By the time Master’s student Michael Seidel gets to LMU in the morning, he already has one lecture under his belt. Michael is studying Biology and commutes to Munich from Augsburg every day. While other students on the train kill time playing around with their smartphones, he is learning ways of characterizing biomolecular interactions. Detecting and defining such interactions is a major component of research in the biosciences. This is one reason why the topic was chosen as the basis for the new e-learning platform “Biomolecular Interactions”, which enables biology students to learn the necessary techniques online. “That’s really cool, because I’m free to engage with the material whenever I feel like it. I don’t have to be somewhere at some set time,” Michael says, while acknowledging that this requires a degree of self-discipline.
“The platform is one of the first at LMU for which students receive ECTS credits when they pass the final written exam. The project encompasses a complete learning module,” as its initiator Dr. Ralf Heermann explains. Eighty students are now using the platform. “Some of them might think that it’s just a matter of watching a few videos while lazing on the sofa,” Heermann says. “But students must invest no less than 90 hours of work in the course.” And in order to ensure that as many students as possible stick to the task, microbiologist Heermann and Dr. Frank Landgraf, his partner in the project, have come up with a number of incentives. One of them is a weekly quiz to assess how much each student has learned. Another is a chat link that enables users to put questions directly to the lecturers – and there are lots of informative videos, special software, and course-related links.
The rise of the virtual university A look at the latest figures published by the Virtuelle Hochschule Bayern (vhb) reveals how popular e-learning has become. During the academic year 2016/2017, approximately 60,400 students availed themselves of its courses – compared with only 16,800 a decade ago. LMU is the largest university in the vhb and currently offers 56 courses, of which 35 deal with topics in Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine. However, only half of those who take the online courses actually take the associated exams. Nevertheless, vhb project manager Ingrid Martin fells that this is quite a respectable quota for online courses generally. “I believe that many students treat the online courses as supplementary exercises or use them to extend their knowledge in particular areas, with a view to improving their performance levels in their regular examinations at university.”
E-learning undoubtedly has a number of advantages. In addition to the flexibility it offers, it provides a means to present abstract concepts in vivid and attractive ways – using simulations, for instance. In contrast to textbooks, online courses are interactive, and because they can make use of both audio and video sources, they can present diverse types of content. Furthermore, according to recent findings, e-learning enhances organizational skills and also prepares students to make best use of subsequent training courses during their professional careers. – Nowadays most commercial firms employ e-learning methods in their on-the-job training programs. In the inverted-classroom model, the course content is presented in digital form, and participants attend classes to discuss and to strengthen their grasp of the material. This approach allows each student to learn at her own pace and to profit from lectures and group discussions in the classroom.
LMU now funds 29 e-learning projects In this context, it hardly comes as a surprise to learn that LMU introduced its first e-learning program 18 years ago, and 29 such courses are now receiving support as part of Lehre@LMU. Last year, for instance, a course entitled “Spanisch IN – innovativ, individualisiert, interaktiv” was initiated at the Language Center. The results so far have convinced project leader María Victoria Rojas Riether that e-learning fosters self-organization and self-reliance. However, since e-learning models differ from one another so much, the underlying concept behind each course must be carefully explained to all participants at the outset, she points out. And in order to minimize the drop-out rate, it is very important to motivate participants by providing regular feedback. But she too believes that e-learning has already become an integral part of the world we now live in.
Another newcomer this year is the project GEOWiki@LMU – A Methods Handbook in the Form of an Interactive E-Learning Tool. Geologists and geographers cannot be too careful when it comes to taking and properly logging samples in the field. But these vital skills are difficult to impart as part of the regular curriculum. A new E-Learning-project, initiated by Donjá Aßbichler (Geology) in collaboration with her colleagues Eileen Eckmeier (Geography), Miriam Dühnforth (Geology) and Ulrich Küppers (Mineralogy), seeks to provide students with a practical guide to the use of the correct procedures to be followed in the field. “GEOWiki@LMU is designed for independent study and aims to stimulate interdisciplinary cooperation,” says Aßbichler, and it will continue to serve as a useful reference when our students have taken up their professional careers.”
Big data and the history of art Art historian Professor Hubertus Kohle has also developed an e-learning project in his own field. In fact, 10 years ago, he began to use the Internet to tag artworks with keywords, as part of an online game. The new tool is based on his experiences with that program, and its purpose is to enable LMU statistician Stefanie Schneider to analyze museum databases. More and more of the world’s museums are now investing in databases to make their collections accessible to a wider public. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has already put high-resolution images of nearly 500,000 works online, which can be used for research in the history of art. “Our new tool can be used by people without detailed technical knowledge, and allows users, for example, to identify historical trends in the popularity of certain types of artwork among collectors, to delineate reactions to events in the course of the French Revolution or to determine which of the world’s museums were the first to collect works by female artists,” Kohle says.
Prof. Dr. Thomas Göbel (Faculty of Veterinary Medicine) has designed an e-learning project entitled “Einfach mal Luftholen” (“Just Take a Breather”) specifically to meet a perceived need. “It has repeatedly been observed that students of physiology tend to find the topic of respiration particularly difficult to grasp, he explains. So “Einfach mal Luftholen” elucidates the basics of pulmonary physiology in an engaging and interactive manner. LMU’s Faculty of Medicine also offers a wide range of e-learning modules. “Quite some time ago, we chose to focus on the inverted-classroom method, and we are now using it in six projects,” says health researcher Dr. Daniel Tolks. The Medical Faculty has also designed a course on the method specifically for lecturers, as well as organizing workshops on the topic and preparing guides to the literature.
Putting a PDF online is not enough … All e-learning projects must confront the problem of drop-outs. For when students fail to complete such a course, the fault may actually lie with its developers. Just as there are uninspiring teachers out there, some e-learning environments may not be fit for purpose. “Some lecturers put a PDF online and think that amounts to e-learning,” says Prof. Dr. Stephan Lorenz (Faculty of Law). He himself uploads all his lectures as podcasts. But he would not call that e-learning either, in spite of the fact that last year alone his podcasts were downloaded 280,000 times by students around the world. He now recommends that all lecturers should make their lectures available online. “That of course requires more preparation, but it also promotes self-improvement,” he says with a laugh, and goes on to recall that recording his lectures alerted him to the fact that he delivered the first ones at far too fast a pace.
Irrespective of what lecturers decide to put or use on LMUcast – whether it be videos, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) or learning management systems like Moodle – they must first ask themselves what learning goals their online materials are intended to achieve, says Armin Rubner, Head of the eUniversity Division responsible for overseeing e-learning services at LMU. What is the point of the exercise? – To transmit knowledge or to stimulate the learner to actively acquire knowledge, to teach technical skills or to provoke the learner to reflect on the topic and pursue its implications? “The need to consider such issues already implies that the effective use of various types and combinations of media requires a certain amount of time,” he says. Lecturers can devote up to 25% of their teaching load to the creation of virtual learning modules. In addition, the eUniversity Division offers training courses and provides equipment on loan. Most important of all, Rübner says, is that teachers should give their students a helping hand by providing signposts that will guide them through the material by the best route – whether those students are sitting in front of them or studying the course on their laptops at home.