Since the beginning of March, life at the university has been defined by the novel coronavirus. For the second time after the lockdown in spring, the University of Zurich had to largely discontinue classroom teaching in the fall and move over to online formats. As President Michael Schaepman and Deputy President Gabriele Siegert explain in an interview with the Journal, this has been a major challenge that has required additional work from instructors and flexibility on the part of students.
In this extraordinary situation, the most important concern for the university is if at all possible to get courses to students in a way that enables them to complete the semester as normal. “Whatever happens, we want to assure the compatibility of people’s studies,” says Michael Schaepman. Practical training courses that can’t move online should if possible be held on site, subject to the relevant precautionary measures. Despite the limitations, they say teaching has hardly suffered. “We can largely guarantee the quality of teaching,” says Gabriele Siegert. The two university leaders want to prevent the emergence of a coronavirus generation with the reputation of being less capable, emphasizes Michael Schaepman. He has words of praise for students, saying he’s observed a great deal of effort and personal responsibility on the part of those studying from home.
Besides the challenges, particularly in terms of teaching, the pandemic has also had a positive side. Michael Schaepman, for example, has noticed growing solidarity among students, also across national borders, with people helping each other. As far as research is concerned, new networks among researchers have sprung up, also with researchers from outside UZH. The university has thus been able to demonstrate the importance of research in mastering the pandemic. There are also two sides to the restrictions on people’s mobility; with fewer taking part in international conferences, there has been a reduction in air travel, which is good news for sustainability. On the other hand, the pandemic has curbed spontaneous exchange in meetings, at the office or in the lab. Schaepman and Siegert are concerned that in the long term, this lack of personal interaction will pose the biggest threat to research and teaching. Science and learning need informal encounters and discussions – a kind of dialogue for which there’s no digital substitute.
Stefan Stöcklin; English translation by Michael Craig