The short-term switch to digital teaching and learning in the spring was a challenge for all teaching staff. We spoke to three particularly dedicated teachers about their experiences during this extraordinary first semester living with coronavirus.
Dieter Brecheis, an external instructor at the Department of Communication and Media Research, gave a core elective lecture for almost 200 students on the topic of advertising in the 2020 Spring Semester.
“The first thing I did following the closure of UZH back in mid-March was to activate all the communication channels available on OLAT so that students could reach me right away. The second thing was to share a link to a ‘Bob the Builder’ video. I had the feeling many students were afraid of losing a whole semester. Obviously, Bob the Builder’s song ‘Can we fix it? Yes, we can!’ is a children’s song, but I wanted to take the edge off the tense situation, spread some optimism, and send out a clear message that together we can get through this. During the crisis, it was important to me that students felt I was able to put myself in their shoes and empathize with their situation. I’ve been working from home for over 30 years, so I shared some – hopefully useful – tips, such as how to structure your working day and how to overcome potential dips in motivation. I recorded my lecture in the lecture hall with the help of the Technical Services team and made it available as a podcast – the idea was also to give students a bit of the ‘uni experience’ at home. From my work in advertising and events management, I know the impact that your demeanor can have on your audience, which is why I wanted to appear as laid-back and positive as possible. In reality, it wasn’t that easy talking to empty rows of seats. Fortunately I was able to draw on my acting experience to conjure up an interested live audience in my mind.”
Georg Artus, academic associate at the Department of Chemistry, gave a number of lectures, including one on physical chemistry for some 140 life sciences students in the 2020 Spring Semester.
“To ensure that teaching could continue seamlessly despite the switch to minimum operations, I had to move my home workspace into another room within a very short space of time, upgrade it and quickly get to grips with the various tools. In the lecture hall we have a board where we can deduce formulas and explain interrelationships; when working from home, I used a graphic tablet instead. With two keyboards, two monitors, a mouse, a tablet and a headset, at first I looked like I was flying a spaceship in Star Wars. I continued to offer my lectures as live events, which were also recorded via Zoom and uploaded to OLAT. Thankfully, an assistant was always on hand to moderate the chats. This allowed students to ask questions anonymously, which I then answered on an ad hoc basis. This resulted in some lively discussions around the subject. Nevertheless, I really missed the face-to-face interaction you get in a lecture hall. I recorded playlists to pass the time when waiting for Zoom meetings to start. I also found that really relaxing. Debussy accompanied by impressionist paintings went down particularly well.”
Christiane Barz, professor at the Department of Business Administration, gave various lectures, including one on mathematics for over 800 business and economics students in the 2020 Spring Semester.
“I took advantage of the shift from classroom to online teaching as a result of the pandemic to develop a new teaching format for my major maths lecture: compact, explanatory videos lasting up to 30 minutes, each looking at a separate topic. I recorded between two and five of these videos from home every week. It was a lot of work and was very time-consuming, because the language of mathematics is very precise. Not only do you need to think about to what extent you can simplify the subject matter and how you can explain it clearly, you also have to formulate it as precisely and unambiguously as possible. I think the best way to learn mathematics is by sharing and exchanging ideas, which is why for some time there have been various opportunities for interaction alongside lectures, including a weekly online quiz and a supervised online forum for questions. Our existing practice groups, where exercises are solved and discussed in groups led by experienced tutors, continued live via Zoom. The (digital) interaction worked really well during lockdown; my online consultations were much better attended than my regular ones, which meant I tended to have even more contact with individual students. But I missed the immediate feedback you usually get during a lecture from students’ facial expressions and body language. All the same, as an instructor I tried to remain available and present, and therefore posted regular updates on my blog: personal reflections on the coronavirus crisis, self-deprecating accounts of my not-always-easy experience of working from home with a toddler, and links to my favorite mathematicians on YouTube.”