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The best of both worlds

There hasn’t really been any alternative to digital teaching over the past pandemic year. But which direction will the journey take when students and teaching staff return to the new 3G world on campus? Didactic questions are important in finding the answers, but the actual technology is also in many respects a challenge in itself.

Screen showing microscopy
© iStock/Prykodov, iStock/skynesher, Montage: pur.pur

Theoretical knowledge can be taught well via online teaching. In microscopy, for example, practical experience is essential

OpenOLAT has undergone a transformation in recent months. From being a general teaching and learning platform, it has become the hub for a wide range of digital offers on every aspect of studying. The pandemic was an accelerator for digital teaching – nothing less, but nothing more either. In addition to the enthusiasm for location-independent online offers and new teaching formats, this form of knowledge transfer also had, and still has, one or the other catch to it. "The majority of teachers and students deal extremely well with the video formats and online tools, and sometimes even ask for them. However, another sizeable proportion of them is unable to follow this development," reported Professor Axel Scheidig, Dean of Studies at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. "Being able to record lectures is great for everyone. Students can look at the content again and again, especially just before the exams," is one of the advantages he highlighted. However, first-semester students in particular had major problems with structuring their everyday lives and understanding how things work at the university. "But the biggest shortcoming with even the best online teaching is still that it is an ideal world. No mistakes are made. I can't touch anything, try anything out such as how to use a microscope and how to get the best image." So hybrid teaching would be ideal, with a lecture in a lecture hall being streamed and/or recorded at the same time to complement face-to-face teaching. International students could easily log in to this. However, good technical equipment is essential.

"Thanks to the start-up funding of two million euros from the university, we have already been able to make a difference in the expansion of the infrastructure and online media," reported Dr Marcel Austenfeld, head of eLK.Medien at the CAU. However, the expert is also aware that providing students with notebooks and reliable Internet access is still a problem. Along with financial restrictions and reservations towards technology during the pandemic, there was also a limited availability of devices. Increasing the number of computer workstations could provide a remedy, and the devices would also be available for online exams or for hybrid teaching. But there is no alternative to either digital competence or to having personal basic equipment even for non-technical degree programmes, as Dean Scheidig is only too aware. "A notebook plus powerbank will be the absolute essentials for studying in the future." After all, it is already impossible to imagine learning without digital teaching.

The eLK.Medien team provided support from the outset in order to ensure that the OpenOLAT platform is ready for the new requirements as soon as possible. Video tutorials for creating educational films have been produced, and instructions for students are available. New tools such as the video conferencing service BigBlueButton found their way onto the platform during the pandemic and became an integral part of teaching. When introducing new applications, it is always important to create a balancing act between what the users want and what is feasible. "We have to comply with data protection rules. Protecting people's privacy and data security are the priority. Where the server is positioned is also important, and we have to keep an eye on the costs," explained Dr Veronika Penner, Head of Studies, Teaching and Administration at the University Computing Centre. Systems need to be maintained and monitored, and ideally the software should be integrated in OpenOLAT. "We want to offer a central platform on which the offers interlock. That's why we try to use open source software as much as possible, because it allows us to develop things further without having any licensing issues," said Dr Austenfeld. Among other things, work is currently being done on an improved user interface so that operation is more intuitive. "External parties should also be better integrated so that they can view targeted content and work collaboratively on individual documents," reported Veronika Penner. This greatly facilitates exchanges between universities, but also offers advantages in teaching. "We have a number of preparatory courses for school pupils. They may not yet have the full access details, but still have to access the content," added Professor Scheidig.

Even with the perfect conditions for technical equipment, the desire for encounters and personal exchanges remains the essence of academic teaching and research. "Kiel University’s campus is, and will remain, a place of teaching and learning. There are other providers of pure online teaching in the university landscape who specialise in it and are successful with it. I see the findings from the past year as an opportunity to catch up on developments and implement new ideas and changes. And that with the aim of combining the best of digital teaching and face-to-face learning," summed up Professor Markus Hundt, CAU Vice-President for Studying and Teaching.

Autor: Christin Beeck

OpenOLAT facts and figures:

- Currently 14,550 courses
- 12,000 videos
- 80,392 working groups
- Up to 12,000 users active at the same time