Louise Sandberg Sørensen is a senior scientist at the Technical University of Denmark and an educator. She teaches two masters courses at DTU: “Cryosphere Physics and Observations” and “Extreme climate and physical nature”. She is responsible for 50 students and has taught 75% online this past spring semester. One of her courses was held in Greenland, where it was still possible to teach in person after tests and quarantine, otherwise her courses would have been 100% online.

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

In the spring of 2020 I was in Sisimiut in Greenland to teach in a master course when the first positive covid-19 cases were reported in Denmark. Only a few weeks later, everything closed down and all teaching went online. I am very happy that I was actually able to finish my teaching in Greenland physically.

Back in Denmark I was teaching another masters course at DTU, and when everything went online, I chose to use Zoom for my teaching – based on recommendations from colleagues. I had never used Zoom before, so I had to learn to use the functionalities really quickly. I did not have time to test different tools, since we had to go to online from one week to the next. Now that we have been working mostly from home for more than a year, I think that I have tested most other online meeting apps, and I still find Zoom best suited for teaching. It really works well with the possibility to raise your hand, make breakout rooms, have remote control, and to draw on the screen.

It initially took a lot of time to revise the course material to work well in the online version of the course. I actually spent most of my work time on teaching even though I only had 4 hours of lectures each week. But of course, with three kids at home during the first lock down, my actual number of work hours was already quite limited. It was a quite stressful period.

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?

Overall, I think that the online teaching has been working quite well. And better than I would have expected.

I have become a fan of organizing student group work in so-called ‘breakout rooms’ in Zoom. Sometimes the student discussions in these breakout rooms (of ~4 students) are better – and the students are more engaged – than they would have been if we were all in a classroom. I then visit these virtual rooms one by one and engage in the discussions and help the students if they have any specific issues with their assignments.

One of the most positive things has been to experience how positive the students have been. I know that it must be difficult for them to sit in front of their computers at home all day, every day, but they have never complained, and their positive attitude has definitely helped making the last years teaching a positive experience.

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

My experience from online teaching the last year is that it takes a bit more time to reach the learning objectives than usual. Maybe this is because it is much easier to know if you have explained a topic clearly if you can see the faces of all the students while teaching. Another reason is that I usually use the blackboard in class to draw things to better explain them. This is possible to do in Zoom, but it does not work as well as in real life.

I like to get to know the students that are following my courses. That I find very difficult when everything is online. It is clear to me that some of the students still find it difficult to turn on their microphone and camera and actively engage in the class discussions. It has become much better throughout the year, as both teachers and students have learned a lot about how to get the most out of online teaching. 

One of the major disadvantages of online teaching is the exams. Having an oral exam online is much more time consuming, due to technical issues such as having to turn on and off remote control. Furthermore, it is much more difficult to discuss figures and formulas online. Another issue is the fact that if a student is nervous about an exam it is easier to help them relax if you are in the same room.

What will you take with you back to the physical classroom when it becomes possible to teach in person again?
The revisions that I have had to make to my course material for the online version have included making expectations and assignments much more clear, and this is definitely something I will take with me in future courses.

Each week of the online lectures I create new groups for the students to work in – and in this way they get to know and work with everyone in the class. Previously, they chose the groups themselves but it has become clear to me that creating different groups works well, and I will continue to do this even when we are back on campus.

Louise’s home office