Sabrina Sartori ved PC'en.

During a webinar organized by MIT on Energy Innovation.

Reflections on my digital time (so far)

Two months “glued” to my chair – at home, in front of my PC, talking to students and colleagues around the world. Which insights did I gain?

First: A little surprise. Virtual meetings can be very effective (in my opinion). You can pack many meetings cutting the movements from one room to another, one city to another, even one country to another. All from the comfort of your home.

I was already used to schedule virtual calls with colleagues of the Materials Research Society, but never experienced them before in other contexts. I am wondering: why do I have the feeling that virtual gatherings are so effective? Maybe virtual conversations are more concise and people are more interested in going to the core of the matter, without spending too much time into superfluous conversation. Since many of us are called for several times a day, it may be that we are paying more attention and care to the time. Since in virtual space it will not be clear if everyone speaks over each other as it may happen face to face in the heat of an argument, we need to turn off our microphone and wait until it is our turn to convey our opinion, which typically means listening until the end – without interruption.

Successful meetings

Second: Meetings with many participants also works well. During these two months of lockdown, I have participated in live panels of discussions with 800 attendees, and seminars organized by MIT. They are successful, in my opinion, provided a short and clear program, the use of a moderator to facilitate the exchange of questions with the audience (for instance, reading the questions sent via chat), obviously good and engaged speakers, a clear set of slides (if needed). I am wondering what will happen with conferences in the future. The majority of the conferences for 2020 have been cancelled, but some organizers are starting to propose virtual congresses requesting the speakers to submit recorded video of their talk. Taken for granted that meeting people in person is and will still be easier (eyes contact, non-verbal communications are difficult to interpret in virtual mode), are we going to see an emergence of fully or partially online conferences? Can this open for more just, global and inclusive gatherings, including participants with less economic resources?

Sure, I am looking forward to going back to work physically as before – I like social interactions (remember, I am Italian after all!). I cannot however stop thinking that these months the work has been extremely effective. Is that also the results of few interruptions during the day, no unexpected last call meetings or students knocking to the door? 

Any secrets for effective virtual teaching?  

What I said before may be very different if considered from the point of view of a student. I read in the news that students are having difficulty in keeping the motivation and can find the confinement and the virtual lectures quite difficult in the long run. It is understandable. Lectures are a very important social aspects of a student's life. During a lecture I enjoy the continuous exchange with students with comments, questions, practical examples, coffee breaks where ideas flow freely. 

Can we recreate a similar feeling when looking at a screen, far away from each other?

In May I was supposed to be in Sicily, teaching an intensive three weeks university course about “Science, innovation and sustainability of the future energy systems”. The current covid-19 emergency obliged the cancellation of the physical school in favor of a virtual version of it. I took this as an opportunity to experiment with my virtual teaching style. There are for sure many colleagues at UiO with knowledgeable experience and I am looking forward to them sharing all possible tips on making a class effective even at a distance. For the moment these are the lessons I am reflecting upon based on my limited experience.

When presenting a topic, it is better to break the presentations in short tranches, for instance talking for twenty minutes, then open for questions and discussion. One idea could also be – if the class is limited (say 10 students) – asking questions to a different student each time, after (say) every five slides. Interactions just using audio can work. I anyhow like to see also the persons I am talking to, so I ask the students to turn on the camera, especially during discussions. Or at least start and finish the lecture with “face greetings”.

Activities in class are something I regularly use in my courses. I continued to do so virtually, with some adjustments. In my opinion it is important to tailor the activities to the new situation. For example, limit the time for passive listening, and increasing the interaction with the lecturer and with each other. I am not sure what could be the situation with very large classes. In my case, since the Sicilian class was of only 12 students, I could easily divide them in virtual groups. We organized literature reviews of the latest findings of chosen technologies through working in groups, with the students asking questions to me via chat, or when I was accessing each group of discussion. Everybody was then tasked to present the result of the research to the entire class, followed by questions and comments.

Online role play worked well

Another activity was a role play with the class divided in two virtual groups of six participants, with each student taking his/her role (as a scientist, lawyer, minister of economy, etc.) to contribute to prepare a detailed life cycle assessment and presenting the group results to the entire class. (The role play was about providing the Brazilian parliament with arguments on whether to invest in a new wind park, where to install it and which technology to choose. The parliament – our entire class – was to take the final decision based on the groups' assessment.). It was a surprise to find out that the interaction worked well, and – by their recounts – the students felt challenged and motivated.

What will be the situation next semester? Are we going to see each other again in classrooms as before the covid-19 pandemic? Nobody knows yet. In preparation for a possible new online semester, we certainly can continue to be creative, ask for frequent feedbacks from our students, get inspired by each other experiences.

I am certainly looking forward to hear from each of you who are reading this post and want to share some tips.