One of the most important decisions was rolling out a suitable online teaching tool in a quick, unbureaucratic and comprehensive way. The tool of choice was Zoom, commercial software designed for video conferences and webinars. “With Zoom it’s possible to simulate the experience of classroom teaching,” explains Kortemeyer. “With a few adaptations and compromises, of course.”
Positive feedback from teaching staff and students
This decision has been well received by lecturers and students alike. “Using Zoom at home is working surprisingly well for me. I can see that more than 300 students are watching and can interact with them via the chat function. I'm actually getting more questions that I do in the lecture hall,” reports Andreas Steiger, lecturer in the Department of Mathematics. With everyone being called upon to stay home as much as possible, students are grateful to have interesting online courses. “I’ve already received emails from students claiming that it makes being under ‘house arrest’ fun,” says Steiger.
The Department of Physics is also using Zoom, but in conjunction with an external camera pointing to a whiteboard in the empty auditoriums where lecturers now hold lessons. “In big physics lectures we rely on the whiteboard and the ability to demonstrate experiments in the auditorium,” explains Guillaume Schiltz, who works as an educational developer in the Department of Physics. Schlitz is helping other lecturers in the department develop new teaching methods. “We conducted an overnight raid of sorts on 14 and 15 March to equip the auditoriums so that teaching staff would be able to live stream their lectures via Zoom,” he explains. While teaching, lecturers can switch between the whiteboard, PowerPoint slides and experiments with the push of a button. Students attend the virtual lecture via Zoom and can also ask questions, which the lecturer then answers in the auditorium using one of these three methods.
Solutions for lab courses
Another great challenge facing ETH: how will students be able to complete their practical courses without access to the lab? For physics labs, work is already underway to create simulations that allow students to generate data and collect measurements by manipulating virtual instruments. Students should also use their smartphones to conduct experiments at home. “Every smartphone has quite a lot of sensors that can be used to run physics experiments,” says Schlitz. The department is still in the initial phase of supplying students with simulations and smartphone experiments, however.
The Department of Materials was also concerned about how students would be able to continue their lab work, given all the experiments with materials and chemicals that they have to conduct. “Fortunately our lab director acted very early on in anticipation of what was to come,” says Lorenzo De Pietro, educational developer at D-MATL, explaining that assistants were encouraged to record videos of experiments while it was still possible. These recordings are now being used as a basis for discussing experiments and theories during live Zoom meetings. Combined with other resources and pre-prepared data sets, students now have a suitable way of completing their lab courses without interruption. “The committed, proactive work of our D-MATL assistants was really crucial here,” emphasises De Pietro. Unfortunately, some materials experiments – for instance forging metals and doing work in workshops – cannot be replaced so easily. “We will have to offer them at another time,” he says.
A test of endurance
The first obstacles have already been overcome – perhaps not perfectly, but with a great deal of intensity. However, some of the next challenges will only become apparent with time. As the events of the corona crisis rapidly unfolded, everyone was scrambling: to set up their home offices, to learn how to use new technologies, to switch their courses to new formats. “We were very, very busy. I think reality will only start to set in over the next few weeks, and the psychological strain of it all will start to surface,” says Kortemeyer. One worry is that students sitting alone at home in front of their laptops may simply give up in the absence of a supportive campus environment, not finishing the semester or even dropping out altogether. To combat this, Kortemeyer would like to ramp up efforts to strengthen online assessment tools.