Digital Teaching at TU Berlin

It’s ok for teaching to be fun - for the teachers and the learners!

TU Berlin’s Center for Scientific Continuing Education and Cooperation (ZEWK) offers interdisciplinary courses for scientific continuing education in German and English. It also advises and initiates interdisciplinary cooperation among various fields of work at TU Berlin and external actors from science, business, the working world, and society. The program includes the Berlin Model for Education and Post-Professional Activities (BANA), the Cooperation Center for Science and the World of Work (KOWA) as well as the science shop kubus (Cooperation and Counseling Office for Environmental Issues). At the beginning of the summer semester in April 2020, ZEWK's online teaching team used their technology and know-how to get the digitalization of teaching at TU Berlin up and running. Dr.-Ing. Alexandra Schulz reports on how it all began and where developments are headed.

In summer semester 2020, German universities had to suddenly switch to digital teaching. How well was TU Berlin prepared for this?

The digital semester caught us off guard. But the ZEWK responded quickly during the first lockdown. We offered quick and easy technology for digital teaching from home. We drove all over the city to buy tablets and microphones - we're talking about hundreds of devices - and then distributed them to the lecturers at TU Berlin.  Then we set up a ticket system for questions related to digital teaching. It felt like we were constantly working 24/7 for weeks on end. Bureaucratic hurdles were removed to make things easier. Of course we ensured that we stayed within the requirements, but we simplified processes as much as possible. We handed out the technical equipment directly in our offices, so now a lot of people know where we are located. They know where to find us, so they can approach us more easily and continue to use our support.

How is the ZEWK helping lecturers with their digital teaching?

Technical equipment alone is not enough. We have offered continuing education for the different tools that were suddenly available and that many people didn't even know how to use. How does Zoom or Webex work? What makes a good web conference? Of course, it's not enough just to get the technology working. We combined explanations of the technical functions with didactic tips right from the start.

Will the experiences from the first digital semester help in shaping the 2020/21 winter semester?

We have noticed that everyone has become more confident. Many have expressed a clear desire for more communication opportunities with students. During the summer semester, for many lecturers, video conferencing was like talking into a black hole. Many students didn’t have their cameras on. Everyone had to get used to how things worked. During the winter semester, many instructors put their self-study instructional videos online right away with a comment function. As soon as students don’t understand something or have a question, they can write it as a comment. The lecturers then respond directly to it. With small means, points of contact with the students were created. There is also the chat platform "Matrix" for a protected exchange on a less formal channel. We’ll have to see how people like it. We can’t plan how it will go down.

Dealing with web conferences has become normal for many of us. Before the lockdown, people dialed into web conferences with time to spare in case something went wrong technically, for example, if the headset or microphone didn't work. Today, everyone shows up more or less at the specified time because they have more confidence that the technology will all work.

Is there anything that has particularly surprised you about digitalization?

We said early on that it would be great if lecturers could introduce themselves with a welcome video on TU Berlin's “Information System for Instructors and Students” learning platform, ISIS for short. Simply to show: “I’m here on the other side of the video camera, and I’m also a human being." I was really surprised at how many joined in and actually posted such a personal video of themselves on ISIS.That was impressive.Even lecturers who weren’t as interested in technology overcame their reservations and simply filmed themselves - for example, in front of the forsythia in their garden. For many students, this makes instructors more approachable.

The first difficulties have been overcome - what will happen next?

The summer semester was an orientation period. The issues that exist now also existed in the first digital semester; however, they were obscured by more pressing problems then. Many technical difficulties took precedence over didactic issues: How does it all work? How do students get the Zoom link? We initially had problems saving large videos because uploads had a maximum of 20 megabytes. That didn’t get you very far. But there was a spirit of optimism, a pioneering feeling, a start-up enthusiasm. If something didn't work out technically, it didn't matter.

Now digital fatigue is starting to set in. In addition, everyone has found their rhythm with digital teaching; they multitask and check their emails while they’re watching the lecture. Didactic issues are coming to the fore again, some of which existed in the lecture halls before: How can I get the students to participate actively? How do I get away from teacher-centered lectures?

Where do you see the greatest needs in continuing education for online teaching?

We haven’t yet fully explored the application of different media formats and their appropriate use in different digital teaching settings.Practical suggestions are helpful just to see what the possible formats are. Break-out sessions, however, are just the framework, to take one example. The content has to fit that form. And for that you need time. The effort involved should not be underestimated. Just creating the instructional videos takes a lot of time.

We have found that what we use in our courses is readily adopted. At the end of our courses, for example, we sometimes use thematic picture cards to ask what our participants take away from the courses. After the courses, the participants ask us if we could send them the cards and if they could use them. But of course, these cards can't be used in exactly the same way everywhere.

The ZEWK offers the praxis blog "Digital Teaching at TU Berlin.” Has the blog proven helpful in the digital transition?

Our praxis blog has shown that it is quite difficult to draw conclusions about one’s own teaching just from examples.There is simply no one right blueprint that fits all teaching formats. We have created a wiki with practical support in addition to the praxis blog. How do I record a lab video? Where can I borrow what? What do I do when there are disruptions in the Zoom meeting? We are also creating a podcast episode on "Good Teaching" that will be online soon. In it, we talk more fundamentally about different ideas, rather than pretending that there is a one-size-fits-all method. Everyone has to find out for themselves what their ideal combination is. That also depends on the type of person you are. For example, not everyone is a charismatic speaker who you can listen to for hours.

Can digital teaching replace classroom teaching in the future?

I think the keyword is blended learning. This means a successful blend - like a good wine - between asynchronous, i.e. time-delayed, online learning and synchronous joint learning on site. What can students do well on their own - for example, if they have children or can't follow the content as quickly? And where is it worth coming together?

Digital and face-to-face teaching have so far been regarded as two opposite poles. The aim should be to think about how these poles fit together and to dovetail them in a meaningful way. What fits well in the asynchronous formats? For example, pure content acquisition is something that can be done alone fairly well. Since it has become apparent that the 2020/2021 winter semester will once again be highly digital, lab videos are making a comeback to take the pressure off the labs. Certain elements are filmed to show what needs to be set on the lab equipment.

Basically, the question is: What role does the instructor play? What is worth spending ninety minutes meeting with highly qualified faculty for? Certainly not for the instructor to calculate something on the board for me that I could read in a good textbook. Instead, the instructor can be there to help students interact with the content, to transfer theory to practical examples, to discuss things together, or to work on larger projects.

That makes you want to learn digitally. Will this succeed without any drawbacks?

What digital formats have a hard time doing is the social aspects, especially communication among students. Shy people who tend to keep to themselves find it easier to join groups on site.

What are your hopes for the digital future?

It would be a shame if the digitalization push were to fade away. We have to make sure that good hardware and software remain available, even if demand for video conferencing, for example, declines. Campus licenses should be purchased for high-demand computer applications, such as video editing programs. In some cases, the technically limited free applications simply reach their limits and lead to increased effort that does not pay off. There are many separate platforms and points of contact - for example, the electronic learning platform "Information System for Instructors and Students" (ISIS), a separate chat application, a cloud for shared documents. The various functionalities should be brought together, further developed in terms of technical applicability, and made even more user-friendly. If students are to acquire some content through self-study, as in blended learning, then this should also be possible on site when the University is open again.The question is: Are there places at TU Berlin that are technically equipped for this? How and where can they be created?

What have you particularly enjoyed about the experience of the last few months?

The contact I’ve had with lecturers! Colleagues who don’t work from home hand out the technical equipment directly on site. In the process, there are always personal conversations during which they spontaneously give practical tips: "What do you need the microphone for?"-"I wanted to ..."-"Oh, then maybe you can do it like this ..."-"Good idea!"

As a result, lecturers have taken advantage of what the ZEWK has to offer. They know where to find us and that they will get good tips, and they are open to our advice: It’s ok for teaching to be fun - for the teachers and the learners!

Interviewer: Christina Camier