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The digital Humboldt-Universität

How teachers and students master the digital summer semester 2020

"Three Questions - Three answers" with Dr. Maria Gäde

Summer semester 2020, second week, Monday afternoon. The lecture "Linear Algebra and Analytical Geometry II" is on the programme, it is primarily aimed at students of mathematics for the teaching profession. To follow it, you have to log into Zoom. On the computer screen, seemingly endless formulas in black letters on a white background are lined up. Caren Tischendorf explains the material in a calm voice, adding notes with green and red pencils on the digital whiteboard while talking. The Professor of Applied Mathematics can also be seen - in the small video clip at the top right-hand corner of her home desk at her computer. The students, who are connected via video or audio, answer a question from time to time using a Zoom hand signal. "You can't see anything again", writes someone in the chat. "I've lost power, I'll restart," says the professor. The interruption is only short, the subject matter continues quickly.

About 5000 lectures are offered digitally

On April 20, the digital summer semester started at the Berlin universities. Something that a few months ago, before the Corona pandemic, was still considered a large-scale "sometime -in-the-future-project" had to be implemented and accepted by both teachers and students practically overnight. The lecturers at HU have converted their teaching and examination courses for the summer semester - as far as possible - to digital formats. In total, about 5000 courses will be offered digitally at Humboldt-Universität this semester. On the first day of the digital semester, more than 800 events with over 13,000 participants took place as video conferences. What does this mean for all participants? The first impression: They are trying to make the best of it, are enthusiastic about it and are already looking forward to the face-to-face events - as soon as they are possible again.

"The lecture by video works differently than a face-to-face lecture"

Vivien Petra's courses on "Information Preparation and Organization" at the Institute for Library and Information Science (IBI) are a mixture of asynchronous and synchronous teaching. "Every week I prepare videos with learning questions that students watch on the Moodle platform, and a week later there is an online event where we discuss the content," says the professor. "It takes away the tension if you post the video beforehand."


"Three Questions - Three Answers" with Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Christoph Markschies

It is estimated that she has to invest three times as much time in preparation as in classroom teaching. "A lecture by video works differently than a face-to-face lecture, you have to think more about it beforehand, document more, give explanatory notes, prepare the contents in a modular fashion," says Petras, for whom digital teaching is not new territory. "We have also been doing digital teaching at IBI for over ten years now, for example, there are recordings of the compulsory bachelor courses, our distance learning is a combination of live-stream and face-to-face courses with the corresponding recordings for follow-up work. Does she miss classroom teaching? Definitely: "I miss bopping with the auditorium," says the professor with a smile on her lips. "Standing in front of the students means to be led and to go along with them, to see how the lecture is received, to recognise and eliminate misunderstandings, but also to deepen them if they are interested."

Fast, unbureaucratic help with technical equipment

Matthias Staudacher, too, in his first Analysis II lecture from the home office with about 100 students, was missing the reactions in the students' faces. "I had 25 rectangles with names in them, but no face in front of me. It was very confusing."

The theoretical physicist asked the students who have a webcam to join in to get digital feedback for his lecture. "It went much better after that!" Staudacher, who teaches at the Institutes of Mathematics and Physics, guessed early on that a digital semester would come and thought about how he would design his lecture and found out what possibilities Zoom offers. "I was impressed by how quickly and professionally the Computer and Media Service provided the services." Preparing for the digital semester also involved technical equipment for the team. Two research assistants, who perform three accompanying Zoom exercise groups, and four student assistants, who correct tasks digitally, were quickly and unbureaucratically provided with tablets and electronic pens by the Institute of Mathematics. "However, my research during the lecture-free period fell by the wayside," says Staudacher. Even though he can see that he enjoys the new and the possibilities of technology, something is missing. "Today I was in meetings at the computer from 9 to 5, that's certainly not healthy."


"Three Questions - Three Answers" with Prof. Dr. Niels Pinkwart

How are the students doing in the digital lecture hall?

Back to the digital lecture hall of Caren Tischendorf. How are the students doing in the new university reality? Mathematics student Luis Gerke sits neatly dressed behind his computer. "I think it's going well overall." He has set up part of his room as a workspace so as not to be distracted. "There's a cell phone ban here," he says. Math student Selin Isik is happy that she saves the distances between the campuses in Mitte and Adlershof, but misses the social contacts on campus and sometimes finds it tiring to sit in front of the computer for so long and concentrate. "I understand this stuff a lot better now than I did before." That's because the professor holds the Zoom lectures differently to classroom teaching. She sets up a script of the lecture at Moodle in advance as a preparation. The slides that she uses in the lecture are also available on the platform, and can be used for learning before and after the lecture.

Survey of the HU's student’s union on the situation of students

Vivien Petras fears that not all students will arrive in the digital semester. "You need a computer, a webcam, a microphone and enough data volume, we don't know if every student has that available," she says. Another problem is certainly when several people have video conferences at the same time, for example in shared flats, and there is a lack of bandwidth. It is also known that it is difficult for students with children or in care situations who cannot always participate in synchronous events due to their commitments. In order to find out more about the situation, the HU's student’s union has conducted an anonymous survey in which Berlin students could participate. The results will be released soon.

Another problem: "Ten to 20 percent of the courses at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences cannot be mapped using digital teaching," says Niels Pinkwart, Dean of Studies at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. "These are courses in chemistry, physics and computer science that cannot be filmed in laboratories, but have to be carried out by the students themselves". Pinkwart is not only "affected" by the digital summer semester, but as a professor of computer science with a focus on the didactics of computer science, he also looks at the events with a researcher's eye. "I'm curious to see how much of what we have to do now by force will later be done voluntarily in classroom teaching."

Author: Ljiljana Nikolic