Marianne Vestergaard is a Professor at The Niels Bohr Institute, the physics department at University of Copenhagen. She teaches first year physics – Introductory Mechanics and Special Relativity. This is a course that has both laboratory work, lectures, and recitation sections. Each fall semester, she – along with 3 other senior instructors – is responsible for the educational progress of 130 first year students. In particular, with a fellow professor she is in charge of lectures and recitation sections in this course. During the past year, 25% of all impact time (lectures, recitation sections, lab hours) have been fully online. However all in-class lectures have been streamed and recording since semester start.

How did you handle this new situation when you first started doing online classes? What new tools and approaches did you start using?

Mechanics Course:

We were lucky enough to be lecturing in a large auditorium with sufficient space for everyone for most of the semester. Teaching first year students (freshmen) is very different from teaching other university students. Freshmen need to learn to study at university, manage their time and get new friends in addition to learning new material.  Therefore, in our lectures we have a strong focus on the students actively engaging in working through problems, either alone or in smaller groups. This works best in the physical classroom/auditorium.  Then in early December 2020, we moved 100% online within a few days.

Finding an ideal setup to replace our activities in class was not easy. I am not sure we found the best setup.  For live lecturing akin to black board presentations, we used a document camera to project what we write and draw on a piece of paper. We quickly realized that we had to make dedicated breaks for questions, otherwise extroverted students would interrupt the instructor, much to the annoyance of introverted students.  We used Zoom breakout rooms to provide the students a smaller group setting to discuss questions from the instructor, much like we had in the classroom originally. This worked quite well.

Some aspects of the lectures we pre-recorded to allow the students to view this ahead of classes so to provide more time for breakout room activities (they are quite time consuming) and for questions.

For recitation sections we had a main Zoom room for students to ask questions, plus additional breakout rooms. Some students preferred to work together in their own study group, while other students would join rooms dedicated to the specific problems of the day. The instructors would ‘wander’ from room to room on request or by their own initiative to see if they could assist – to mimic a normal classroom setting.

What are some positive experiences you have had with online classes? Are there any activities which work just as well as in normal classes, or maybe even better?

Mechanics class:

When we were lecturing in the auditorium, we were also live streaming and recording. There were always issues with camera and/or the sound. When we went 100% online, each student got front a row seat with a clear view of the ‘black board’ and good quality sound. This worked quite well – much better than the auditorium experience.  And the instructor could better focus on the lecture (not having to act sound/light/camera-person at the same time). Some students who may be more withdrawn in the physical classroom feel more intimately connected with the instructor in this setup. They started to ask questions in this setup.

When you are mainly conveying information, the online format does equally well. It is indeed possible to ask students to discuss a topic by sending them to breakout rooms. You can also have them vote on questions posed by the instructor.  They can even write on a white board – or ask questions in the chat.

For one of our laboratory sessions our instructors left it to the students to design their own experiment and to find online tools to do the measurements and then later analyse them.  The students can record a video with their experiment to upload. Mind you, this may not have the full learning outcome if this is the solution for all lab work.

Upper level classes:

As department supervisor for a young faculty member taking the course for higher education teacher’s training at University of Copenhagen, I have also experienced how inverted classroom can successfully be implemented for more mature students in the virtual classroom. This was for a course at the master’s level.  Lectures were recorded and posted ahead of class. The students were divided into study groups at the start of the course. Then at each class they were given access to a Google document with questions they were to discuss in each group. Each group were given different questions related to the lecture to discuss and they recorded the solution in the document plus any additional questions they may have to the teaching of the day. Then, these questions were discussed in plenum.  Imposing a requirement that every member of each group was to present the group findings, helped to engage the quieter students as well.

This worked quite well. The pre-posted lectures meant that students could view them at their own time and pace, and perhaps re-view them as needed. This also allowed more time for discussion in class which the students really benefitted from. The instructor found that this format actually worked better than he had executed previously in class through old-fashioned lectures and problem solving. The students were more engaged, and their learning outcome increased.

In your experience, what does not work well in the virtual classroom?

Laboratory work is clearly not working when the aim is for the students to get acquainted with working in the lab as opposed to working on the computer.

Recitation sections are also a challenge, because many students do not like the format where they have to be explicit in requesting help (as oppose to solving problems in a small classroom setting where the instructor circulates and checks in with the students). Some students do not like to expose their “ignorance” or weaknesses to a greater audience. Also, it is simply just easier to be passive in this setting – or not show up.

During online lectures it is very difficult for the instructor to read the reaction of the students, to gauge whether the students grasp the material taught. Students have to be quite explicit and actively ask questions. Only the students who are quite extroverted or have self-confidence will do so. This provides a real challenge since it is much more difficult for me to gauge if the teaching is as effective as intended.

The online format is one where most people tend to say less, and students are no different. Many students ‘hide’ (turn off camera or stay silent) and do not actively engage in the teaching activities and it is difficult to get all students to participate just by asking them questions.  It is also difficult to manage or control whether the students pay attention during class. Once the students are online for class it motivates some to go into chat rooms and to chat with other students during class.  While some students gain from the chat-discussions, this can be disruptive for other students.

What will you take with you back to the physical classroom when it becomes possible to teach in person again?

During the semester we produced a few small ‘how-to’ videos that we posted to help the students.  I will expand to also post short videos related to the teachings/lecturing that I may normally do in the auditorium.  This will provide more time in the auditorium for other activities and also allow the students to watch and re-watch, as needed.