effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on university operations

…written by Lisa Schweiger, September 29, 2021

Started in February 2020, the SAJO blog is providing a thread through the pandemic with up-to-date information and suggestions around SARS-CoV-2.

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Dear readers,

My name is Lisa Schweiger, I am studying pedagogy, fifth Bachelor semester, at the Otto-Friedrich-University in Bamberg, Germany. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting challenges to students attract little attention. That is the reason why I want to give an impression on my past three online semesters. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my experience here.

Background picture: The Old Town Hall of Bamberg, Germany, was built in the 15th century. It is one of the most original buildings of Bamberg due to its architecture, its location, and its wall frescoes. The facade first was painted by the artist Johann Anwander in 1755. A new painting was made by Anton Greiner in the 1960s, since the original paintings had bleached considerably over time. Picture: © Lisa Schweiger.

At the beginning of my studies I was fortunate to have had a semester in presence. The different programs and websites of the university were explained on site and we were able to ask our tutors for support and to meet in person. In addition, we had an introduction by the IT-support – the university’s data center – which a lot of students used to ask questions. It was important to have this meeting in person so that we were able to adjust individual laptop settings. Students who started their studies online during the COVID-19 pandemic had to figure that out all by themselves.

After a difficult start in the first online semester – due to server overloads on the first day – we quickly got used to the situation. For online classes we used tools such as MS Teams or Zoom. Online classes were held either  synchronously or asynchronously. At synchronous online classes we had the opportunity to ask questions per chat or activate our camera and microphone at any time to participate. In classes with more than a hundred students we were asked to switch off cameras and microphones to enable a stable internet connection. At least students could communicate via chat. The main problem here was the unstable internet connection which led to interruptions during classes or even made participation impossible.

In asynchronous classes we had less opportunities to interact with other students. While we had an online list of all class members, this communication tool wasn’t used a lot. Professors provided a chat forum for communication, but this tool wasn’t used a lot as well, because students and professors were able to read all the messages, posing a challenge to some of the students publicly voicing an opinion and positioning themselves. Moreover, there was no possibility to ask questions immediately. We could message our professors either per chat or per e-mail to ask questions afterwards.

The advantage of asynchronous online classes is flexibility. Regardless of time and location we could either listen to or watch classes online. This also gave the chance to repeat classes or to skip those parts in classes we had already discussed before. Some professors combined both variations of online classes. For example, we had three asynchronous and one following live class in which we repeated important topics or discussed difficult topics in smaller groups. There, we had the opportunity to get to know other students, since  the group size was chosen in a way that we were able to interact, and everybody could participate. Unfortunately, shy students kept a low profile and didn’t participate in discussions. More than once, students tended to leave meetings as soon as workgroups or discussions were announced. Especially in seminars, this was disappointing for those who had prepared presentations. It made preparation (for methods encouraging interaction in seminars) and the communication within seminars more difficult.

After finishing the online semester, exams took place in the brose ARENA in Bamberg so that the hygiene requirements could be followed. A hygiene concept enabled to fit 200 to 400 students in the arena to write exams in presence. These hygiene rules weren’t realistic at the entrance and at the exit. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students were given an exception rule: It allowed students to skip exams without showing a medical certificate. Some students had to stay in quarantine.  Unfortunately, a lot of students used this rule as an excuse to not attend classes and seminars. Compared to the regular university operation, the online-only setting  requires more willingness to organize and more intrinsic motivation by students to prepare for classes independently and to participate in seminars.

Some professors used an alternative type of examination. One example is the Open Book Test allowing the use of scripts from classes during the test. In addition, you are allowed to do online research on the topics during your test but you need to refer to the original source. A lot of people think that this kind of test is way easier because of the possibility of research you are allowed to do. But if you think about the time limitation and the time it takes to research all the topics first, you know it is impossible to answer all questions in such a short time frame. Furthermore, you have to answer to “transfer tasks”, which require research and critical discussion about those topics before the test.

Besides classes there are seminars which are synchronous. In seminars, the number of students is usually between ten and thirty, making possible interaction and discussion. In smaller groups we were better able to get to know each other. However, online-rooms for smaller groups had a time limit. That limitation made it difficult to finish discussions properly, since the online-room was closed automatically. While there was a countdown given, this was more stressful than helpful. Moreover, we had to elect a moderator for our group, which takes time, too. A lot of energy was wasted by this kind of format. All those limitations make a point for seminars being held in presence.

My personal wish would be to keep offering parts of the online-setting like asynchronous classes because of the given flexibility. I prefer seminars in presence because of the discussion and group working aspects.

Due to COVID-19, especially the communication among students and the start into an independent life are difficult.

A lot of students still live with their parents or moved back in with them to save rental costs. To replace conversations in person, there are university groups on facebook or Studydrive (app) to interact.

I would like to have an improved online offer of classes by universities.

In the US, universities have been offering online classes for ages.

As a preparation for my studies, I had spent a year working in the United States. This was accompanied by College classes covering American history.

The Griffith Observatory on Mount Hollywood with a view over Los Angeles. The observatory was built in the 1930s and today is one of the city’s monuments. Picture: © Lisa Schweiger.
The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., at the time of the famous cherry blossom. It was built in the 1940s commemorating the third president of the United States, who was the main author of its Declaration of Independence. Picture: © Lisa Schweiger.

For the future, universities should work on a hygiene concept which can be put into force immediately upon a critical situation. Universities aim for interdisciplinary competence (medicine, biology, physics, pedagogy, etc.) which may be bundled to develop a sustainable educational concept under safe conditions. Students should be involved in this process to actively participate and to learn. This is a way to handle future crises at universities.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed educational deficits worldwide. This should teach us a lesson for the future.

Universities as well as students need to master those challenges together. I am looking forward to the next semester and I am curious which settings will be used.

Note: I want to emphasize that the experiences described above are my personal perceptions and that the situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is interpreted differently by students. In addition, the implementation of the online studying varies with university and subject of studies.

Recently, there was a survey of students by the Foundation of the University Hildesheim and the University Muenster, which demonstrates the variety of opinions about that topic. If you are interested, please see the following link: https://hildok.bsz-bw.de/frontdoor/index/index/docId/1252

Lisa Schweiger

This is post No. 194 written by our guest author Lisa Schweiger.

If you want to give feedback to this post, please feel free to do so via e-mail to info@sajo-innovation.de. E-mails will be forwarded to Lisa, directly.