Since the outbreak of Covid 19 in Germany and the ensuing restrictive lockdown that has been in place since March 2020, the Karls community was compelled to run the entire summer semester 2020 online, using Microsoft Teams and other digital supplementary tools such as Padlet, Kahoot, and Miro, even the exams were successfully conducted online. This text aims at giving an overview of this digital experience from different angles, with special emphasis on the author’s personal thoughts on one key aspect for effective and successful online communication.
Within a few days, the lessons were switched to online
Shortly before the start of the semester the Karls administration was agile and efficient placing all courses and rooms in a virtual setting. Everything was set up within a few days and a positive example for speed and adaptability was set, not witnessed in other educational establishments in Karlsruhe. Not only was the new digital system up and running, but also regular supplementary online pedagogical ‘bites’ or ‘snippets’ called (Karl snacks) were held by different staff members of the Karls community, teaching fellow colleagues and lecturers new norms, terms, and techniques for online tutorings, such as ‘polite detachment’, ‘synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous learning’. The fact that the Karlshochschule took the lead in the field of digital or online teaching may be driven by a number of factors key among which are: a. the summer semester there normally starts approximately two weeks before the other universities in Karlsruhe; b. as a private institution that is less dependent on state funding, it was necessary to react quickly, otherwise an entire semester would have been jeopardized.
Right at the start of the semester, there was a state of excitement or even euphoria among many because of the new situation and everyone tried their best to adapt to the new digital environment (later in this text to be called the ‘new normal’). It was not a smooth transition for some but many colleagues worked very hard and coped quite well. After quite some time, a thought arose in the author’s mind: the students at Karls who are assumed to belong to a generation called digital natives, some of whom do feel uncomfortable with online classes. Is it the element of surprise emanating from the shift to the new normal or missing the fact-to-face meeting with other fellow students, or a little bit of both? Moreover, in the case of some students, reactions, attitudes, and behaviors in the online setting were not always that fast or adaptive. Another point that arose at first was some lecturers requesting or convincing the students in some interactive-based modules, especially language classes, to turn their cameras on to be seen for effective communication. The author’s understanding was that being seen in an online setting is common sense; otherwise synchronous online classes would be very much similar to a telephone conference.
“My PC has no camera”, “camera is not working today”,” just got out of bed”, “my hair is wet, “I do not feel comfortable being looked at”, “I do not want people seeing my messy room”, and “I am using my dad’s old PC” were some excuses provided by the thought-to-be digital natives, who were spared between 10 to 60 minutes every day to get to university. A calming thought to a perplexed author was that it is probably that these students are shy and do not feel comfortable being pushed by a proponent of interactive teaching methods to turn their cameras on, or perhaps these are students who frequently look at their smartphone for fear of missing out on ‘something important’, conveying a message of boredom, indifference or even disrespect to instructors.
Missing facets in online communication
The very essence of verbal communication, let alone in language classes, consists of a message in the form of acoustic waves or signals transmitted from a ‘sender’ to a ‘receiver’. Another major contributor to more effective communication is the non-verbal cues such as body language, gestures and facial expressions, e.g. nodding, showing the thumbs up, frowning, smiling and so on. It is necessary to understand that even though verbal factors play the major role in language exchange, non-verbal cues should not be underestimated. For example, an affirmative nod can be as good and assuring as the sentence ‘I agree’. How would some students feel (in an online language learning setting) if instructors simply talked, shared their material via screen and assigned homework, without appearing before them? In my opinion, the answer to this question lies majorly in the students’ and lecturers’ understanding and expectations of online classes on one hand, and the absence of a clear guideline of online best practice on the other.
Nowadays, reflecting on my teaching style and behavior in a second semester of the new normal, I observed myself tending to talk more to students I see rather than those whom I do not see. Individuals who are online but always ‘digitally detached’ may not want to be asked or leave their comfort zone, so should one challenge them against their will? One obvious result of being ‘detached’ is that there is a wider distance between students and tutors.
In conclusion, with the new normal being in place for a second consecutive semester and seeming to linger longer than hoped or anticipated, the author would expect a binding best practice recommendation issued by the Karls’ administration, outlining guidelines and expectations for both parties of the digital online classes equation.
Article by Alaa Khalil (Lecturer)