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Remote teaching: what does work and what doesn’t according to teachers?

Remote teaching is the ‘new normal’. But does it work for everyone? That is the question. Teacher A doesn’t seem to have any problems, but teacher B might experience a lot of issues during his online lectures. What can they learn from each other?

What goes well?

Christian Tudorache, assistant professor at the Institute of Biology Leiden, turned his practicals into online practicals. ‘After an introduction my students get a case to get to know the matter before my lecture starts. I make my lecture interactive and I’m challenging my students, because I want them to explain the case to their fellow students. That’s the best way to learn where the case is about.’ As Tudorache says, biology is an ‘extremely practical course’. That is why he wanted to send his students to the local fish seller, to buy the ‘catch of the day’ and dissect the fish at home. ‘Of course the students weren’t able to do that, because they would need guidance and a good camera to record the dissection. That’s why I have expanded the cases. I am now theoretically addressing several topics that I discussed earlier in the practical, such as adapting the digestive system or the brain of fish to their environment.’ Tudorache hopes remote teaching will go on after the corona crisis is over. ‘I think this crises is a wonderful opportunity to discover the possibilities of remote teaching. I don’t think we’ll go back to the way it was before. I expect practicals to become more independent, that you can discover everything yourself.’ 

Michiel Hooykaas, PhD candidate at the Institute of Biology Leiden, switched to online practicals. ‘I developed a couple of digital practical modules on Blackboard. I used photos and added some questions so students could work on their own, together with the practical syllabus. It was great for the students, because they could take a digital look at the animals and finish the course despite the situation we’re in at the moment.’

Annelien Zweemer, assistant professor at the Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research, uses the online tools for lecturing, but also to relax. ‘Twice a week I give yoga lessons to a couple of my colleagues. I also record the lessons and publish the videos in the LACDR-channel at MS Teams. I’ve already used Kaltura and other online platforms for the last two years, because my courses have a flipped classroom set-up. I think it’s very valuable that I can adapt to the wishes and needs of students. When they have questions, I record a video to explain the matter. Students can watch those videos at any time they want. I think that you reach more people in that way, because not everyone goes to lectures or a working group.

What is difficult?

Despite the positive side, remote teaching also comes with difficulties. As a Live Room host it’s hard to connect with your audience, says associate professor Sylvestre Bonnet of the Leiden Institute of Chemistry. ‘When you’re communicating online, it’s hard to get feedback from the people who are listening to you. Normally you can ready someones bodylanguage, but when it comes to remote teaching, you just can’t see if people really are interested and understand what you’re talking about.’ Bonnet says it helps to ask for feedback or a reaction, although it’s very common that people don’t dare to answer of aren’t really present. ‘The host has to dare to ask questions and the people who are listening have to dare to give answers. I think we still need to get used to this process.’ 

Annelien Zweemer also thinks remote teaching ask for clearer instructions and a clear way of asking for feedback. ‘During online lectures you can’t see or hear all of the students. Because of that it’s difficult to involve the silent students.’ But Zweemer has a solution for that problem. ‘I give my students small assignments and call students by their names during my online lecture.’ 

Martin Bright, assistant professor at the Mathematical Institute, agrees with Bonnet and Zweemer. We are trying to use modes of communication that already existed (email, Blackboard) since the students are already familiar with them, though we are also finding new modes such as Kaltura Live Rooms very useful. Even so, we are aware that many students are busy, stressed and less focussed on work than normal, and they may not feel comfortable asking for help.  Together with the other teachers of first-year courses, we want to do everything we can to keep the students engaged, and are still looking for better ways to do this.’ 

And despite the success of his digital practicals, Michiel Hooykaas thinks you can’t do everything through remote teaching, even though there would money and time. ‘Taking a digital look at an animal is not the same as in real life, especially when it’s a small animal you almost can’t take pictures of. For example, you will only be able to see details if you turn the micro screw of your microscope and focus on different distances, or if you carefully push a certain structure aside. Physical education, especially with practicals, continues to offer great added value.’ 

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