Flexibility, reflection, and independent work in collaboration
Lene Vestergaard Andersen and Bright Samuel Charway are interviewed by Hans Joergen Knudsen from Monnet Gruppen
The education as a computer scientist has recently been made a 100% online education at UC Lillebaelt. Lene (as a teacher) tells how the education is structured and what success factors and challenges she sees in the process, while Bright (as a student) deals with how it is experienced to be a student and what, for him, are respectively success factors and challenges.
Lene works as a first mover on the school’s first 100% online program. Inspired by the Covid period, Lene obtained the school’s approval to start a 100% online course. It became the Computer Science Education that was allowed to start. The chosen education is an Academy program at level 5 and thus part of higher education in Denmark.
Bright is a student, former pilot, and quite interested in technology and data processing. He took programming courses and courses in project management before starting the education.
Lene gives the short version of how the education is structured and how it works:
- When the class started, there were about 90 participants – about 8 from abroad who want a Danish education because it is best for them when they return to Denmark to find a job, and because they can get subsidies for the education (SU). The class was started by four teachers, of which Lene is one. The teachers divide the work in such a way that two of them work on the programming part, and the other two on system development and project management. They cooperate very intensively through the whole program.
- There is a special focus on computer scientists needing to handle programming and system development, but also be able to function as project managers, work independently, collaborate, and make their own decisions based on experience and reflections. That is precisely incorporated into the education.
- The education material is placed on the Itslearning platform. This platform is the basis for the whole educational program. The teacher team produces the material in accordance with the set goals and with the purpose that the material should be user-friendly. The material consists of texts, videos, assignments, projects, information about the education, etc.
- When collaboration is needed, it happens on Teams, which is set up with a room for everyone (common room) as well as a room for each team (about 6 participants in each team), and rooms for participants who want to collaborate across, rooms for collaboration between participants and teachers, and rooms for the teacher team itself.
- The teacher team decided that there should be both synchronous and asynchronous teaching. They also decided that there should not be traditional teaching as such when they meet. The time on the common part of the platform is about 5 minutes at the beginning of the day and about 5 minutes again when ending. After the first five minutes, the participants go into groups (on Teams) and work on the task or project that is on Itslearning for the day. Two days per week are reserved for these activities (about 1/3 of the program), done synchronously. The rest of the time is then divided between each participant’s individual work (asynchronously) with the material on the platform (1/3) and the different group’s work with tasks/projects – when it suits them (1/3) – to some extent synchronously but only for the individual group. It can be in the evening or on weekends. This allows for having a job alongside.
- The teacher team has also decided that there should not be traditional teaching, and that the students do not, as a rule, get answers to what they ask about. They get a new question, which should make them solve the problem themselves by collaborating, experimenting, seeking more information, reflecting, etc. The intention is to give the students the skills necessary in the industry, where one must be very self-sufficient and find the solutions oneself.
- The teacher team is divided into two teams (of two participants each) based on expertise. The two teachers participating in the Teams meetings have two different roles – one who is a kind of on-call duty, whom the participants can contact and ask about what they want to know, while the other moves around among the groups and spends a relatively short time in each group.
- The different teams are initially set up by the school (the teacher team), but changes can be made along the way if anyone wishes. The students remain in the same team throughout the educational program, and they can collect materials from different places and place them on Teams as their specially selected teaching material.
Lene tells what she thinks are the most important success factors in the organisation of the program:
- That the participants get acquainted with what it means to study the subject and do it online, and in a way that they are essentially supposed to find answers to the various questions and solve the various problems that arise along the way by themselves.
- That there is no traditional teaching when everyone meets on Teams, but there should be relevant material on the Itslearning platform where participants can find the material needed along the way. The material must naturally be relevant to the goals set for the education, and it must be easily accessible and varied (texts, videos, images, assignments/projects, tools, etc.).
- That the participants work in groups that function as learning communities and where they can independently work together on the tasks and/or projects they receive along the way – without much academic support from the teachers. They must learn to work independently.
- That the participants can still get help and support along the way by contacting a teacher either on the days when the class is gathered and the teachers are present, or via email or similar.
Bright agrees with the mentioned success factors – not least the opportunity to study and at the same time have family and full-time job. He finds the program flexible and very useful for him.
As Lene sees it, success is also closely related to the process:
- Creating a good atmosphere and good relationships between teachers and students. The idea is that very little time (five minutes) is spent on common communication where everyone is present on Teams at the same time. Instead, there should be plenty of time for group work in the established teams, which should work on relevant tasks and projects – closely related to practice – and at the same time have the opportunity to contact a teacher along the way.
- The material on the platform is closely related to the educational goals set by the ministry. The teacher team collectively ensures this.
- The students must have exciting and easily accessible material as well as good opportunities to work independently and acquire the necessary skills – in collaboration with the rest of the team. That is precisely why the course is organized in such a way that it encourages the students’ independent work in finding solutions together. The material is freely available on the platform (Itslearning), and the students can find other materials on the internet or from other resources themselves.
- The role of the teachers is primarily to be facilitators who ask questions to get the students to work on their own. They can be contacted along the way in various ways – either when a teacher visits the team, or if the team asks a teacher to visit because they are unsure about something – and of course, the individual student can contact the teachers individually via email or otherwise.
Bright also agrees with this. He is fine with the atmosphere and relationship, with the platform as it is, and he finds the balance between text and images okay. He also finds it good to have facilitators providing an effective support underway.
As Lene sees it, the biggest challenges are:
- The teachers must be passionate.
- There must be a clear and distinct structure in the program (and on the platform).
- The participants must have a clear and distinct understanding of what is expected of them in this particular course.
Bright agrees with this. The main challenges seen from Bright’s point of view are:
- That the participants not always get a clear and distinct understanding of what it’s about until they have been going for a while. According to him, this requires – for some students -more and better skills in, among other things, mathematics and programming than described in the school’s material. Bright does not have a problem with it himself because he has taken courses in programming and project management before starting – and is also relatively good at mathematics. But others have been surprised, and some may have left the education because it was simply too demanding, and according to Bright it might be a good idea if the school provided short courses in programming before the Computer Science program starts.
- That it sometimes can be difficult to get in contact with a teacher. All questions from the students are asked in the middle of the day, and teachers, therefore, are very busy in that period of time. Bright doesn’t have an answer to this challenge, but maybe many similar questions are asked and maybe that could be handled differently.
- That information about when to deliver tasks and when to get started on a new task etc. is very important to get as soon as possible – not least for those participants with other activities (like a job).
- It’s a very good idea that students are supposed to work as independently as possible. For some students it is a rather new model and for them it could be a good idea if teachers in the very beginning of the program worked a little bit more traditionally (answering questions) but on the other hand tell the students that in a few weeks we leave most of it to you – you are supposed to take over yourself (in accordance with the principles)
Lene also emphasizes that there may be challenges in balancing the asynchronous and synchronous. The participants may have slightly different expectations and desires, but the model with the aforementioned three-way division is currently maintained as the best solution.
Bright completely agrees. However, he thinks that the model is reasonably well-balanced, and it is possible to have a full-time job while also having a family and participating in the education – provided the employer agrees to give time off when there are group meetings (2 days a week). He is quite satisfied himself.
Another challenge, as Lene sees it, may be that some students find the material a bit dull, and others may be too much away from the synchronous courses – for various reasons. Bright also agrees with this, but says «that’s just how it is, and those of us who have full-time jobs and families have no other options».
In addition, there are challenges associated with the use of Chat GPT. It is necessary for the students to learn to use it critically and for the course (including the exam) to be organized in relation to this.
As Lene tells, something is being done about the challenges:
- Systematic work is being done to involve Chat GPT.
- At the same time, work is being done to convert more material on the platform into videos instead of texts, and to develop the material in general in accordance with the guide prepared by the teacher group. At the same time, it is possible for the students to incorporate changes if they wish, and if the teachers can accept them.
Bright agrees with this. He is fine with the platform as it is and finds the balance between text and images okay but acknowledges that it is undoubtedly a challenge for the teachers.
Advice to new teachers
Lene gives good advice to new teachers. They should:
- Have a passionate approach to online education and at the same time ensure that there is a user-friendly platform.
- Work intensively to ensure that the students are actively engaged in virtually all phases of the course.
- Stick to the principle that it is the students themselves who must seek and find answers.
- Agree on the principles that have been established and that any adjustments are made in consensus.
Bright agrees with all of this, but as mentioned earlier, it can be a problem for some that the requirement to work independently and with little help from the teachers starts right from the beginning. It could be beneficial to adjust this slightly at the beginning. However, Bright fully agrees with the principle: «That’s what we need to be able to do when we enter the job market, and there’s no one to ask – we have to be able to handle it ourselves».
Focus on flexibility
Michael Juul Nielsen is interviewed by Hans Joergen Knudsen, Monnet Group.
Michael Juul Nielsen is an experienced developer and designer of online learning programs in the Danish VUC system (Adult Education Centres) that work with upper secondary education at level 4 in Denmark in a wide range of subjects.
Michael has worked with both 100% online and hybrid courses at the school, which has been providing distance education since 2008. Around 25% of students participate in online programs, and the number is increasing. All distance education programs mentioned in this interview are delivered 100% online – except for those with laboratory training.
There is a strong emphasis on flexibility, which means that selected online programs are delivered 100% asynchronously. Students here are usually those who are either in the job market or engaged in other activities that prevent them from participating in traditional classroom courses.
There is thus no teaching on these courses. All materials are available on the school’s own platform (fjernundervisning.nu). Texts, assignments, information about the education and relevant goals, videos, images, e-books, etc., are all available online. Answers to assignments are sent from here to the relevant teacher.
The material on the platform must align with the formal goals of the education, and they are developed and placed by a team consisting of subject coordinators and designers (like Michael). Teachers are not allowed to edit the material.
Students can receive assistance along the way, and Google Meet is used as the platform where teacher and students can meet and converse.
Michael’s view on what is most important is 1) that participants actually understand the expectations for 100% online education, so expectation alignment is a central element, 2) that good relationships are established between teachers and students both in terms of academics and on a more personal level, 3) that the teacher focuses on the students so they feel safe and approved as participants in the course, 4) that feedback is provided – not only in the professional realm but also if there are indications that a participant has special problems or difficulties, and finally, 5) that the platform used is easy to access and navigate, and that the material on the platform aligns with the educational goals and also provides participants with what they want and need to work on.
Michael also emphasizes the importance of the current teacher ensuring that the material on the platform (produced by subject coordinators and designers, and which individual teachers cannot edit) is good enough for participants to learn from and also feel engaged. Such feedback can lead to adjustments in the material – still carried out by the relevant designers and subject coordinators.
As Michael says, it is crucial to have the best possible material on the platform – and especially material that appeals to very different participants and therefore can be used for highly differentiated courses. After all, it is the participants themselves who determine when to study, work, search, and what material they need to find and use.
Michael also points out that «it is important that teachers are dedicated and consider participants as more than just an email». And it is important that teachers have the right competence to conduct 100% online teaching. Therefore, various internal competency development programs are held, along with experience-sharing meetings, etc. Michael is one of the main figures in these events.
As Michael expresses it, the main challenges are:
- Students do not always understand what it means to participate in 100% online education – perhaps because they have not read how it is organized and what their own role is.
- Sometimes they are tired and need encouragement or maybe some different tasks for a period.
- Sometimes the level is too high for some students, and it can be more difficult to spot than it is in traditional education.
- There may be specific problems for bilingual participants because they do not have enough time to practice the Danish language alongside their education and because participants do not meet.
- 100% online can be a bit boring for some. This places special demands on the material to be engaging to sit in front of the screen and look at it.
- Participants do not meet, which means that group dynamics are lacking.
- For some teachers, working with 100% online education can be a particular challenge. Perhaps it does not fit into their family patterns, etc.
- It can also be a problem for some teachers that they cannot determine what to teach and with what material.
- The entire education package (the platform and its organization, materials, e-books, videos, assignments, various information, etc.) can be a bit too complicated for some participants.
Michael points out here that the most important thing is probably to ensure the necessary alignment of expectations and thus ensure that participants understand what is going to happen, and to ensure good relationships between students and teachers, who almost never see each other and certainly are not physically together during the course – except for exams.
Tips from Michael
Finally, Michael points out that in the future, intensive work should be done to:
- Find a method for group work that can be carried out despite the desired flexibility.
- Figure out how to work with Chat GPT – both for instructors and students – in such a way that students learn to use ChatGPT critically.
- Figure out how necessary competency development programs for instructors can best be organized and delivered in such a way that instructors 1) can establish the right relationships with students, 2) accept that the material on the platform is curriculum but also critically engage with it and provide feedback, 3) perceive the students not as numbers but as the real and diverse individuals they are, and 4) actively participate in the competency development programs that are continuously held.
- Everyone sees it as important to get new and useful information from colleagues and others – and to learn by listening, reading, and experimenting in practice.