Online teaching from a young scholar perspective

Authors: Albachiara Boffelli and Alexandra Lagorio

When we thought about this article, the second semester had just ended, it was summer, and the nightmare of the pandemic in Bergamo seemed to be over. So we thought that the only experience to tell about online teaching would be Albachiara’s. However, with the start of the 2020-2021 academic year, our University first decided to start the semester in hybrid mode (part of the students in the classroom and part of them online) and to move all the lessons online once the situation got more serious. As a result, Alexandra also added her own point of view, which is different since over time the University has equipped itself with new instrumentation and since it has been able to draw on the experiences of those who had already faced this mode of lecturing.

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Albachiara’s perspective: I have always loved teaching and transferring knowledge to other people, especially young minds, eager to learn. So, even after hearing the news that we were expected to shift all the teaching activities online, I was able to maintain my enthusiasm and positivity for the forthcoming online lectures. Here in Italy, the second term of courses was delivered online, till the beginning, being our country the first Western country hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, at a time when it was not even called a pandemic yet. My personal experience was a mix of feelings that varied a lot depending on the specific course and even the particular topic I was teaching.

The first experience I can share is related to a post-high school course aimed at providing additional expertise to prepare students for specific job profiles needed by local companies. The class was relatively small, with around 30 students that I already met face to face in previous lectures. Having met them before and the tool chosen (the synchronous meeting) facilitated interaction. Although, I missed the fact of not seeing their faces and the expressions they made, which usually help me in having a closed-loop in assessing my teaching performance and in adapting to the reactions of the class. All in all, this first experience was positive, with a lot of interactions from the most proactive students, but without the possibility to win my personal challenge on engaging even the least interested students.

The second experience was during some practical workshops within the first-year students of the master degree in Management Engineering at the University of Bergamo. The workshops were designed to alternate panel sessions explaining the exercise and the basic features of the tool, and parallel sessions, in which students were divided into smaller groups with dedicated tutors to provide support in the execution. This kind of design required a significant preparation effort. Still, it was highly remunerative in terms of overall teaching experience: well prepared and structured sessions, highly interactive students in the smaller groups and immediate feedback on the learning level and process. In this case, a significant element of success was the previous experience I have had in teaching the same workshop in the face to face classes, which provided me with possible challenges and difficulties students might face during the execution. This second experience was undoubtedly positive but with no chances to overcome the digital barrier and create a personal connection with the students.

The last experience to be shared is the classical teaching class. This kind of lectures was provided either to third-year students of the bachelor’s degree or to the first-year students of the master degree in Management Engineering. Also, in this case, I felt more comfortable with topics that I taught before in a classical setting; that experience allowed me to adapt and improve my teaching. Of course, the improvement gained in previous years were based on real-time feedbacks connected to students’ reactions. Let’s consider that each class might have different needs in terms of learning style and difficulties. This is not enough to make the lecture ideal for everyone. Better real-time interaction and feedback from the students in an online setting would enhance the teaching experience from both sides. In this perspective, synchronous lectures should be preferred to recorded lectures, and new and creative tools for facilitating interaction and feedbacks can be explored to both engage students and make them more comfortable with the digital setting. Instead, in the case of newly taught lectures, I felt lost, without feedbacks and nothing but my personal feelings I could trust. In this context, a program of peer review agreed among both early and experienced scholars can be extremely helpful to get feedback and improve the lectures, making them also adapt for the online setting. An example of such initiative is being adopted by the University of Palermo with the project “Mentore per la Didattica”.

In the end, I can say that even if you are teaching online behind a screen dividing you from your class, you are much more exposed than you expected upfront. You are alone with your feelings, facing the challenges of the digital tools, experiencing multi-tasking in trying to transfer concepts while being a good online communicator and a digital expert, being flexible on the structure of the course and of the lecture, and all of this while asking yourself whether someone is actually listening to you or if everyone will just look at the recorded lecture just before the final exam.

Finally, I can say that it is perfectly acceptable to feel overwhelmed: the digital transformation affected teachers as much as students, and young scholars might be more exposed to its pressures.

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Alexandra’s perspective: My experience was different from that of Albachiara. I started the lessons of the first semester of the Healthcare Logistics Management course for the second year students of the Master’s degree in Engineering and Management of Health at the University of Bergamo, already knowing that the chances of the course being moved entirely online were high. More than 70% of the students in the School of Engineering started the semester entirely online, and only for terms with a limited number of students, a hybrid start was expected. Even though the classroom was equipped with an optimal system for conducting the lesson in-presence and online at the same time, I was never wholly comfortable with this model. Managing the lesson at the same time both for those who follow in the classroom and those who follow at home, making it a good experience in both situations is not easy. Also, having to worry about recording the lesson and checking that what is projected in the classroom corresponds to what is projected at home makes the class a little more fragmented. Several times I found myself losing concentration or the thread of speech.

On the other hand, having the students in the classroom, being able to observe their faces (even if they are wearing masks) and evaluating if something is not clear, allowing them to ask questions and start discussions in the classroom on the topics of the lesson is priceless. I find that the human relationship between the teacher and her/his students and among students is an added value, an extra channel of learning that will never be replicable with the mediation of the computer screen. And yet we even have tried to replicate this experience online because since 30th of October the Lombardy region has become a “red zone” in lockdown and consequently lessons have migrated online. In this case, I was luckier than Albachiara. In the previous months, I followed many webinars and online courses on the subject of online teaching developed internally at our University or by others. This has been immensely useful because through the tools and advice I have learned in recent months I have been able to try to keep the attention and participation of students (which was my main concern) alive and develop the group work foreseen by the course. Through Microsoft Teams and Moodle, the two platforms chosen by our University, I was able to organise the exchange of lecture material, manage recordings and group work. As far as the maintenance of interactions and discussions was concerned, I used some tools that allowed me to ask “live” polls and questions and see the results live. I found everything useful even though I can’t wait to get back to the classroom and hear students laughing at a joke between explaining a mathematical model and a case study.

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