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Sudden shift to online teaching at University of Helsinki during the COVID-19 epidemic: reflections and student experiences

4.6.2021

Susanna C. Fagerholm, University of Helsinki, susanna.fagerholm@helsinki.fi

Corinna Casi, University of Helsinki, corinna.casi @helsinki.fi

Hisayo Katsui, University of Helsinki, hisayo.katsui@helsinki.fi

Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, the University of Helsinki moved its teaching online in a matter of days. This article reflects on the drastic change from face-to-face to online learning especially in two courses organized at the University of Helsinki during spring 2020: an immunology and a University pedagogy course. We discuss student learning and, in particular, how the switch to online learning was perceived by the students, their thoughts about the new teaching methods implemented, and how they assessed their own learning in the new digital environment. Interestingly, student feedback indicated that students did not find the switch to online learning especially challenging, and they felt that learning in general worked well. This indicates that online teaching, which supports active and deep learning strategies, using continuous assessment methods and teacher feedback, can reach aimed learning outcomes. Many students commented that they would like to keep at least some of these online learning elements also in the future, even when contact teaching would again be possible. From the teacher perspective, we found that workload for teachers was increased during the Corona time, and that feedback and peer support were important to facilitate the digital leap for teachers.

Introduction

The University of Helsinki, like many other universities around the globe, has been heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a consequence of government decisions in Finland, the University of Helsinki was forced very suddenly to move its courses to distance learning in March 2020. In the paper we discuss the lessons learned from two courses that were running at the University of Helsinki in spring 2020. The first course was a three-credit immunobiology course coordinated by Susanna Fagerholm, one of the authors of this article: we present this part from the teacher perspective. The second course was a five-credit University Pedagogy course, where the three authors met as participants; we discuss this from the students’ perspective. We decided to discuss the change from face-to-face to online learning during the unusual period of the COVID-19 pandemic and to collect our reflections in this article. We want to highlight the lessons learnt during the COVID-19 epidemic, to improve future courses and to foster active learning methods, individual student’s engagement and learning processes.

The case studies

Both courses presented in this article initially started as face-to-face courses, and continued as online distance teaching, using Moodle as a platform for teaching material, as well as other e-learning tools.

The first case presented here is an immunology course for BSc students. Of the eight planned contact teaching sessions, only two took place before the change. The new online course design was loosely based on the ‘primetime learning model’ (Koskinen et al., 2018). This model supports active and deep learning approaches via students’ collaboration enhanced by the use of digital tools, and by continuous formative assessment. The teacher also offers genuine presence and quality time – “primetime learning” – with the students (Koskinen et al., 2018), and aims to avoid the high dropout rates that currently many courses have to face (Zwolak et al., 2017; Waldrop, 2015).

The second case of our discussion is a University pedagogy course focusing on development of teaching and practical training. This course, organized for University staff and lecturers, started as a contact teaching course and was moved online for the last two classes. Thus, the participants were able to meet and start working together before the epidemic started. There were in total only ten students on the course. Hence even during the two online sessions, there was enough space and time for all attendees to participate actively. On the course, we observed the teaching practices of peers, but some of these observations had to take place online due to the situation.

Teaching methods

A wide variety of teaching methods were used in both courses. During the immunology course, online lectures were organized via Zoom. In addition, other material was provided such as PowerPoint presentations with pre-recorded audio by the teacher, video materials, scientific articles, and group work both in the first live session and in the Zoom sessions. Feedback on the different teaching methods was collected through an online questionnaire at the end of the course. Based on the students’ feedback concerning the different teaching methods, both face-to-face and Zoom lectures received high points, and the PowerPoint presentations with audio and other digital material were also successful alternatives. Of all the teaching methods used, only the Zoom group work received moderately lower scores (under 4 with 5 being the maximum), indicating that group dynamics did not work optimally when groups did not have time to form and develop during the whole course. Overall, students appeared satisfied with the teaching methods used, although the open comments revealed that several students would have preferred to have more Zoom lectures.

In both cases, in order to best support the students’ regular learning process with deep learning strategies, formative and continuous assessment took place throughout the courses (Rohrer and Paschler, 2010; Gibbs and Simpson, 2005). In addition, to support the students during this challenging time, and because face-to-face teacher presence was impossible to organize due to the restrictions, the teachers decided to give the students more written or oral individualized feedback, as appropriate feedback is crucial for efficient learning (Gibbs and Simpson, 2005; Nicol, 2010). In line with Cauley and McMillan (2017), the teachers had a continuous exchange of emails with the students, to monitor the situation during the whole course and to provide encouraging incentives for their learning.

In the pedagogy course, short lectures were delivered, initially face-to-face and, later, as distant lectures as well as through flipped classroom methods using videos. During the distant learning period, both Zoom and Microsoft Teams were used. This gave the opportunity to participants to compare the two platforms. Group work utilized different face-to-face methods such as jigsaw, Flinga, group discussions in the first part of the course and break-out rooms via Zoom and Teams. The group work was useful and gave good insights into the participants during both face-to-face and online learning, because the participants had the chance to get to know each other in the pre-coronavirus period. Several teaching methods and new strategies were used, such as sharing documents via wiki, kahoot, traditional lectures, and self-recorded videos. In addition, each participant had to prepare three teaching demonstrations and observe three teaching demonstrations of others. We could safely experiment with these different means and learn from feedback to our assignments both from the peers and from the teacher. At the end of the course, we wrote a reflective report about our learning, and on this, we received individual feedback via audio recording by the teacher.

Student feedback on learning

Student feedback collected at the end of the immunology course indicated that the course level was appropriate. Somewhat surprisingly, students ultimately did not think the course required an excessive amount of work. However, the open comments revealed that some students did think that the workload was heavier than in a normal course, which probably reflects the fact that the students were not so used to these kinds of online learning methods. Learning was assessed as being good compared to a traditional face-to-face course, and nearly all students (94.92%) reported that the assignments were useful for their learning process. This was also reflected in the open students’ comments such as: “I liked the online version of the course very much. I learnt much more by writing essays and doing assignments than in lectures and reading for an exam” (a student on the immunology course); “I really liked this way of giving the lecture. I prefer it to lectures in the auditorium and final exams. You have to work harder, work well throughout the course and learn in the long term. It’s a different kind of personal investment that really worked well for my learning. Best course of the semester.” (another student on the immunology course). All in all, formative assessment was preferred to summative assessment since it fostered better learning results. One student on the immunology course, for instance, commented: “The covered subjects were interesting. Course assessment, i.e. essays, really suits me as I generally do not do well in exams.”

On the pedagogy course, we had an opportunity to reflect retrospectively – or reflect-on-action (Rogers, 2001, 54) – upon our teaching skills, practice and the structure of our courses. We practiced giving and receiving individual feedback from and to university peers and had the opportunity to meet and interact with other lecturers from different disciplines. The importance of reflective practices in teaching is mentioned in many studies (Rogers, 2001; Schön 1983; Seibert and Daudelin, 1999). In this line of thought, the students’ feedback and teaching observations by peers and senior academics, made the participants reflect further on their own courses and teaching practice. A participant on the pedagogy course observed: “It was useful to get feedback from the teacher on various specific aspects of the lecture, which can be improved for next time. Also, positive feedback about the role of the teacher and the research-base of the lecture was encouraging. All in all, I found both teacher and peer observations very useful for developing specific aspects of my teaching.” Another participant on the pedagogy course commented: “The university pedagogy expert observed and gave very positive feedback to my lecture in Finnish, which was very important for building my confidence when teaching in Finnish. (…) The previous university pedagogy course – focused on giving evaluation and feedback – was particularly useful in putting learning into practice in this exercise when giving my feedback to peers.”

Student feedback on the sudden switch to online learning

We were particularly interested in how the students perceived the sudden switch to an online learning environment. Concerning the immunology course, the teachers were surprised to find that students did not consider the switch particularly challenging, and they appeared to think that online learning was generally carried out well. This was also reflected in the open comments to the course, for instance a student on the immunology course commented: “It was better than contact learning. I was pushed to work on my own and I worked more than usual, but it was very educational (in perspective of immunology but also studying methods)”; Another student commented “After all the initial confusion, e-learning started to succeed and I think it made my own learning even better than listening to lectures and taking exams.” However, there were also a few exceptions, such as students who found the switch to the e-learning environment challenging and would have preferred contact or recorded lectures.   

We, the students of the university pedagogy course, also did not find the digital leap too difficult, perhaps because we felt that we were in a safe learning environment during the course. We constantly shared good practices and learned important lessons by discussing with our peers, which helped us greatly to quickly build our digital teaching skills.

During the university pedagogy course we had enough time to discuss our own learning. Feedback to different assignments were provided by the teacher and peers, with which we could improve both our contact and online teaching skills, as we learned together with the teacher particularly pertaining to online teaching. The authors’ final reports were appreciative: “I have enjoyed the course a lot, but not only that, the course also gave essential support during the crisis time, (…) which was quite challenging and stressful. I found that the peer and teacher support from this course made the transition a lot easier and smoother than it would have been otherwise” (a student on the pedagogy course). “One of the Zoom sessions that I observed came before I myself gave my first Zoom class and was therefore very helpful. I could observe a teacher using this method and got many helpful practical and technical tips by doing this that I could then use in my own teaching” (a student on the pedagogy course). “Generally, in University pedagogy courses, I learn from the material we need to study in class and at home but one of the main sources of learning is the interaction and the conversations with my peers in the university pedagogy courses. I found the exchange of experiences, teaching methods and problem-solving situations, real sources of inspiration and a great opportunity to share experiences with academic peers who have similar experiences” (a comment from a student on the pedagogy course).

This corona crisis showed us our vulnerability as teachers and, at the same time, it showed the importance of preparedness. During the coronavirus outbreak, we benefitted greatly from the ongoing university pedagogy course, as we could improve both technical skills and mental preparedness: “We shared experiences right away among our peers and with the teacher as the situation developed, and also shifted ourselves to the e-platforms (Zoom and Teams). Others learned by doing by following the instruction of the university. The university and Faculty provided us the links regarding how to quickly shift all teachings to e-learning platforms with the help of the guideline created by the university pedagogy unit. In this urgent process, it was not highlighted how important it is to be prepared with pedagogy skills including digital skills. I personally did not need to panic about this crisis thanks to the university pedagogy course” (comment from a student on the pedagogy course). “One of the main reasons for me to attend the University pedagogy courses is to advance and improve as a teacher. From this pedagogy course in particular, I take with me the incredible push in exploring new possibilities, the invitation to try new digital tools and the possibility of making mistakes because this will give the students the opportunity to do the same (try new tools, new methods without being afraid of making mistakes).” (a student on the pedagogy course)                                                                                                        

Discussion

It was interesting that students, including ourselves, did not find the switch to online learning to be a burden. Instead this change was felt to be a positive development for most students, although there were also some exceptions. Thus, at least students were clearly ready to take the digital leap. In the immunology course, many expressed the wish for online learning, especially regular formative assessment, to continue in the future. Additionally, they felt that they learned well, and even with less stress, using this approach. This is significant information for teachers and for the design of future university courses.

Dropouts were low during the course, and they mainly happened at the very beginning. In the feedback the students reported that they worked harder but learned better, and that this study method worked very well for many of them. They realized how the assignments helped their learning and suggested that similar methods be used at least partially in future courses. Therefore, these online learning methods and the formative assessment appeared to support active and deep learning as intended.

For the immunology teacher, quickly producing online materials, being in continuous contact with the students, as well as doing formative assessment and providing regular feedback, meant intensive and extra work during the course. Some of the workload can be reduced if the same course material is used in the following years. In addition, using self-assessment and peer assessment methods for at least some of the course assessments, would not only reduce teachers’ workload, but would also help support students’ self-reflection and metacognition (Boyd, 1995; Nicol, 2010).

While students’ feedback is very important for reflecting in-action and on-action, Gibbs and Habeshaw (2002) think that they are not sufficient alone. They underline the importance of having constructive feedback from academics and peers as the university pedagogy course provided its participants with. Students’ feedback and peer reviews of the teaching are suggested ways to improve the teaching quality at the university level (Lomas and Nicholls, 2005). The course offered its participants the opportunities to improve the structure of their own courses and to better align the initial learning goals with the final outcomes of their course even during the coronavirus time. In addition, it is clear that the academic peer feedback and support offered on the course was invaluable during the rapid switch to online learning that the University underwent during the crisis. 

Conclusions

Based on the reflections on these two case studies, we found that online teaching, when well-planned and based on solid pedagogical principles, can work very effectively in University education and can favorably support student learning, even during exceptional circumstances. We noticed that distance teaching placed more responsibility on the students to keep up with the course pace as well as more emphasis on students’ engagement because they are in charge of their own learning process. It also placed a higher workload on the teachers to monitor the atmosphere of the class, to support the study process and to react with timely interventions whenever needed. We noticed that although most students coped well with the crisis situation and the changed learning environment, some students (a low number) did require additional support to be able to complete the course. The teachers’ attempts to stay in continuous contact with the students, to constantly monitor the progress of the formative assessment tasks, and to contact those students personally who appeared to be struggling proved successful. Offering extra time and support for these students helped solve problematic situations in most cases. At this point in time and with little data available, we are not sure if student issues were due to the novelty of the approach or the exceptional situation, or a combination of both.

Formative assessment proved to be effective for teachers and students. On the one hand, it helped teachers to monitor the learning process of the students even from a distance and eventually adjust classes according to their feedback. On the other hand, it empowers students and fosters their active engagement and motivations during the learning process.

Overall, we collected positive feedback from this attempt to move the teaching online. It will be important to investigate further the impact of the epidemic and online learning in larger studies in the future, to see how it has impacted students’ progress with their studies, their learning and their mental health. Now that the coronavirus outbreak has changed the possible landscape of future university teaching and learning altogether, university pedagogy skills especially in online teaching are needed more than ever.

References

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