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Studying gets digitalization boost

19 Jul 2022

For many, the first day of the summer semester was a moment to celebrate. After an enforced absencedue to the coronavirus, LMU is buzzing again. Yet some digital tools and teaching formats pioneered during the pandemic deserve to be retained.

© LMU

“It’s about time,” reckons Martin. “Juicy!” exclaims Santiago. “This is the real uni,” smiles Tabea. For many LMU students, the first semester on campus after one-and-a-half years of online learning was very satisfying. Finally, they could see friends in the lecture hall again, go together to the cafeteria, and meet up in student councils and societies.

“The campuses of Bavaria are hives of activity again,” report Johanna Weidlich, Torsten Utz, and Lena Härtl from the Student’s Union for the State of Bavaria (LAK), which has its offices at LMU. As examples of events that can now be held again, they mention the orientation days for prospective students and the career fairs for graduates.

“Naturally, there were students here and there who preferred digital learning from home,” they acknowledge. The adjustment to campus life was greatest for the “coronavirus freshers” who began their studies during the pandemic, they observe, but on the whole the prevailing feeling was of joy.

Elisabeth studies at LMU Munich

As it should be: Elisabeth, 2nd semester | © HNBM

This impression was shared by Professor Oliver Jahraus, Vice President for Teaching and Studies at LMU. “Many students were craving the return to campus to be among people again,” he reports. For him personally, as for many colleagues, it was an “overwhelming feeling.”

Of course, some lectures are still taking place online. “We gave the faculties the freedom to decide for themselves.” Nevertheless, LMU sees itself as a university of classroom-based teaching and will always remain so, affirms Jahraus. Yet this does not mean it will spurn the digital formats, techniques, and processes initiated during the pandemic and fail to use them for future teaching. As an example, the Vice President cites the aptitude assessments that are a prerequisite for many courses. He sees no reason why students, especially foreign ones, should not be able to do these assessments online.

To complement classroom teaching with digital offers in the future, LMU has established a special teaching fund worth a million euros over two years.

Coronavirus boosts Moodle

Martin studies at LMU Munich

„About time,“ says Martin, 8th semester | © HNBM

There is no shortage of ideas in the faculties as to what to invest the money in. “Over the past two years, we’ve had a real Moodle boost,” says Vice Dean (students) Professor Anne C. Frenzel from the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences. Moodle is a central learning platform with a course management system for universities and other educational institutions. Before the pandemic, the syllabus was still being handed out on paper. “It’s hard today to even imagine it!” Thanks to Moodle, it is now possible to continuously supplement course syllabi with digital learning offers, and students can chat in the forums among themselves or with their teachers. “This is something that’s here to stay,” says Frenzel emphatically.

The first classroom-based semester is also feeding into her research. At a future date, she intends to investigate what effects digital teaching have on interpersonal relationships. “I was rather surprised myself how much I missed our students.”

It was a similar story for the vice deans (students) at the Faculty of Mathematics, Informatics and Statistics at LMU. The first lecture in front of students was a joyful experience. “In that moment, we thought: ‘This is why we entered this profession in the first place!’” say Professor Thomas Augustin from the Department of Statistics, Professor Andreas Butz from the Institute of Informatics, and Professor Konstantinos Panagiotou from the Department of Mathematics. They believe that videos can bring significant added value to lectures, tutorials, and exams in the future. “In more technical lessons such as computer graphics, for example, we have increasingly used programming tasks as the preferred form of examination, as they lend themselves to partly automated correction.” According to the vice deans, it is also much easier now to integrate colleagues from elsewhere into lectures via online guest presentations. In the past, their physical presence was apparently indispensable. Nevertheless, there are some professors, mostly big-name ones, who still insist that they must be flown in personally for the lecture.

Technical equipment has improved

LMU student Tabea

Studying in presence – for Tabea “real uni“ | © HNBM Design

In the Faculty of Law, the teaching staff is also happy that they are no longer obliged to give lectures in front of the always identical black tiles, as it can seem, of the video conferencing services. “Compared to that, looking out on to a full auditorium with its sea of eyes and the unmistakable non-verbal feedback almost induces sensory overload,” reports Head of the Office of Student Affairs and Coordinator for Digital Teaching, Andreas Bartholomä. And most of the students feel just the same, he adds. He sees considerable potential in blended learning – that is to say, the combination of classroom-based teaching and e-learning. As examples, Bartholomä cites flashcards, glossaries, quizzes, crossword puzzles, and other online self-testing devices. As the law often hinges on fine details that are easily missed, students will increasingly be given the opportunity of listening back to lectures on podcasts in the future. Thanks to the improved technical equipment, students have also been able to cultivate a new form of giving presentations in seminars, where they were encouraged to film a creative presentation video.

Vice Dean (students) Professor Manfred Schwaiger from the Faculty of Business Administration at LMU is pleased to be able to teach students in the classroom again. Currently, it is only the colloquia for final dissertations that are taking place online. During the live events via Zoom, he had often asked himself if there were any students at all behind the black tiles on the screen. The various digital teaching offers were carefully analyzed: “We tried out many different formats,” he says. “All of them in which a member of teaching staff did not present the subject-matter were poorly received.” Even though there are a lot of requests from students for hybrid events, Schwaiger fears that many of them will then no longer attend lectures and that this will negatively impact their studies. Furthermore, hybrid formats are an additional burden on teachers. According to a survey by the Centre for Higher Education (CHE), students were very satisfied with the pandemic management of the Faculty of Business Administration. “Although we were not always blessed with positive student feedback in the past, we had extremely high satisfaction ratings of 80 to 90 percent in the individual categories during the pandemic,“ says Schwaiger.

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By contrast, Dr. Andreas Brachmann from the Faculty of Biology is a fan of hybrid lectures. His trick: “Because I record them, the students have to be as quiet as mice during the lectures,” he chuckles. He is not afraid that the young people will no longer attend his lectures. First of all, they want to see their friends. Secondly, he answers questions during his lectures – and he does not record this part of proceedings. And thirdly, there are a lot of work placements in biology, and so many students have to come personally to Martinsried in any event.

Brachmann thinks there is a social aspect built into hybrid lectures as well. “We get a lot of positive feedback particularly from mothers of young children.” In addition, a lot of students were still living with their parents a long distance from Munich, because they could not afford the high rents in the state capital. The biological faculty plans to make greater use of e-learning in future.

For the Methods in Molecular Biology e-platform on Moodle, which was launched during the pandemic, LMU biologists Dr. Dagmar Hann and Dr. Daniela Meilinger even received the Ars legendi Faculty Award for excellent university teaching in the spring of 2022.

The Bavarian Student Council (LAK) also names hybrid concepts and recorded lectures as the best innovations to emerge from the pandemic. It is of the opinion, however, that the didactic concepts must be elaborated more fully for there to be genuine hybrid teaching. The option of digital collaboration in small groups had also proved its worth. “For much project work, it’s not absolutely necessary for students to meet up in person,” say Weidlich, Utz, and Härtl, noting that the possibility of digital exchange simply offers greater flexibility. In general, the council senses a lot of openness toward digital offers from teaching staff and students in universities across Bavaria. They hope therefore that the many licenses for video conferencing platforms will be renewed – if for no other reason, then in case the coronavirus puts a stop to classroom-based teaching again in the winter.

Anxious waiting for the fall

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Naturally, the whole university family is nervous about the prospect of another online semester. “We’re well prepared,” says Vice President Jahraus. A lot of money has been invested in technology and new rooms and fitting them out. Moreover, LMU is in close contact with the Ministry of Education and Research and can quickly re-implement safety rules if needed. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t view the prospect with dismay,” he stresses.

The faculties also feel well equipped: They now have sufficient digital learning materials, the methodology toolboxes have been suitably expanded, and final hurdles – such as online exams – could no doubt be overcome in short order, they say in unison. “But,” say vice deans Augustin, Butz, and Panagiotou loud and clear, “in the interest of our students, who after all are supposed to experience university as a community of learners, and also with an eye to our own fun, which we have in the lecture hall, we hope that we’ll be able to continue to meet each other in person.”

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