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Turning the challenges of remote teaching into opportunities

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Since spring 2020, EPFL teachers have had to make remote teaching a part of their daily job. This has given rise to major challenges – but also led to new, effective teaching practices and enhanced collaboration. We took a look at how teachers are adapting to the novel approach.

During the lockdown in spring 2020, EPFL teachers had to give their classes in front of a computer – with their reflection in the screen as the only visible audience. That became standard procedure once again when classes were moved back online in late October.

“Teaching is more than just transmitting knowledge. Human interaction plays a key role, and you lose a lot of that online. When you speak to a Zoom screen and most of your students have their cameras turned off, you don’t know if they are really following what you’re saying. You have to find another way to get their feedback,” says Andreas Osterwalder, a senior scientist in chemistry and chemical engineering and a member of the EPFL Teachers’ Council (CCE). Students also feel that the lack of face-to-face contact is a problem. “It’s hard to speak on Zoom without interrupting someone. Discussions aren’t fluid, and that doesn’t encourage you to participate,” says Léandre Pitre-Tarpin, a class delegate for the civil engineering section and a member of AGEPolytique. “It’s also easier to lose concentration online or switch to another window.”

Main challenges

A study carried out by the LEARN Center on how EPFL teachers adapted to the lockdown confirms that the lack of interaction and feedback is the biggest challenge to online teaching. The study involved interviews with around a dozen EPFL teachers in April and the first half of May 2020.

“When you teach online, without being able to interact with your students, it’s impossible to pick up on signs that they may not have understood,” says Roland Tormey, head of EPFL’s Teaching Support Center (CAPE). “You can use clickers, mini-surveys and Q&A sessions as ways to find out. We also suggest conducting assessments like midterms more frequently, because online you don’t have the social aspect that boosts motivation.”

According to an AGEPoly survey carried out in November 2020, 68% of Bachelor’s students (excluding those in the first year) and Master’s students said they had fallen behind in their classes. “When professors pre-record videos of their classes, we tend to watch them when we have time – or even at the end of the semester just before our exams, unless we have a midterm exam,” says Pitre-Tarpin. He adds: “Taking classes at home makes you feel like you’re studying all the time. It’s hard to stick to a routine with time for studying as well as free time. We also miss the social life and atmosphere on campus – it feels like this semester just keeps dragging on.” The AGEPoly survey found that 73% of students are experiencing a decline in motivation.

Live classes and helping out colleagues

So how can teachers keep students motivated and involved? This spring CAPE tripled the number of workshops it offers, covering topics such as teaching online interactively, producing videos and implementing a flipped classroom format. In a flipped classroom, students learn the theory at home and spend the time in class working on exercises and asking questions. “This situation leads to more exchanges between teachers. And that’s helpful because it’s important for them to share their experience and best practices,” says Tormey.

Samuel Dubuis, who teaches an analysis class for the preparatory mathematics course (CMS), interacts regularly with his colleagues in the mathematics section. This spring he became an “expert” on Zoom in just a few days, and wrote a guide for other teachers on how to use the program. “I got a lot of positive feedback, and even teachers outside my section started using my guide. That increased the sense of solidarity among faculty members – we’ve got to help each other out.”

Dubuis initially gave his online classes through prerecorded videos, but found that students prefer live classes. He co-teaches one of his classes with two other instructors: one person creates dynamic slides; the other writes up additional lecture notes; and Dubuis gives the class on a tablet. “I give my lectures in almost the same way as if I were standing in front a chalkboard. Once the semester is over, we’ll assess how things went. Our goal is to keep the online classes appealing. We’ve gotten used to the technology, but we still need the face-to-face contact. The human interaction is one of the reasons why I decided to become a teacher,” says Dubuis.

Staying in contact with students

Francesco Mondada, the academic director of LEARN and a professor at EPFL’s Biorobotics Laboratory, has realized that it’s important to maintain a routine and speak frequently with your students. “I prerecorded my classes during the lockdown, but gave ‘live introductions’ at 8:15 am so that students would get up and keep a regular schedule. For the practical sessions where students work in pairs on robots, I set up a collaborative system that they could use for programming. Their final exams consisted of presenting their projects, and that went really well. This semester I’m giving a class that was already partly in a flipped classroom format, so it was easier to adapt. I tend to stay in regular contact with my students, and they can give me anonymous feedback on Moodle. For instance, at first I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the breakout room feature on Zoom [where teachers can divide students up into small groups and switch from one group to another], but I soon saw that students liked it.”

Encouraging groupwork

Mondada conducted a survey among students in his Basics of Mobile Robotics class three weeks into the semester, and found that students who were not working in groups for the online exercise sessions were generally less motivated.

The importance of groupwork – especially for first-year students – was also revealed in the AGEPoly survey carried out in November. However, 40% of those students said they weren’t able to find someone to work with. That’s why AGEPoly, with the support of schools and Vice Presidency for Education, set up a mentoring program for all first-year students; the goal is to “reduce the risk of them dropping out and improve their chances of success.” Dubuis notes that “technology often isolates us. Online, it’s hard to recreate the atmosphere of an exercise session.”

«We shouldn’t lose sight of the positive things that came out of this period. For example, it showed us the benefits of flipped classrooms.»

With regards to exercise sessions, Mondada developed a system that his students find very useful. He created a Google form where they can enter a brief summary of their question and indicate how they prefer to be contacted; the student assistants then reply to the questions in the order that they are sent. Mondada also set up two Discord servers: one for students and one for student assistants. After being contacted by several other teachers who had heard about his systems from their students, he created a user guide and video explaining how to install and use them.

A blended future

This particularly challenging year has disrupted normal teaching practices and laid the foundations for what will eventually become a blended teaching model, according to Pierre Dillenbourg, an EPFL professor specialized in educational technology and the associate vice president for education. “Teachers were forced to adopt digital technology in a very abrupt manner. We’ve seen that moving everything online is very tiring and stressful, but it provides greater flexibility for students. Classes where students attend some lectures in person and others remotely, like the system EPFL had in place at the start of the semester, are not easy for teachers to manage. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the positive things that came out of this period – for example, it showed us the benefits of flipped classrooms. In the future, teachers will probably use a blended approach combining in-person and online instruction. But the exact ‘recipe’ for each class will be different depending on the subject matter, the number of students and the teacher’s personality.”

Online platform compiles studies of COVID-19’s impact on Swiss education

Several studies have been carried out in Switzerland to evaluate the impact that COVID-19 – and more specifically, the spring 2020 lockdown and the shift to online classes – has had on students’ education. A research platform was set up in November to compile the findings of the various studies, allow them to be searched and viewed, and encourage coordination and collaboration among researchers. The platform is an initiative of the LEARN Center, and was developed in association with the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) and the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK).

“Studies have popped up like mushrooms during these unprecedented times,” says Jessica Dehler Zufferey, the operational director of LEARN. “To the point where many researchers are using data-collection methods that have not been tested, pushing aside conventional theories and sharing little of their data. That’s what gave me the idea for this platform – to provide a forum for coordinating research efforts and extracting more value from their findings for decision-makers.”

The platform already houses over 50 studies examining COVID-19’s impact on the Swiss educational system. And some 110 researchers took part in an online event held jointly by the LEARN Center, SERI and EDK on 1 December 2020, where researchers discussed the projects they have underway. A survey carried out at the end of the event showed that participants would like to see more events of this type and thought the platform was a good idea.

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