by Dirk Holtbrügge & Laura Kirste (Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg)
It is often argued that digital teaching cannot replace face-to-face teaching formats. That is correct if digital teaching is merely understood as videotaping lectures – especially if this is done using a low-resolution camera in insufficient lighting and poor sound quality. Numerous examples on the Internet testify to such poorly prepared endeavors that were carried out with little effort.
But digital teaching can do much more than replacing face-to-face events inadequately. We want to illustrate this using the example of the master’s course “Managing Intercultural Relations”, which was recently awarded the Alex Prize for Digital Teaching by the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany.
The conceptual design of a digital course begins with the definition of its aims. Usually, university courses are primarily about imparting knowledge. Soft skills such as presenting, discussing, and general communication skills can also be important. In addition, the participants’ individual motivation to learn must be taken into account. The ability to focus is often reduced in digital events in comparison to face-to-face learning situations. Finally yet importantly, the students must feel that the course is preparing them well for the end of term exam.
In the course “Managing Intercultural Relations” we wanted to ensure that it can be attended by students who are located in different countries and time zones. The reason for this is not limited to travel restrictions caused by the Corona pandemic, but also lies in the attempt to include students from partner universities across the globe.
Figure 1: Course landing page
Figure 2: Structure of the chapters and objects
The online course was designed using learning sequences, a digital organizational object that is commonly found in many learning management systems (LMS). Each learning sequence contains the amount of materials used in a regular course week and consists of three steps: 1) knowledge transfer through reading, listening, and visualization, 2) knowledge checks through self-tests, and 3) knowledge transfer through critical reflection. Knowledge is imparted through a script containing in-depth explanations of the more complex issues on the one hand and instructional videos on the other hand.
For the lecture videos that replace the face-to-face lecture, we opted for screencasts created with Camtasia. Here, PowerPoint slides are created and accompanied by explanatory audio from the lecturer, and subsequently converted to a video. In contrast to PDFs with inserted audio comments, videos are particularly user-friendly and can be viewed on various digital devices. Additionally, the creation is intuitive for the lecturer and also allows the integration of a video of the speaker, in case they prefer to be seen during their presentation. Since most lecturers use PowerPoint slides for their lectures anyway, screencasts are an efficient way to create high-quality instructional videos quickly. In a few simple steps, additional visual effects can be added in Camtasia. In order to better illustrate more complex content, we also use explanatory videos that are created using Videoscribe. This software that can simulate high-quality whiteboard writing based on dynamic animations. . Texts and appealing illustrations can be combined with a corresponding audio track to create an appealing and instructive video. This saves the lecturer the trouble of filming themselves with their whiteboard, avoids the effort associated with video production (sound, light, editing, etc.), and leads to a high quality end result.
Figure 3: Example of a learning sequence consisting of a script, videos, self-test, and reflection questions
The knowledge check is another important component of digital teaching. Many make the mistake of limiting knowledge checks to formal exams. However, it is also an important tool for lecturers to find out to what extent their offers are effective and, if necessary, to repeat certain topics or to convey them differently to achieve an optimal learning outcome. In addition, knowledge checks support the student’s independent learning and can serve as motivation when used appropriately.
Knowledge transfer is the core of all university courses and can ideally be achieved through interaction with other learners. For this purpose, a forum was implemented in which two topical and often controversial discussion questions were posed for critical reflection every week. The interaction here is of course not as direct as, for example, in a zoom meeting. But active reflection on the question and the written formulation of arguments encourages students to think critically and to reflect on the issue at hand in a profound and unhurried manner. It is also possible for all students to take part in this interactive offer without the restrictions of time and place. Moreover, interactive videos were used to increase interaction with the learning content. The video is paused at certain points and can be resumed, for example, by answering a multiple-choice question. It is also possible for students to comment on the video with their observations, opinions or arguments, and thus an asynchronous conversation about the video content takes place.
In order to increase the interactive character of our course, breakout sessions in the form of global virtual teams were introduced. The students were divided into groups that were as diverse as possible and were asked to jointly discuss a complex question on a case study in a virtual setting. The students met independently at an individually determined frequency via Zoom. At the end of the working period of two weeks, they had to present their results in a video presentation. Not only did this increase the exchange among students, the format also conveyed important media skills and gave students the opportunity to prepare for digital exam formats, which will now occur more frequently due to the pandemic. Feedback on the presentations was also given in a Zoom consultation hour, which the students could attend on a voluntary basis. In our case, all groups participated and were able to improve the discussed points greatly when asked to repeat the task with a different discussion question.
Supervising and guiding students is also an important aspect of digital teaching. We mainly used personalized e-mails to inform the students about their learning status. In addition, there was a moderated forum, support via e-mail and telephone and, if necessary, Zoom consultation hours in order to be able to clarify any content-related open questions. In addition, it is very important to familiarize students with the multitude of digital learning formats. It is advisable to cover the most important questions and technical requirements in a short introduction, e.g. by video. Alternatively, a more personal method would be to offer an open discussion via Zoom.
The most important experience is that the social component in digital offers is crucial. Feelings of isolation must be counteracted through targeted measures. It is also helpful to provide personalized materials and to give feedback – this can be done in a few simple steps via serial emails using Microsoft Publisher, for example. Transparency in terms of communication and learning progress are also elementary. Many learning management systems offer suitable organizational objects such as learning sequences.
An appealing digital course cannot replace face-to-face teaching – it can do a lot more. The restrictions caused by the corona pandemic offer the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the possibilities of digital teaching, to try out different formats, and to test which tools can best be used for your particular course. Even if, hopefully, face-to-face teaching will soon be possible again – one thing is certain: digital teaching formats will not disappear again anytime soon. On the contrary, their time is only just beginning.
Dirk Holtbrügge is Professor of International Management and Dean of International Programs at the School of Business, Economics & Society, Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany. His main research interests are in the areas of international management, human resource management, and management in emerging markets. He has published seven books, eight edited volumes and more than 70 articles in refereed journals such as Academy of Management Learning & Education, International Business Review, International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of International Business Studies, Journal of International Management, and Management International Review. Since 2004 he has acted as the Dean of International Programs. He has large experience in executive education and works as a consultant for firms in Germany and abroad.
Laura Kirste is a teaching and research associate and PhD candidate at the Department of International Management at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany. In her dissertation, she explores business ethics in multinational corporations from an institutional perspective. Additionally, she has completed research in the field of intercultural online training effectiveness and gained extensive experience in the implementation of digital teaching formats. In 2020, she received the FAU ALEX Award for the best digital teaching offer at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg.