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Havlík: Surprisingly, teaching online does not affect the quality

Vratislav Havlík teaches three classes in Czech, three classes in English and one class in German at the MU Faculty of Social Studies. Understandably, having to switch all his classes online was no piece of cake.

The process was further complicated by the fact that Havlík, who teaches at the Department of International Relations and European Studies and specialises in the European Union and the integration of Europe, had hardly any previous experience of remote teaching.

For the first two weeks after Masaryk University cancelled in-person classes as part of the coronavirus preventive measures, Havlík only sent his students his presentations and a voice recording. However, by the end of March, he was inspired by his colleagues who were teaching using various interactive tools so he decided to go this way as well.

As his classes tend to be heavier on theory during the first half of the semester, he started by uploading a voice recording to accompany his presentations to the Study Materials section in the MU information system (IS).

“Later on, I needed a way to facilitate the discussion that follows the theoretical introduction in each of my classes, so I started organising videoconferences through Microsoft Teams. I also gave a lecture through Zoom. Normally, I go to Budapest every spring with the Erasmus programme to give this lecture and my colleague from the Eötvös Lórand University asked me if I could give it online this year,” says Havlík.

He was quite surprised by how easy it was to use tools he hardly knew about two months earlier. He also observed that his students were completely unperturbed by the switch to online tools and they even helped him during the first lecture when he was struggling to share a presentation with everyone and to upload the lecture to the archive of the conversation.

It’s maddening to lecture without students

Havlík finds remote teaching more exacting than his usual classes. He finds that his students are much quieter during the classes, which means he has to prepare more topics for discussion. His students now also expect more feedback on their presentations, so what used to take him just a couple of minutes in the class has now turned into the much more time-demanding process of producing written feedback. He estimates that teaching now requires a third more time than previously.

“Even lecturing itself has become more difficult, as I sit motionless in a chair for ninety minutes rather than walking around the classroom. It feels unnatural and it makes my delivery less coherent. When a class is finished, I feel like I just taught at least two. And when I was recording my presentations early on, it was a really strange feeling to lecture sitting in an empty office with no audience. Lecturing without students is a slightly maddening experience,” says Havlík with a smile.

Moreover, the lecturer noticed that with the switch to videoconferencing, his students rarely turn their cameras on and some of them use the chat feature to ask questions rather than asking out loud. This is despite the fact that his classes are relatively small, with around ten to fifteen students and only twenty-five attending the largest lectures. “I like to see my audience during lectures, so one challenge I’m facing is convincing the students to turn their cameras on. However, I understand why they are reluctant to do so, with the classes now taking place in an unusual environment.”

Online teaching, online testing

As the end of the semester is fast approaching, Havlík is now planning online exams using the questionnaire feature in the IS for those classes that require an exam rather than an essay and a team project. Besides the usual exam dates in May and June, Havlík plans to offer more dates over the summer holidays and in September. However, he assumes all his students will prefer to start their holidays as soon as possible. He had a similar experience with his students’ essays during the semester, which were mostly handed in on time despite the closed libraries.

Although this spring semester took an unexpected turn after just four weeks of regular classes and many lecturers found themselves in a situation they had never faced before, Havlík thinks that online classes are just as good as the regular ones held in a classroom. “I was really surprised that you can teach in this way and was initially very sceptical about it. I’m delighted that we were able to maintain the standard of teaching in this extremely complicated situation and under less than propitious conditions. It’s no small feat.”