The transition to online requires new forms of teaching

The great outdoors on film, laboratory sessions at home, and experiments done online rather than on campus. The pandemic has forced many teaching staff to rethink how they teach and they have been impressively creative in doing this.
“Ensuring that students remain motivated is the hardest part,” according to Pierre De Wit, a researcher in the Department of Marine Sciences.

Lectures and group work via various digital platforms have become run-of-the-mill for more or less all students over the past year. This transition to distance education has worked well in some subjects, while others have struggled a lot more. A significant proportion of the Faculty’s courses and study programmes are based on practical course components such as laboratory sessions and field studies, so some of these courses have been granted exemptions to be able to complete these components on site. For others, this has been impossible in practice, and in these instances, teaching staff have been forced to rethink.

The foundation year programme in science, which has had a particularly large number of students this year, is one example of this. Doctoral student Ida Hedén runs a physiology laboratory session featuring six different stations and which usually includes practical course components such as testing breathing and determining blood type. However, in distance mode, she was obliged to deploy a mix of different types of instruction.

“We kept all the stations, but they had to test some parts at home. For example, students were instructed to put their hands in cold or hot water, and then in lukewarm water, so that they could note how the sensation in their hands changed. Then we discussed the results and why that happens.”

In another physiology lab session run by Ida, exercises were performed live on camera. The aim was for the students, who in this case are enrolled in the Bachelor’s programme in Biology, to see how the heart is affected by a range of tasks. Another doctoral student was enlisted to cycle, be turned upside down, etc. The students were able to track the doctoral student’s heartbeat live and see what happened.

“The students really liked this. Afterwards, we had an in-depth discussion about why the heartbeat changes, and what’s activated in our bodies and what’s affected,” says Ida Hedén.

Excursions are another element that have been difficult to offer over the past year. Minna Panas teaches students training to be school teachers in the art of orienteering and she would normally take them out into areas such as the island of Stora Amundön and the Änggårdsbergen nature reserve to allow them to experience nature and learn about what kind of environments they can take their future pupils to. But this year, Minna has instead opted to bring the great outdoors to her students instead. For instance, she has filmed while she has been out hiking.

“The students need to get a sense of really being outdoors. Of course, they are missing a whole range of dimensions, like not feeling the Sun on their faces or the way that the topography changes as they climb or descend. But I’ve tried to compensate for that by doing things like explaining ‘it’s slippery here, so you need to take care’.”

Minna Panas is a doctoral student in science specialising in educational sciences at the Center for Educational Science and Teacher Research graduate school, and she has a particular focus on digital learning. She explains that there is plenty of great digital material that you can use, especially for these types of courses where students need to learn basic ecology concepts. She has had her students listen to bird calls, watch films and track a variety of events over the course of the seasons. One example of this type of resource is the Carbon Tree, an animation based on measurements taken at Hyytiälä Forestry Field Station outside Helsinki that shows how a pine tree filters carbon dioxide from the air and binds it in real time.

“We can pick any date and time of day and see how the levels of carbon dioxide vary in the air and in the tree over the course of the year. There are countless digital resources that we can utilise when you can share a screen.”

Students from a range of courses and study programmes usually visit Tjärnö Marine Laboratory to conduct field studies or experiments over longer or shorter periods. However, now these practical course components have been replaced by theoretical exercises in many of the courses, and visits to the field station have had to be postponed. Pierre De Wit explains that the transition to distance mode has been particularly challenging for certain courses:

“When the intended learning outcomes say that the student should develop practical skills in conducting experiments, it can be extremely difficult to do remotely. But we have had to do the best we can.”

This particular biology course starts with the students being given a list of suitable areas to visit in the Gothenburg region that they can access by themselves.

“Go there, observe nature, write down what you see. Take photos using your mobile phone cameras. That was what we instructed the students to do,” Pierre De Wit explains.

They were told to identify an organism that they wanted to learn more about, formulate a research question – something they wanted to learn about the organism – and then design an experiment to find out what the answer was. Ordinarily, the students would have been able to conduct their experiments in the lab, but instead they were required to think in theoretical ways about how to complete the assignment. Then the course concluded with a competition. Anyone who wanted to was welcome to visit the field station to conduct the winning experiment once the pandemic permits.

Pierre De Wit emphasises that apart from being a lot of fun, it forced the students to think about what was actually possible to accomplish versus what was not.

“It’s easy to design an experiment in theory, but you don’t actually know whether it will work until you test it. And more often than not it doesn’t work the first time around, which means you have to rethink and do it again.”

Being required to adapt one’s teaching to new circumstances has been very time-consuming. However, it has also given rise to many new ideas around teaching and how to deliver courses in the future. Ida, Minna and Pierre also believe that their students have been satisfied with the adaptations that have been made and note that they have actually received more positive feedback from students than they do when teaching normally. Furthermore, attendance has increased on some courses perhaps because the threshold for joining an online class from home is far lower than for heading out on an excursion in poor weather.

But at the same time, many of the Faculty’s students have opted for courses and study programmes featuring laboratory sessions and field studies for a reason: they like getting out and about and completing the practical course components. Pierre De Wit thinks so, at any rate.

“If this continues, they may not find it as much fun any longer. We now have students who have completed half of their study programme without going into the field, and they may eventually grow tired of that.”