The sound of optimism


A year of teaching in corona mode has resulted in increasing fatigue on the side of students and teachers alike. Approaching teaching in Q3 I was fearing the worst. But exciting new video tools - Panopto - and a dynamic chat service - Discord - have saved the day.

Almost a year ago, I wrote here about the loneliness of a lecturer in front of his laptop screen. As the weeks ticked off towards the start of teaching in Q3 I was having ‘nightmares’ of lonely sessions of talking to students behind my laptop. But a chance discussion with my daughter, a 2nd year student at Radboud University Nijmegen, in late 2020 made me aware that this is not the way to go. Long monologues (>2 hours) on Teams are boring and tiring and posting last year’s 3-hour video lectures was clearly not going to help students learn the course material. Even worse, it was not going to get me the award for best teacher either.

But how can you change the student experience and engage with students when even ‘must have’ lectures are forbidden? The solution, as is almost always the case, includes hard work and surprisingly a lot of technology. My first decision was to re-use last year’s video lectures, but instead of simply posting them online I made use of the Panopto video tool to convert my lectures from boring monologues into interactive video lectures interspersed with quizzes. This allowed students to test their understanding while following the lectures and for me to have a wealth of data on what students understood and what not.

To still maintain contact with students I started up a Discord server. This proved to be by far the best move. Low threshold and apparently popular with students, they took to it like seagulls to French fries. By providing fast and simple answers to students with a fast response time, the motivation of students to ask questions grew dramatically. Moreover, students started offering each other support and a live exchange of information was taking place. Looking back, I think that I’ve never had so much contact with students as I had these last two months.

But most likely the most extraordinary experience of teaching in the past two months was the experience of standing in an empty lecture room and talking to students at home via video streaming. It was truly a surrealistic experience. Being a teacher, the lecture room felt again as the right place to stand when talking to students. And after almost a year of teaching from behind my screen, standing in a lecture room, even if I was physically alone, was a joy. The students were not in the room but were following me online and sending questions via the Discord channel. These were probably the most interactive lectures I have ever given, all alone in a large auditorium room, but then again not alone…

Read on below the photo.

With a bit of luck and some organizational effort - vaccinating the entire student population - the next academic year will hopefully see again our lecture rooms full of students. But many of the innovations I was forced to adopt this year I will keep using in the coming year! Yes, learning is all about interaction and the contact between teacher and students cannot be replaced by hours of video’s, but a clever use of digital technologies has made my teaching experience in the past two months surprisingly enjoyable.

I hope that this joy is also shared with my students, but above all I hope that they were able to understand the course material better. The exams are next week so I will know the answer soon enough. Good luck to all the students in the upcoming exam period!

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