Dr. Malte Persike


Scientific Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning Services (CLS) at RWTH Aachen University

Dr. Malte Persike Copyright: © Fotodesign Hartmann, Mainz

Return from Online Teaching – Opportunities, Challenges, and Side-Effects

The “online semesters” have transformed teaching, learning and examining at German universities at breakneck speed. The use of innovative teaching and learning formats for online communication, interaction, and collaboration has increased tremendously. A comparable trend can also be found when it comes to online exams. While until a few months ago concepts such as remote exams or non-supervised “take home” exams were not taken seriously, they have become readily available options by now.

At RWTH, the number of online exams has grown from about 30,000 in the 2019/20 winter semester to about a quarter of a million last semester. Many universities are experimenting with exams via video conferencing or even proctored exams to cope with the vast number fo exams to be held. In addition, alternative exam formats such as portfolios, project work, or serious games are also becoming increasingly established. The universities’ achievement in digital transformation over the past few months is more than remarkable. At the same time, the rapid increase in online teaching and exams must be understood as a result of emergency remote teaching formats established during the pandemic. How well this “new normal” is actually working is actually still unclear.

Robust evidence on the impact of fast-track digitalization on higher education is only beginning to become available. This poses considerable challenges for universities returning to hybrid or in-person teaching and exams. Which solutions applied in the “online semesters” have proven successful and should continue to be used, and which ones create more costs than benefits? Universities and their instructors are challenged to provide answers to these questions in order to maintain and further improve the quality of virtual higher education in the future.

Empirical research can provide some results, as many of the remote teaching and learning formats that were being used during the “online semesters” had already been intensively researched before the outbreak of the pandemic. The available results suggest that only under certain conditions are online teaching and learning formats capable of increasing student engagement, boosting attendance figures, maximizing student attention, achieving measurably improved learning outcomes, and enhancing students' sense of self-efficacy. Here, universities may exploit the potential of learning analytics, among other tools, to better understand the conditions in which high-quality teaching, learning, and exams can be achieved. Accordingly, concerted action by all stakeholders is needed to evaluate, further develop, and consolidate digital formats in higher education to best serve the needs of the target group.