Erfurt, 30 September 2020 - The winter semester at German universities will begin in the next few days - and as in the summer semester, most lectures and seminars will be offered as virtual or hybrid studies. How can virtual teaching work well and what can universities do to improve it? Expert Prof. Dr. Uta Scheunert, professor at the Erfurt Campus of IUBH International University of Applied Sciences, gives tips on issues that German (higher) education institutions can currently still improve on to make virtual studying successful: 

1. Providing training for teachers

For lecturers at universities and teachers at schools, too, lockdown and switching to alternative and, at the same time, virtual teaching methods came suddenly. In many cases, these professional groups were confronted with online teaching & learning methods for the first time, at least to this extent. Therefore, providing training and the support of colleagues, e.g. from distance learning, who are familiar with this form of teaching and instruction, are elementary for a quick and successful implementation. For example, at the beginning of the lockdown in March, IUBH offered Germany-wide and free webinars on the topic of virtual teaching for all interested (university) teachers. In my opinion, all teachers should have the opportunity to participate in such training opportunities and make use of this offer ‒ ideally also for continuous professional development. The time invested pays off.


2. Increasing media acceptance

Educators should set aside time with students to discuss and learn how to use digital media. Feedback and exchange are paramount. For example, at IUBH I spent an event testing out media with simple content and gathering student reactions. How does screen sharing work? What happens when taking an online knowledge quiz and working on tasks in small groups? My students were thus able to familiarise themselves with the new teaching methods in a very short time ‒ the first obstacles were quickly overcome and it was easier to get started. My tip: Start with a few possible uses (e.g. use of the virtual space and work in small groups) and when these can be used by all participants without any problems, create variety through further options (e.g. knowledge quiz on the smartphone).


3. Enabling personal exchange

What my students miss most about face-to-face study is the personal exchange with each other. Therefore, I advise teachers to use every 3rd, 4th or 5th class during the semester to give students the opportunity to talk to each other. Students and pupils want to have chats and thereby fellow students and classmates with whom they can exchange information about events or subject matter, but also about personal things and feelings. From time to time, I give my students the opportunity to exchange ideas in randomly assigned groups. Small tasks like "What is your favourite film and why" can also help to break the ice. It is an attempt to transfer the campus feeling with partly random encounters and conversations into the virtual space. I find it exciting that random assignments create group constellations that might not have happened in real life – in the offline world, people tend to look for contact with familiar friends. This can lead to completely new approaches, ideas, but also acquaintances.


4. Checking technical equipment and surroundings

Educators should prepare a neutral background that is not distracting in order to be more visible. A simple wall in the background and a well-lit space can help. The technical equipment is also important. I work with an external camera and a headset to create the best possible conditions. On an additional screen, I see the students who have switched on a camera in a video panel – this is a great help, as it allows me to see at least some of the reactions in the students' faces, i.e. whether the teaching material seems to have been understood or whether students are exhausted and need a short break to process what they have heard. The great advantage of digital equipment: paperless exchange of teaching content, completely without waste and good for the environment.


5. Creating a well-defined structure for used platforms and methods

At the start of the semester, I recommend determining which tools will be used, where course materials can be accessed, stored and exchanged. In addition, we have developed a guideline for cooperation in virtual space – how to create mutual respect in the virtual space, e.g. how and why to use the camera function, how to participate in discussions (virtual hand signal) or what to do if a participant has to leave the virtual space during the event or if the educator's internet connection is interrupted. My principle: structure creates security.

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