Part 2: On the receiving end

15 May 2020

“It will take a while for all concerned to get used to it. But there’s a good chance that it will turn out well!” Victoria (23) is studying for a Master’s degree in Germanic Languages. For her, as for so many others, the onset of the first truly digit...

The laptop is plugged in and fired up, notepad and ballpoint are at the ready, the router is up and running (and I hope it stays that way!). For the opening lecture in this new semester is rather different from all those I attended during my previous semester. For one thing, there’s no point in setting out for the University. This semester, all I have to do is to turn on my laptop – this semester is taking place wholly online.

Normally, I would now be heading for a seminar room at LMU at an address on Schellingstrasse. But for the past fortnight, without leaving my desk, I have regularly entered chatrooms with addresses ending in “”. To do so, I simply copy-paste the password I received from the lecturer into the appropriate box. – I have to admit this operation is far less challenging than many a search for the correct venue at our Hogwarts-like educational establishment, especially early on in a new semester.

So far, so good! But when the faculty informed me by e-mail a few weeks ago that there would be no face-to-face classes at all during this Summer Term, two questions immediately popped into my head: What would my new everyday routine look like? And how would it work out on the technical level?? In her home office, Victoria must make do with the company of her cat, instead of her fellow students Week 1: The return of that ‘first-semester feeling’

As a student, my everyday schedule normally involves close contacts and interactions with other students. In the seminars that I attend (in a discipline that falls squarely within the Humanities), debates and discussions are an indispensable part of the program, and I spend the breaks with my classmates. It’s wonderful to spend time on campus in the company of other students, especially when the subject one has chosen requires so much independent study, and so much reading and writing on one’s own.

During my first online seminar, I recognize a few familiar faces in the gallery at the top-right corner of the screen. Unfortunately, I can’t join them, with a murmured “May I?” The first week feels anomalous, and very anonymous. The lecturers lecture, and questions are put via the chat function. But a few students have forgotten to switch their microphones off. Now and again, somebody sneezes several times in succession – and involuntarily appears center-stage and in full frame on the screens of 25 laptops and notebooks.

It’s all very reminiscent of one’s early days as a student, when one attended one’s first lecture or seminar. It takes time to become accustomed to the university environment and to learn the accepted conventions. In a similar sense, one also has to learn how to deal with the unfamiliar online setting. Just as it required a conscious effort to make one’s first comment during a seminar, or speak to a fellow student for the first time, or hide one’s embarrassment when a remark didn’t go down exactly as expected, we’ve now regressed to the status of novices – new arrivals in a disconcerting online setting.

My next seminar is an ‘asynchronous’ affair. Instead of having to be in a seminar room at a certain time, we have received an introductory video on Moodle and a work assignment. From my point of view that means that I have one fixed appointment less to remember. I can decide for myself when to ‘go to’ the next seminar. At first, that feels like a new freedom. But it doesn’t take me long to realize that, without the pressure of a fixed schedule, it will take more effort to motivate myself, to overcome the temptation to procrastinate, and get the job done on time. At this point, I decide never again to believe any student who asserts that self-motivation and putting things off until tomorrow have never been a problem!

Towards the end of the first week however, my initial worries emerge once again. A seminar is scheduled for the following day – but I have received no information about it. There’s nothing in the commentary column on LSF and nothing in my mailbox. I’m beginning to get nervous. I know that the lecturer concerned is not a fan of digital technology, doesn’t think much of the Internet, and tends to ignore e-mails. But then, late in the evening, an e-mail arrives with an invitation to a video conference on Zoom. I’m relieved, and rather pleased that everyone is now faced with the necessity to grapple with digital technology and become acquainted with the possibilities that it offers. Week 2: Progress!

The following Monday finds me ready and waiting in front of my laptop, with all the required paraphernalia to hand, and my Zoom password in the template. I have the feeling that I have started to adapt to a new routine – which has its own particular idiosyncrasies. Discussions on Zoom have now begun to sound like those that usually develop in seminars offline. In the meantime, all 25 participants have switched off their microphones while the lecturer is speaking. More of them now turn up on screen, and slowly a conversation gets underway, just as it would in the seminar room itself.

Now even the lecturers I would regard as less digitally minded have put their courses on Moodle. Normally I would expect to find only one or two such courses per semester. Now they are all available in that format. Instead of the reams of introductory pages and handouts that often cover my desk, everything is now in its allotted place. The Moodle revival has taken care of this year’s spring cleaning! The Best of Both Worlds

During this semester, we will learn not only what’s on the usual curriculum. We are getting a crash course in digital learning too. And perhaps this completely digital approach will itself lead to a new dispensation: live, face-to-face classroom sessions on campus, complemented by those elements of digital education that we have learned to appreciate in our current online sessions.

So what it does feel like to be a student of German and a student of digital modes of education at one and the same time? Above all – surprised! – Surprised to find that I have pretty well succeeded in adapting to my digital ‘fate’. But I also feel rather nostalgic. Having become accustomed to my new routines, I realize that this feeling has little or nothing to do with digital education as such. What I really miss is sitting in the dining-hall, conversing with my fellow students as we work our way through platefuls of noodles garnished with sauces of doubtful character, meetings by the coffee machines, the crowded escalators in the subway stations at rush-hour, and the search for an empty locker in Building No.3 on Schellingstrasse. – I would never have guessed that I would ever come to miss that last chore! Then again, I will probably miss it for only so long as it takes before I can pack my laptop and set off with it on my way to the University! You might also be interested in:

Digital Education Logbook Part 1: From the teachers’ point of view Things got off to a somewhat rocky start, but have now settled down – a good time to find out from members of LMU’s teaching staff how they experienced the opening phase of the first truly digital semester.

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