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A teacher stays in the classroom, with cameras in place of students

During the coronavirus lockdown at Masaryk University’s Faculty of Science, Zdeněk Bochníček stayed at work and continued teaching his students remotely via video lectures.

Zdeněk Bochníček

Adapt was the order of the day for those teachers who had to move some or all of their teaching activities from lecture halls and laboratories to the online environment. It was easier for some than others and Zdeněk Bochníček showed that it could be done even with a subject matter as challenging as physics.

During the early days of the lockdown, most students and teachers believed that things would soon get back to normal and they would be able to return to school. However, it quickly turned out that the lecture halls and laboratories would stay off-limits for most students and it was necessary to figure out how to make distance learning work. Zdeněk Bochníček – two-time winner of the Rector’s Award for Outstanding Teachers and a holder of the Ministry of Education Award – had to think hard about the problem. “I teach a lot. I give lectures, teach practical classes and lead class exercises in physics, which is a wide range of activities that need to be approached differently,” explained Bochníček.

He eventually split the task between his colleagues who took care of practical classes and class exercises, while Bochníček prepared and recorded three two-hour lectures. “I have to give credit to my colleagues; they took incredibly good care of the students. They prepared various exercises using answer sheets and electronic testing. For practical classes, they made the measurements which they then sent to the students to work with.” As for himself, he offers no evaluation and wants to wait for the students’ feedback.

Alone in the lecture hall

Preparing lectures remotely took up a lot of Bochníček’s time. He recorded between 25 and 30 hours of footage. Preparing and recording a single two-hour lecture usually took the whole afternoon and Bochníček regularly arrived home late in the evening. Yes, home. While many teachers moved their offices to their studies or living rooms, Zdeněk Bochníček found it more convenient to continue working from the faculty building despite the pandemic.

“Even though I use PowerPoint presentations in my lectures, I can’t help but draw things on the whiteboard. I think it’s much more effective to show how things are done than to just talk about what’s in the pictures. In fact, two of the courses I teach require that I use the whiteboard all the time,” says Bochníček. For this reason, he has moved his office into one of the lecture halls where he records videos for the students.

He switches between different camera angles, all of which have to be pre-programmed, to record himself, the whiteboard and the experiment he is conducting in class. Bochníček admits it is sometimes hard to make sure that the camera is recording what it is supposed to. When he started making the videos, the hardest thing was to even begin.

“Speaking in front of an empty classroom is strange, it was difficult for me at the beginning. When I played back the footage, I wasn’t really satisfied with my performance, so it was hard to gather the strength to start recording it again,” admits Bochníček and adds that he started noticing his slips of the tongue he had previously been unaware of. It is difficult to remove these from a finished video. To turn this into an advantage, Bochníček announced a competition: the student who found the most errors in his videos won some chocolate.

Experiments are hard

“In one of my first videos, I couldn’t help myself and told the students that I really missed them in the lecture hall. One of them later told me that they had missed me too. I was really glad to hear that,” says Bochníček. He also tried to convey some of the experiments through the video format, but that was not always possible in his line of work. For example, some optics experiments require advanced equipment and professional filming tools, so he had to give up on them. However, where possible, he continued conducting experiments and also found others on YouTube to recommend to the students.

His experience with remote teaching also helped him immensely in his job as the faculty’s vice-dean for education. When the university was asked to implement various lockdown restrictions, Bochníček was one of those who had to put them into practice. He and the dean met with representatives of the individual institutes to learn about the problems they were facing. They also collected feedback via the Student Chamber of the Academic Senate.

A plan was also agreed at the meeting between the faculty management and representatives of the institutes that students would be allowed into laboratories in several batches to obtain first-hand experience with the equipment. The pandemic also meant that many more applicants would be admitted for study without an entrance examination.

“In most programmes, we accepted all applicants without an entrance examination. In the remaining programmes, the standard admission procedure will hopefully continue if circumstances allow. Otherwise, we will base admissions on secondary school results and motivation,” Bochníček explained. He believes that given the circumstances, this is the most sensible choice and a good opportunity for applicants who suffer from examination fever. “This will allow them to enrol in the programme of their choice and show if they have what it takes,” he said.

The past couple of weeks have boosted his trust in people. Pointing to various meetings and plans to adapt teaching procedures to the changed situation, Bochníček says he appreciates the enormous effort put in by the teachers and students to make learning run as normally as possible.