Online courses for students and the inquisitive

28 Sept 2021

The boom in online courses on Bavaria’s Virtual University preceded the onset of the pandemic. Simone Cramer from LMU’s eUniversity Unit explains the aims of the program and the advantages of digital learning.

Students talking in front of a laptop.

© LMU / Jan Greune

e-learning is popular: “It‘s so cool, because I’m no longer tied down to a particular time or location,” says Michael Seidel. Online courses that award ECTS points have been available since 2012. But as a Master’s student at LMU in the Summer Semester of 2018, he was one of the few who availed of these courses. Instead of playing around with his smartphone on his regular train journeys between Augsburg and Munich, he was able to learn about topics like ‘biomolecular interactions’. Three years and one pandemic later, online courses are an indispensable component of education. The advantages are obvious. In addition to their flexibility, they enable abstract information to be presented in an intelligible and engaging fashion using audio files, videos, photos and diagrams. The user’s grasp of the material can be tested in a periodic quiz, and there’s a forum for questions.

The most extensive selection of e-learning courses in Bavaria is available from the Virtuelle Hochschule Bayern (vhb), with which 32 universities are affiliated. Since its foundation in 2000, a total of 1.8 million places in one or other of its online courses have been assigned to users. User numbers began to rise steeply before the arrival of the coronavirus, and since then they have risen by a further 83%. Approximately 8300 students have registered for LMU courses, and the average user registers for 2.5 of the 570 courses available in 15 subject groups. Bavaria’s Minister for Science Bernd Sibler refers to the vhb as “the flagship of digital education in the State”, and in September 2021 he announced the allocation of 1.6 million euros for the expansion of inter-university digital learning formats. – Some of this money will go to LMU, which has received funding for seven online courses and 34 teaching units this year.

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The participation of at least two universities in Bavaria is a prerequisite for accreditation of an online course by the vhb. In LMU's eUniversity Unit, Corinna Friedl and Simone Cramer advise on the concept of the course and the accompanying services, respectively, and assist with application formalities. Cramer had already developed e-learning formats in the LMU Medical Center. – And she is well aware that “content development takes time”. A course of weekly 2-hour teaching sessions per semester requires the development of content for 30 h of learning. The good news is that “it's in the vhb’s interest that as many applications as possible are submitted,” which is not often the case with grant applications. Applicants can also consult the vhb’s project managers before formulating their proposals. In addition, Cramer urgess prospective applicants to attend the vhb’s free workshops and e-tutorials. Applications for the next funding round at LMU must be submitted by 12. October 2021.

The vhb offers three types of courses. Classical courses must be integrated into the normal curriculum as a compulsory option. Students all over Bavaria can then choose courses from the portfolio and earn ECTS points. Since 2012, LMU alone has developed a total of 53 such courses – which puts it in the Top Three among the ‘consortium leaders’. In the Winter Semester of 2021, “Basic Chemistry” was the big favorite in this group, followed by Medicine. But courses in Law and Education are also popular. Clearly, user numbers also depend on whether the course in question is designated as a compulsory option and was proposed by only only two, or five universities. Since basic courses do not have to be taught at every university, students can find courses on more exotic subjects even at the smaller institutions. Moreover, a funding mechanism is available for the optimization of existing courses.

Two years ago, the vhb began to offer ‘open courses’ in addition to the Classical courses outlined above. Open courses are not exclusively addressed to students but to a much wider public – and therefore do not award ECTS points. Many of them are actually downsized versions of classical courses, which can serve to introduce prospective students to a given subject. But they are also of potential interest to technically adept senior citizens, and can be used for the purpose of professional or general education. The third component of the vhb’s funding program is called "Smart". It funds the production of 45-minute lectures, which lecturers can incorporate into their traditional courses – as a supplementary exposition of a complex subject, for instance. Hence, these modules must be correspondingly vivid and interactive. In all, 47 such modules proposed by LMU were funded in 2020-2021.

“During the pandemic, university teachers have become accustomed to e-learning, and discovered that it is not so scary after all,” says Cramer, and the short Smart courses provide an ideal and highly popular introduction to e-learning. She rejects the suggestion that lecturers focus on online courses in order to cut corners and save time. “The effort required is at least as great as that invested in traditional ones,” she says. Generally speaking, those who develop online courses are committed educationalists. Online courses allow students to study at their own pace, and can then use the classroom situation to discuss and extend what they have learned. (dl)

As a collaborative institution involving 32 universities in Bavaria, the Virtuelle Hochschule Bayern (vhb) promotes and supports the development and mutual exchange of digital teaching modules. All of the courses are developed by faculty members of the cooperating universities and are made available to users outside of the university system.

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