University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Associate professor: It’s not an ideal solution, but classes can work online

What have we learned? — Educators make online teaching work, »but I would much rather return to the classroom with my students,« says associate professor of linguistics Martha Sif Karrebæk.

University Post: What was it like to have to move your classroom into a virtual space from one day to the next?

Martha Sif Karrebæk: »There was a steep learning curve. I did not teach any classes the first week after the shutdown, so I observed my colleague’s classes and was able to devise my own strategy on the basis of what I saw. I chose not to pre-record my lectures, I wanted to teach like it was a regular classroom with students in attendance. But teaching to me is all about interaction and discussion. That is easy in a physical classroom, but it takes a lot to foster online. The first class I held online was a bit chaotic.«

What have we learned

The next person to say, nothing is so bad that it isn’t good for anything, should really just zip it!

Still, we are posing the question: What has working at home for months taught us? About teaching? About the environment? About life online?

»At first, the video software and the study system, Absalon, did not work very well together. That has since improved. It was difficult for me to get my bearings working with a screen, because there is so much information. All the faces and the chat. And then, at the same time, you have to admit people to the class. After having shared your screen, you once again have to get your bearings. That is why, at first I asked my students to turn off their cameras. But then I was just talking into a dark, depressing screen which was too bizarre. So, I asked them to please turn their cameras back on.«

Are there postitive aspects to teaching online?

»Breakout rooms work really well (breakout rooms is a feature offered by the video chat platform Zoom in which participants are separated into smaller virtual meeting rooms, ed.). It takes the students longer to get going in class, but when they do get going, they are not as easily distracted by their peers. It is also easier to pair up students who do not normally work together, and that is a pedagogical tool I use.«

»There is always a process of differentiation in a group, which is accelerated in a setting like this. Some students are good at speaking up, while others are not. In my experience it can work really well in an online setting when a student speaks up, because the other students can be muted.«

What are the hard parts of teaching online?

»When teaching online classes, you are not able to form a picture of where the students are at mentally and emotionally—you cannot sense them the same way you can in a physical classroom. This means, there is a risk that students are neglected in an entirely different way. Even though, we act similarly to the way we would in an actual classroom, the human dimension is lacking, and that plays a crucial part in teaching. The best part about teaching is the spontaneous insight, when all of a sudden, a student gets something. You do not get that with Zoom.«

Do you prepare differently for an online class?

»Online classes require more preparation. I do not know why, but the students have greater difficulties answering improvised questions. That is why I send them all the key questions and important materials prior to the class. I do not normally do that. Under normal circumstances, I bring extra materials, elements that the students have not prepared for. That keeps them alert, and it usually works. But not on Zoom. So, I typically plan online classes all the way down to five-minute intervals.«

What has the student response to online classes been like?

»It is my impression that many students put more work into preparing for class, simply because they have to. Of course, some students tune out. It is after all much easier to close down your screen than to walk out of a classroom. It is a problem, because it makes planning the class much more difficult. I expect more from my students now. I have to, otherwise they will not benefit from the online classes. I think that is something that I will take with me: I will continue to ask a lot from my students.«

Are there other positive aspects to online classes?

»I have received positive responses from students. They typically say: ‘I was on the verge of dropping the class, but I think it is going pretty well now’. However, the most positive remarks on the online classes, I receive from students, are that online classes are ‘okay’ or ‘sufficient’. Online classes are not exactly ‘better,’ ‘inspiring,’ or ‘motivating’. So, I would never replace actual classroom teaching with online teaching completely. But in terms of providing guidance or teaching students who live far from the university, I do not see a problem with it. In that sense, I do not fear going through this process again if we see a second coronavirus wave. But it is not something that I look forward to.«

Translated by Theis Duelund