Online learning in a Pandemic: The Importance of a Community

December 01, 2021

Anne Pawsey, the teaching and e-learning coordinator of the Max Planck School Matter to Life, reports on how important it is to collaborate with the e-learning team of the Max Planck Schools and the wider community to meet the challenges for learning and teaching that were thrown up by the pandemic. Read the full article to learn more.

In March 2020, all three Max Planck Schools had completed a semester of teaching and learning, with an emphasis on distance, online and hybrid teaching. Each School had delivered its content differently, from the fully online courses of MPS Cognition to hybrid lectures in MPS Matter to Life.  Nevertheless, for MPS Matter to Life and MPS Photonics, the enforced switch to teaching entirely online across all courses and events was a significant shift for both teaching faculty and the Schools’ e-learning teams.

One of the most important factors which underpinned the success of the Max Planck Schools in teaching during this disruptive time was the MPS community. Teaching faculty from the Schools and the wider University communities, e-learning teams and technical staff came together, both formally and informally. We shared best practice, learned from one another and discussed ways to teach online, when the familiar tools of blackboards and demonstration experiments were no longer easily accessible. The Max Planck Schools’ e-learning teams met regularly to share their experiences and best practice examples of the technological solutions available, for example, online tools for real time collaboration and practical hints on how to run virtual events and conferences.

We also shared our technical knowledge beyond academia. Anne Pawsey helped to facilitate an online community choir and a network of community organisers in her home town. Thomas Kaiser (responsible for digital teaching strategies at MPS Photonics) provided a learning management system for local primary and secondary schools and gave courses for teachers how to transition to online learning and teaching.

At the University of Göttingen, all teaching staff in the Faculty of Physics (Matter to Life’s home faculty) meet regularly (online) to discuss how best to teach in these challenging circumstances. These discussions were also informed by feedback from our students, collected over the course of the semester. In our article “Reflections on COVID-19–induced online teaching in biophysics courses”, published in The Biophysicist, we reflect on what was learnt during this first “experimental” summer semester, and how we applied this in the biophysics courses, a fundamental theme of Matter to Life which ran in the winter semester. We highlight the importance of interaction, debate and community to learning physics and the challenges of reproducing the experience of mathematical discussions at a blackboard using online tools. Amongst the Max Planck Schools, the MPS Photonics in particular has a strong focus on exploring technical solutions including digital whiteboards or mixed reality technology for teaching formats from lectures to lab work.

As the familiar tools of in-person teaching become accessible again, the MPS e-learning teams continue to meet and reflect on the lessons we have learnt. We aim to keep the best aspects of online teaching and learning to enrich the education of future students.

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