Online teaching: a challenge and a blessing

We generally believe that our students are very technologically savvy, which tends to be true in most cases. However, when it comes to interpersonal contact, there is a difference between occasionally interacting with your students through student portal and email in addition to face-to-face contact, and having to switch abruptly to a fully online form of communication. Giuditta Perversi, lecturer in Chemistry at the Maastricht Science Programme (MSP), shares her experiences with online teaching and examinations during the Corona crisis.

Did you manage to create a new way of working?

“Both my class and me were hoping to finish Period 4 in person. We planned long Q&A sessions, and I reassured them that they could come and visit me in my office at any given point. Putting a screen between us surely changed the situation for my students and me. Especially during the first week, a shower of emails about the sequential changes of plans overwhelmed us. By the end of the first week of the transition I started receiving emails from my students telling me about their whereabouts, their doubts, and asking me for feedback. Luckily, I was able to get more direct interactions with them through a set of brainstorming tools of Wooclap, a little journaling of self-study compiled in Blackboard, and remote Q&A session through Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. I was pleased to see that the majority of their names popped up in these sessions. Of course, it is difficult to know how they are really doing beyond what they write to you. Nevertheless, I learned that if I make sure to be in contact with my students regularly and let them know that my thoughts and efforts are still focused on them, they will not drop out of the educational experience so easily.”

How did your first online exam work out?

“It worked out great! There was full attendance, and all exams were submitted within the set amount of time. Instead of experimenting with the exam function on Eleum, which some of my colleagues did with success just a couple of days before, I pre-compiled an exam paper similar to what I would have printed for them, and set up an assignment in SafeAssign. The process was straightforward, with all the plagiarism checks in place. It was also possible to hide the names of the students who submitted the exam to prevent bias in grading. The exam went online at 11:00 sharp. The students could download the file with a detailed instruction and the questions, compile it with their answers, and resubmit it by 13:00. This process worked out fine. Only during the peak moment of submission there was a minor technical problem when the submission portal glitched a bit, which resulted in a rapid-fire exchange of emails with a couple of students. However, overall, the students seemed to have no issue with the process or the format, and were happy to contact me via email if needed.”

Were you able to cope with 'cheating' students in the examination?

“Quite simply, actually. I designed the exam in such a way that a simple straightforward answer would not suffice to fulfil the requirement! I informed my students in advance about the fact that the questions would gauge on their understanding of the bigger picture of some fundamental concepts, and that I wanted them to summarise information with a personal touch. From the exams that I have marked so far, they have not disappointed me. There is also a plagiarism check in place within SafeAssign that quenches the temptation of maybe doing a quick copy-paste from someplace else.”

Do you want to share some lessons that you have learned?

“My exam was on a quite technical subject, Solid State Chemistry. It would be easy to say that this subject can only be assessed with paper and pencil and that a remote exam will never be able to cover its content. This is not the case, though. In reality, the questions obviously have to be redesigned, but a lot of fundamental understanding of the students can be probed with just open-ended questions that reflect their grasp on the subject. However, what I learned was that being technologically savvy does not necessarily equate with being a fast typer or a good writer on a keyboard, which was somewhat to my surprise! To my colleagues I would say: if possible, try to stick to fewer questions than usual (and if you already reduced them... still take out a couple), so that everyone has time to express himself or herself properly. I would also advise my colleagues to make sure that the questions are simple and straightforward. Furthermore, it is a good thing to set clear rules about submission times. I reassured my students that a submission at 13:02 would not be considered late, but they all knew they had to submit the assignment by 13:00. All submissions were on time, but I do think it is important to allow for delays in processing that is independent of them.”

After the crisis, do you think we will implement online exam routinely? 

“I think this crisis is motivating teachers and students to truly test everything the educational platform of Maastricht University has to offer, which I am glad to say is a lot! The resources were already there for us, as were the trainings. We just needed to rise to the occasion and use them. I do not foresee a full switch to online examination for the Maastricht Science Programme, which tends prefer having its students physically present during examinations. However, at the same time, I do recognise that we have manageable (if ever-growing) numbers. Online examination could surely offer good alternatives especially for intermediate assessment points. When everyone is more comfortable with what the online educational platform has to offer, having remote options in addition to ‘traditional’ exams might be good possibility!”

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