Virtual Learning Environments

How does a virutual learning environment differ from a campus-based classroom and what new and different learning environments does this require? This is another entry I write in the frame of a course at the university called Teaching in Higher Education. Its a course with a strong focus on online teaching and blended learning.

I am dealing with these questions currently while preparing the MA-level course “Gender and Society” which we teach for the first time in the fall 2019.

This is not my first online course. I have taught online before, via pre-recorded lectures and weekly video-conference seminars on the platform called Zoom. The disadvantage of teaching online is the dicreased amount of affective connection with the students. Or a different one possibly. But it is much harder to “feel” how students are doing apart from when they verbally contribute. I find this one of the most challenging aspects of online teaching – the more extended difficuly to be able to reach out and ask if the student is feeling fine and what might be going on that is distracting them from focussing.

Generally, I also observed, that it takes longer in zoom to engage students into a discussion… The current format in which I have taught so far online seminars were 1,5 hours. I am considering extending this so that there is more time to actually get used to the interface and the group interaction in it.

Interesting in zoom is the non-hierarchical layout through the “gallery view” which puts all participants, including me as the teacher, onto the same level. I also appreciate the possibilities for small-group work, called “breakout rooms” in Zoom. This is really a nice way to work with larger groups and keep people interactively engaged.

I am mostly glad that I have the opportunity to teach Gender Studies courses online. The classroom is international, students from all over the world can participat and join temporarily in the same space for shared discussions and knowledge exchange. I experience this as a unique possibility to get insights into a range of discussions from different places in the world. It also constitutes an exceptional possibility for students to learn about activism and knowledge in a global context. Additionally, teaching in Gender Studies, and in the emerging field of Transgender Studies, teaching online while being located in a small/medium sized university is the only way to maintain and actually offer such classes.

The pre-recorded lectures are a format which I find most challenging. I really don’t know why pre-recording a lecture is such a different experience. But it requires enormous amounts of concentration and energy to talk without an audience into a void, only seeing myself reflected on the screen while speaking and running the powerpoint. It’s difficult to keep the emotional moments of teaching alive which are immensely important for learning and motivation, for following a lecture and for maintaining the concentration as a listener. I am still struggling with this. But also have a few ideas, e.g. pauses, reflection time, writing exercises, etc. build into the lecture. This will happen in the future.