Part Two: 4EU+ universities take a crash course in online education

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With universities being forced to close down in response to special measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 introduced by governments, skepticism towards online education had to make room for pragmatism as it became the only solution for higher education institutions to continue teaching. All universities had to act quickly to set up technical systems, platforms and tools needed to move courses, exams, and even graduations online.

University of Milan ‘temporarily changes course’ to face the crisis

Italy was the first EU member state to order closure of all schools and higher education institutions on 4 March 2020, before the entire country was placed under lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. In Lombardy, one of the Italian regions most affected by the outbreak, schools and universities, among them the University of Milan, had already closed more than a week earlier. Already on 22 February, the Rector of the University of Milan Professor Elio Franzini, along with other Rectors of universities in Lombardy, announced the decision to immediately suspend all on-site teaching activities. “We are not an online university, and we will never be. We are a major international university, proud of our work, and aware that education is a challenging task, which implies a direct relationship between teachers and students,” Rector Franzini wrote in his message to students. “However, we are now forced to temporarily change our course, and explore paths that until a few days ago we had been taking just as a supplement to the usual coursework. We do so because it is useful and necessary to tread these paths, because we have to react and keep working together.” A university contingency plan was put in place to continue providing education (and to proceed with exams and graduations) in 136 study programmes for UMIL’s more than 60,000 students.

At first, the University relied on existing resources and tools provided by the University Centre of innovation in teaching and multimedia technologies. In the first week after the closure, the ICT Division activated over 50,000 Microsoft Teams accounts and put in place the tools necessary to enable online graduations. ICT support is offered on a continuous basis, including weekends, in order to ensure the right functioning of online tools ahead of Monday’s exams and sessions. In parallel, Student Services support students by providing guidelines and FAQs and by answering multiple requests for information and help.

Out of 2,800 courses (including classes, labs and training courses) scheduled between the end of February and the last week of March, 2,100 were being conducted online in different forms depending on the nature of the classes and topics taught. Classes for PhD students are also taking place on a regular basis. Between 24 and 25 February, more than 2,100 online oral exams were registered. Starting as of April, written exams will also be made possible.

For students in the final year of Nursing, graduations which should have normally taken place in April were anticipated and the procedure simplified upon approval from the regional and national authorities, in order for the new graduates to be rapidly authorized to work in hospitals. On 12 March, 87 students received their Nursing Degree following an online graduation session. Rector Elio Franzini sent a letter to the new nurses, extending his congratulations and appreciation for their efforts: “I would like to express my thanks, in particular for what you will do starting from tomorrow: we all dedicate our grateful and supportive thoughts to you and to those already in the wards. For this reason, together with my congratulations, please also accept my embrace, with the certainty that this university will always be your home”.

University of Copenhagen: Two days to make online education a reality

At the University of Copenhagen, all teaching activities were already online by Monday 16 March, only three days after the University suspended traditional classroom teaching and closed down on Friday, 13 March. To offer support to lecturers who had only one weekend to convert their classes to online courses, the e-learning consultants at UCPH prepared a brief step-by-step guide (please use Google Chrome to view the guide).

Within just a few days, all courses were transferred online, bringing together UCPH teachers into a new, online environment. The most popular platforms and tools currently in use by UCPH academic teachers and students are:

  • LMS Canvas (“Absalon”), a platform for course information and all communication with students

  • Media platform Kaltura, as an integrated part of the LMS for sharing in and across courses, and as the backbone of UCPH’s open and freely accessible Open Educational platform

  • Peergrade (peer review tool)

  • Student response system (Shakespeak)

  • Kaltura Capture, Screencast-O-Matic (for desktop video captures)

  • Padlet

The video conference tools that are mostly in use at UCPH: are Zoom, Skype for Business, Adobe Connect, Microsoft Teams and BigBlueButton.

Charles University: All faculties aboard

Zoom, Adobe Connect, Skype and Microsoft Teams are also most popular among academic teachers at Charles University, where approximately 2,000 courses from all 17 university faculties are currently being active on the Moodle platform. To get the lecturers acquainted with the use of Microsoft Teams for online teaching, a webinar (in English) was organised and its recorded version is now available online. These and other tools that are currently at the disposal of Charles University lecturers, with the corresponding user guides, are available on the website created by the Charles University’s E-learning Support Centre. Other online tools that CU academic teachers find helpful are Streamserver (for storing and viewing videos), Turnitin (for academic writing and plagiarism detection), LOOM, Google classroom and Google hangouts.

Sorbonne University supporting teachers in the sudden paradigm shift in university education

At Sorbonne University, face-to-face educational activities were suspended on 16 March. A Pedagogical Continuity Plan (PCP) was devised to enable the teaching of 55,000 SU students through methods of distance education. In the implementation of the plan, professors can count on the unfailing support from university IT teams. To help the teaching community in the transition from “100% face-to-face” to “100% online” courses, toolboxes and tutorials have been developed on dedicated university pages and are regularly updated. In addition to individual support offered to faculty members struggling with the sudden change in their teaching practice, online workshops are offered by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.

Among the most popular tools offered is the Moodle educational platform, already used in three faculties. Professors also have Panopto at their disposal, a multimedia server, coupled with Moodle, which enables professors to compile teaching materials and record lessons from home without special equipment. Other tools such as Zoom and Wooclap, enabling teachers to interact directly with their students through questionnaires or real-time surveys, are also in use.

This unprecedented mobilization of technical teams have made it possible—in less than a week—to record 1,000 video conference sessions and more than 50,000 connections on the educational platform of the Faculty of Science and Engineering, 400 requests to create course spaces on the platform of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and a doubling of the number of connections in the Faculty of Medicine compared to the beginning of March.

For Sabine Bottin-Rousseau, project manager for innovative pedagogies within the 4EU+ European University project, one thing is certain: “Internally, we will have made a lot of progress on the tools and how to use them. This situation will allow better acculturation of colleagues in distance education. It is also an opportunity for them to experiment with other educational forms, such as flipped classrooms, which enable them to create new interactions with students and make them more active in their learning."

With so much experience in such a short time, the perspective of hybrid education, one of the major projects at Sorbonne University, becomes more attainable. “Our desire to offer education focused on multidisciplinary approaches implies setting up common courses for a certain number of students, which raises issues of premises and timetables. This is why thinking about creating more hybrid courses is essential today. This is a pragmatic choice more than an economic one, which requires the development of effective programmes that keep the students’ attention and involvement," said Marie-Céline Daniel, Vice-President Lifelong Learning.

University of Warsaw: Unity in community

On 10 March 2020, Rector of the University of Warsaw Prof. Marcin Pałys announced the suspension of all on-campus lectures and classes for students, doctoral candidates and post-diploma learners effective Wednesday, 11 March 2020. UW’s Open University, offering language, upskilling and personal development courses for the wider community, was also closed down.

University management, faculties and administration had 10 days to compile and announce a list of courses available online by 20 March. The University’s Digital Competence Centre worked around the clock to simplify the procedures for setting up online courses and provide guidance on how to get started with and conduct classes online using Kampus, the University’s general e-learning platform. Some faculties have already started conducting online classes for their students before 23 March, using different tools. By Monday, 22 March, 1,371 new online courses from 30 UW faculties and didactic units were made available on the Kampus platform, which recorded more than 70,000 active users.

Anticipating the confusion and the feeling of insecurity that the transition to online teaching may cause among faculty members, University IT Services set up a Facebook group to give the academic teachers an opportunity to give each other advice on how to conduct online classes and share experiences with the use of different online tools in a friendly, informal setting. The University IT Services team responds swiftly to any questions coming from the group members. As of 3 April, the group now has an online community of 915 members. The success of the group has been reported by TVN24, Polish 24-hour news channel.

The platforms and tools that are most popular with the University of Warsaw’s academic teachers are Kampus, the aforementioned platform managed by the University's Digital Competences Centre, as well as UW Chat, Cisco Webex, Google Hangouts, Google Meet, YouTube Studio, Zoom, BlueJeans, Microsoft Teams, and Discord.

On 2 April, Prof. Jolanta Choińska-Mika, UW Vice-Rector for Student Affairs and Quality of Teaching, hosted an online Q&A session to answer students’ and doctoral candidates’ questions about UW education in times of coronavirus pandemic. The session brought together over 1,000 participants who submitted more than 400 questions via an online form.

A joint 4EU+ project to respond to urban health challenges similar to the coronavirus pandemic

The ongoing corona pandemic has put an enormous strain on the usually bustling cities, making urban populations particularly vulnerable. What have been the most effective models of community resilience? Which urban responses and local initiatives could be scaled up? These questions have sparked a new initiative within the 4EU+ Alliance. Initiated by Prof. Flemming Konradsen (University of Copenhagen), the new project will aim to bring together students and researchers from all six universities of the Alliance and expose students to real-world case solving through the application of practical, theoretical, innovative and interdisciplinary thinking. The students, representing the fields of medicine, public health, social science, natural science, humanities, engineering, architecture, and business, will work in mixed, cross-disciplinary teams and engage their academic skills and competencies to develop innovative, feasible, ready-to-apply solutions to real-world urban health issues such as coronavirus outbreak.

The project will be carried out within the Alliance’s Flagship 1: Health and demographic change in an urban environment.

The lecture period yet to start at Heidelberg University

At Heidelberg University, the lecture period for the 2020 summer semester will start on 20 April. During the last weeks, the university has worked at full speed, in the interest of students, researchers and staff​, to create the basis for digital communication channels and the use of digital teaching methods.

Pending questions

Although the coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on the role of digital technologies in education, online teaching cannot be seen as a panacea for the current crisis in higher education. Universities need to reflect on the challenges faced by students and faculty members, most importantly those related to digital divide and digital illiteracy.