise”, she says. In later semesters, these exercises become more complex and are no longer voluntary but rather compulsory.
Enabling students to get started more quickly
In the second semester, the students also complete laboratory practicals. The students only come to the teaching laboratory for two days and there is a very limited amount of time available. “Environmental engineers are not chemists”, emphasises Christiane Brockmann. It is thus necessary to explain to the around 120 young people split into small groups how pipettes, analysis scales and photometers are used in the laboratory. This process takes around ten minutes in each case – time that could be better utilised for other things.
In cooperation with the E-Learning Group at the Center for Educational Development and Technology (HDA) at TU Darmstadt, Brockmann has thus created video tutorials to film and explain precisely how these laboratory devices are used. She has now created a number of videos lasting between two and five minutes, some of which are also used to explain themes such as occupational safety and escape routes. The tutorials are viewed by the students in advance and everyone can then get started straight away in the laboratory. To ensure that the students are well prepared for the experiments, their knowledge of the experiments is tested and checked online.
The chemist aims to expand the use of this idea during this digital semester. “We do not yet know when or whether we will be able to return to the laboratory.” However, the practicals and the experience gained in the laboratory are relevant for the examinations. In collaboration with the E-Learning Team at the HDA, she now wants to film chemical experiments and capture every single step of the process. This is a solution designed to bridge the corona crisis.
Despite her long-standing experience with blended learning concepts and digital teaching solutions, it was also necessary for her to reevaluate many things for this semester. She decided to bundle together the available information in the best way for the students and not to set too many different deadlines – after all, students are now being asked to cope with numerous different digital tasks. She emphasizes that the communication has to be clear: “What do the students have to do, how should they do it and by when.” Christiane Brockmann provides students with guidance in the form of a weekly work schedule. “This avoids any confusion and the sending of too many e-mails.” Something that is beneficial to both parties.