I teach at Nærum Gymnasium, a high school a bit north of Copenhagen. In the past year I have taught physics B (first year and second year), physics C (2 classes) and mathematics B. The first year physics B class includes student at physics A-level. In total I am responsible for 125 students. For the past year roughly 65% of the teaching time has been online.
How did you handle this new situation when you first started doing online classes? What new tools and approaches did you start using?
When Denmark was shut down for the first time on Thursday the 12h of March 2020, I was on Iceland with a class on a study trip. Many things had been cancelled on our trip, because of the COVID19 situation, and one trip was cancelled due to a snowstorm. Even so, we had a very instructive tour on Iceland and overall, the COVID situation wasn’t so apparent in Reykjavik. It was surreal to land in Copenhagen airport, with borders closed and everywhere concerns were made to cope with the pandemic. Many were wearing masks, lots of security personnel telling us to maintain distance and one could see fear in the faces of some people.
Already one and a half day after my return from Iceland, I had to start up the online teaching. With little time to think at all, the first possible solution that I heard of was what I started using; zoom. It was very strange; suddenly classes were online, the normal schedule still applied – just online. Luckily, we teachers helped each other a lot, exchanging ideas on how to use zoom and tips on the various functions the program has, and of course also on the didactic situation.
Zoom works very well, and fortunately it offers possibilities for lecturing almost like normal. The students can raise hands, you can see them (if their cameras are on) and hear them. It is possibility to share screens or just parts of the screen and there is an annotations tools to write or draw anywhere on the screen. Furthermore, it is possible to place the students in groups in just a couple of seconds. So with this highly technological tool in hand the lessons went on. One of the drawbacks of online teaching, is that It is quite difficult to follow the progress of the students online. In the physical class I normally spent most of the time circulating among the students, while they work on problems, making it is easy to help the students and surveil their advancement. In the beginning of the online teaching, most teachers required that the students uploaded all their work in the end of the class. Of course, this was not the right way to go around, because it overloaded both the students and the teachers. Most teachers dropped this practice already after a couple of weeks. But of course, it is indeed quite difficult to get a feeling for the progress of the students, in online classes.
In the later lockdown, we have been forced to work with another online platform called Teams. I have spent much effort on setting up things in this platform and learning to use it. Teams has the advantage of having a GDPR secure contract, but it also has several disadvantages. In Teams you waste a lot of time waiting for the things to update and several times you just give up since it stays idling. A good annotation tools is also lacking, which is important for the ability to give fast and effectively help to the students. When a student is sharing his or her screen, showing some calculations, I cannot directly write equations or point. It is difficult to comprehend equations when only spoken out loud. Having a good online teaching platform, is essential for the effectivity of the online teaching.
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?
From a general point of view, I am surprised how well the online teaching has worked. My estimate is that online lecturing is about 80% as efficient as normal teaching. So only about 20% is lost. However, one should emphasize that I am talking lecturing, as I will discuss below, evaluation and experimental work is very difficult when only having online contact only the students. The students’ and teachers’ efforts to make it work has also been a very positive experience. Everybody has been eager to make it work.
In classes that are normally noisy and unfocused, it can be a relief to be in the online environment. Here, noise is not a problem. This is clearly less stressful for me as a teacher, as it is quite demanding to try to teach a class of unmotivated and noisy students. It requires much more energy than to teach interested well behaved students. I believe online teaching is better for the talented students in noisy classes. Suddenly they can pay better attention to the lecture and clearly hear what I say. But for the less gifted student I am sure the online setup is making learning harder. It is so easy to check in to the online class at 8 o’clock and then continue sleeping or do many other things than paying attention to the class. And should the teacher ask the individual student, there are many possible excuses; my microphone is not working, the internet is lacking, I went to the toilet and so forth. The thing is, that I cannot know whether it is an excuse or really so. I myself often experience technical problems.
There are many activities that I already used in normal classes, that I also use online; kahoot quizzes, abacus (an online mathematic trainer), moodle, and common writing documents. Some of these can work better online, but it is just hard to sit many hours each day in front of a computer.
In your experience, what does not work well in the virtual classroom?
There are three main things which are difficult in online teaching.
Firstly, evaluating the students does not work well online. Especially in physics and math where the need to write equations and draw sketches are essential. When making an oral test, it is also very important that the teachers can see whether the student uses notes or other things to help. This is impossible to control over a Teams conversation. For the written test it is even worse. How can you control at all whether it is the student who is answering the test, and which devices the student uses for solving the problems? In other words, it is close to impossible to test the student online.
Secondly, it is hard to get a feeling for whether the students comprehend the lecture. Even if everybody has their camera on, it is difficult to pick up whether they understand or not. Actually, the fact that your brain is working very hard to decipher all those faces at a very close distance from you can be very exhausting. For this reason, I prefer not to force the students to switch on their cameras, unless in group or one-to-one conversation. On the other hand, I more often ask a random student a question than I do in the real physical class. This is necessary to keep up with everybody. One thing that everybody suffers from in online teaching, is the fact that one gets tired quite fast. It is doomed to force the student to sit in front of the computer from 8 am until 4 pm. On that ground, every now and then, classes are converted to asynchronous work-alone classes. Again, eluding my knowledge about their academic progress.
Thirdly, and very important for physics, it is of course a difficult task to make experiments during online teaching. In the high school physics class, 20% of the teaching time has to be experimental work done by the students in the laboratories. This will be hard to reach this year and exceptions to this requirement have indeed been implemented, as we are allowed to also count virtual experiments in the 20%. As I am very interested in computational thinking (CT), my students have not only been working with simulations, but also with the code behind the simulations. It is an important competence to understand computer models and their strengths and limits. In the work with CT we often implement a use-modify-create strategy, where the students start by exploring a given computer model and then change the model by modifying the code and hopefully in the end make elaborations on the model. Among other things my students have been handling simulations of radiative decays, planetary orbits and heat transfer using the programming language netLogo. This has worked quite well online, as the student works on the code in groups and call for help when they get stuck. Furthermore, with the aid of the students’ own smart phone, and some good apps like phyphox (physical phone experiments), the students have been working with several experiments on their own. But, the good conversation with the students during their work is close to impossible. Normally, I find that it is the hints and questions from me during their work, that will help them in reaching higher levels in their experimental work. Consequently, the experimental work is confined to the basic level in online classes. The number of small demonstrational experiments has also dropped tremendously. Restricted to using what I can find at hand at home, and the difficulties in capturing this on the screen, is a large obstacle. My old guitar with just four strings has come in handy for teaching about resonance vibration and the physics behind music instruments.
Having listed these three difficulties in online teaching, I would like to emphasize that students and teachers also suffer from lacking motivation and above all from the missing social life.
What will you take with you back to the physical classroom when it becomes possible to teach in person again?
The possibility of converting to online lessons when needed or appropriate will be very useful in the future. I am sure that also some meetings between teachers in the future will be online events. Likewise, individual guidance to students and group projects can be done more easily online. Indeed, some positive effects form the lock down will arise.