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Lund academics struggle with digital distance learning

Image: CollegeDegrees360 [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Shutdown of universities due to coronavirus forces lecturers to face up to lack of tech skills

The rapid spread of coronavirus has laid bare the cracks in digitalisation at Swedish universities, as lecturers are struggling to cope with online tools and distance learning.

Annika Mårtensson, vice-dean at Lund University, wrote on the university’s website that lecturers were “like pilots learning to fly while the aircraft is taking off”. She said that since the closure of all Swedish universities on 18 March to combat coronavirus, the need for lecturers to get to grips with digital technology has accelerated.

Across the university, teachers are struggling with the rapid transition to digital teaching that the spread of the coronavirus has compelled, Mårtensson said. The first phase of the transition required lecturers to work long days and get the digital tools available to work the way they should.

“We have really grabbed hold of this issue,” said Mårtensson. “There is a lot happening very rapidly and many employees are working very hard. But although there are many difficulties and we are having to rush all this through, the attitude is that, no matter what, we will solve these problems.”

Mårtensson says that although people are used to working digitally, she thinks it’s a completely different discipline working with an online learning platform. “We have long had plans to use the Canvas learning platform,” she said. “But the idea was that it would complement in-person, campus education, not completely replace it.”

One of the hardest things to deal with is the flow of information, says Mårtensson. She pointed out that students and staff needed quick and relevant information, saying that this was a prerequisite for employees to work properly.

In addition, lecturers need an overview of all the courses in order to solve problems of accessibility and distance learning. Lund is gearing up for the summer semester, which means that almost 300 courses will have to be taught, but not all can be managed via distance learning.

“We will probably have to postpone a few courses that have practical elements,” said Mårtensson. “This may include, for example, courses in industrial design, chemical engineering, electrical and measurement technology; they must build models or conduct laboratory work and they absolutely need in-person access to equipment and technology.”

Mårtensson said that many of these more practical courses would be run in the summer, when the current crisis has calmed down. Until then, she said, the main obstacle to teaching remained getting lecturers up to speed on technology.

“Intensive learning is underway among the university teachers and there are lively discussions on internet forums where they are all trying to help each other with a variety of problems,” Mårtensson she said. “There is also something a little exciting about this. Can we really do this? Can we really pull this off?”

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe