Online Courses versus Online Teaching

When the ETH moved all of its classes online six weeks ago I channelled my corona anxieties into scouring the literature for best practices in online teaching pedagogy, and I discovered a wealth of scholarly studies and practical information on what kinds of instructional elements are most effective in online courses for optimising student learning.

Since I still had plenty of anxiety left over, I started frantically implementing some of the suggestions. I generated self-study worksheets and small group exercises, set up new chat forums, and, as advised by the best education researchers, split all of the content into five-minute blocks separated by activities. A whole weekend was devoted to testing a range of fancy software (I decided on a whiteboard app called doceri) and I even started a contest in my research team for designing some engaging graphics.

After a couple of weeks of being subjected to the consequences of this behaviour, my victims (that is the students in my Solid State Physics and Chemistry of Materials class) politely asked if I couldn’t just teach. Properly. Please. So now I plug my iPad into my laptop to simulate a blackboard, make a bunch of extra clicker questions to check that everyone is getting what I’m talking about and try as much as possible to reproduce the classroom from my home office. This is kind of working, although I struggle to gauge the class mood when I can’t see them and I find it very difficult to stimulate discussion. Anyway, I am saving a ton of time, and my students are much happier.

So were those education pedagogy researchers completely wrong? I think not. In retrospect, I realize that while we have been forced into an online environment, my class is very much not an online course. We have a regular classroom schedule with a start date and an end date and the expectation that by the end of May we will all have taken the final exam at the same time. While in real life I often use some online teaching elements as I move more and more to a “flipped classroom” format, I’m still physically in the classroom together with my students for a couple of hours twice a week. An online course is a completely different beast. There are an infinity of different formats, but most can be taken at any time or pace, with more flexible instructor feedback, and might have a broader (geographic and in terms of background) audience.

This leads to the question of next semester. If we still can’t all meet together on campus, should we continue with our current system of trying to replicate regular classroom teaching but doing it less well than if we were there in person? Or should we switch some of our classes to pedagogically sound, fully online courses? My opinion is that a mixture of both might be appropriate, and I would be happy to hear yours.

In the meantime, I am working on becoming very rich by converting those five-minute modules (and new ones) into youtube format and raking in Influencer income. For some reason I have not yet been inundated with sponsors, but you can anyway enjoy the trailer to the new Schroedinger’s Kittens Productions (and also some of the technical content if you like!) here.

About Nicola Spaldin

Nicola Spaldin is the professor of materials theory at ETH Zürich. She is a passionate science educator, former director of her department’s study program, and holder of the ETH Golden Owl Award for excellence in teaching. She developed the class of materials known as multiferroics, which combine simultaneous ferromagnetism and ferroelectricity, and when not trying to make a room-temperature superconductor, can be found playing her clarinet, or skiing or climbing in the Alps.
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