Virtualization of Courses

Being interested in virtual teaching and course organization since a long time I started to fully virtualize my courses beginning of 2019 when hardly prompted by the Corona pandemic. The major objectives were to become as independent as possible from external factors like pandemics, sickness, travel limitations or similar, to offer a maximum flexibility and safety to all participants including myself and of course to improve teaching methods and course contents.

I systematically used open-source and self-developed tools to avoid cost and to be able to adapt features to needs if necessary. An extensive use of digital tools appeared promising and simple as they already existed but it required a virtual platform to share these tools with the students to enable collaborative work and at the same time to achieve the desired independence and flexibility. It was a logic consequence to expand the physical classroom of the campus by virtual space to a virtual classroom. Even this simple step was already an improvement because it was almost impossible to offer group work with digital tools in physical lecture halls that offer nothing but chalkboards and a beamer. By offering a virtual classroom students can still attend the lectures on campus if they prefer to be in physical lecture halls. All students enter the same digital platform of the virtual classroom over the internet by using their preferred and daily used private hardware. They benefit from the use of digital tools by working with other students, independent from where they attend the course. This type of remote working in virtually distributed teams is an essential skill that they will need for the workplace as well. Mid 2022 students had the full flexibility to decide between three modes of study on their personal preference - 'on-site', 'remote', 'fully independent self-paced' or an individual mixture. It is possible to switch presence modes at any time, based on individual decisions and without request.

Course contents are provided paperless all course activities from lectures to exercises and examinations. The classes are organized in short video sequences followed by break-out discussions. Afterwards, students have access to short follow-up training videos as an entry point for the practical exercises. Students have access to anything written on the virtual board in the form of a PDF file after classes. Exercises are now performed in small groups using shared digital tools while before they had to draw circuits and present calculations on chalkboards. Student participation is automatically documented. Attendance discipline to examination performance correlations are created and included to the student feedback documentation.

Examinations are conducted paperless. Students attend examinations 'on-site' or 'remote' and are allowed to use the entire course material and exercise notes during the online examination. All examination procedures are supported by a self-programmed environment that generates, encrypts individual examinations and and distributes anonymously to attendees thereby not disclosing any personal data. Encrypted examination files are distributed automatically by email or can be downloaded from and uploaded to individual data storage by link or QR-Codes. All procedures are protected by individual logins and passwords. The environment thereby utilizes a three-level security, i.e. unique anonymous identification to the environment, password protected login, encrypted files. Distribution of files and passwords use a hand-shake mechanism to safeguard simultaneous working times. At the end of the working time students submit their results to the data storage using their individual anonymous logins and passwords. The timestamps of all submissions are documented to safeguard equal conditions for all attendees. Sample solutions and individual examination rates are distributed automatically after review by individual eMail. The environment creates all data structures and access control files automatically without using clear names or any other sensitive information. It thereby completely hides participants identities. The mapping of data to participants clear names can only be performed offline by the examiner using a special mapping file. Removing the mapping file after creation would safeguard full anonymity, which might be useful for student feedback surveys in the course of evaluations. The examinations are carried out in the time slots organized by the faculty and students attend in the lecture hall or remote on their own decision.


Results

Not a single lecture was canceled during the entire pandemic. All examinations were carried out on time and at comparable or better failure rates. There are no travel needs for participants. All courses are 100% supervised. There is no asynchronous teaching. There are no cost for printing. Office storage space is no longer taken up by evaluated examinations or excess prints. Learning curves appear to be steeper (maybe due to the avoiding of chalk and talk teaching) and collaboration with and between students improved, e.g. shy students use the chat function to raise questions. Attendance rates at inconvenient time slots improved and students attend lectures on bridge days from home by remote. Overall attendance discipline improved. The average rate of remote attendance was approximately 75% in the winter term 2022/23.


Personal Comments

My teaching benefits significantly from the flexibility of the virtual classroom and from the digital preparation of the course contents. I am traveling much less for teaching purposes. I reduced my CO2 footprint significantly while at the same time my individual stress level has fallen. I am able to balance my work and family responsibilities much better. My hobbies and recreation benefits from time savings. My work-life balance improved and I am overall more satisfied with my job.


Addenum: Summer Term 2023 (1st Post Corona Semester)

The evaluations of my courses show that examination results degraded slightly at the beginning of the pandemic, recovered within one semester and finally outperformed all former results in the last corona semester while at the same the minimum level to pass the exam increased and was at the highest level since 2015 in the last corona semester. The attendance discipline as well as the overview of grades improved noticeable during the pandemic and dropped back to former levels after the pandemic as shown by comparison of the 'Attendance to Examination Results Analysis' for summer term '23 [w3].