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Digitisation in teaching and learning

Digital transformation is a societal change that greatly affects universities. Information technologies are increasingly penetrating the teaching and learning environment and are bringing about cultural change for teaching staff. Conventional classroom teaching will, however, maintain an important role.

More and more areas of society and of the economy are being greatly influenced and changed by digital technologies and applications. In this regard, universities are also subject to constant change which affects all areas. Digitisation in teaching is therefore of strategic importance to the ZHAW. The university is implementing forms of teaching and learning that are assisted by digital technologies, is introducing the necessary infrastructure, and is guiding students and teaching staff in this process. Computer rooms are being phased out and students’ electronic devices are increasingly and effectively being used in the learning process instead. With this transition, teaching staff are faced with a genuine cultural change: Since knowledge is now available everywhere, students need more orientation and guidance than actual knowledge. Consequently, teaching staff are increasingly taking on the roles of coach and motivator.

Various ZHAW Schools such as the School of Life Sciences and Facility Management (LSFM), the School of Social Work and the School of Management and Law (SML) have already developed corresponding strategies. By using digital technologies, the ZHAW aims to achieve more flexibility for students through a greater variety of educational programmes, to acquire media competencies, and to make learning processes more efficient and effective. Educational programmes can therefore become more attractive and efficient and offer high quality, which will promote the Schools’ innovative and positive image. To bring this about, the Schools are providing both teaching staff and students with the necessary infrastructure and are helping them to develop and apply e-learning processes.

Online tests for flexible self-study and competence-oriented examinations

The electronically assisted evaluation of professional knowledge is a form of e-assessment. The ZHAW mainly uses formative online tests that students can take anywhere as a part of their self-study. By means of automatically evaluated tasks, they receive feedback on their learning progress, and as long as the tests are temporally flexible, individual learning speeds can be taken into account. These e-assessments are unproblematic as far as organisation and security are concerned.

Online examinations that determine students’ grades demand more of technology and require higher security, on the other hand.  For some years now, teaching staff at the School of Life Sciences and Facility Management have been carrying out course assessments electronically with classes of up to 200 students. The students complete tasks on their own electronic devices, but are on-site and the exams are invigilated. In 2016, exams were carried out using the Safe Exam Browser (SEB), which changes the computers into secure work stations. The pilot-course assessments at the School of Life Sciences and Facility Management and the School of Management and Law were monitored by the ETH Zurich, where the SEB is being developed. Both universities could benefit from findings gained from e-assessments carried out on student devices, also known as BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) exams. The didactic advantages of online examinations are particularly apparent when it comes to evaluating the digital competencies required in a modern working environment. For instance, tasks that involve software programming and text translation can be carried out more efficiently and without media disruption.

Location-independent with web seminars and online learning communities

The acquisition of interdisciplinary competencies to successfully master studying was key to the ZHAW-wide “Study smarter, not harder” online web seminar. In this interactive seminar, experts presented self-organisation and studying techniques, strategies for literature research and source evaluation as well as the assessment of cyber risks. During and after the short presentations, the students could use the chat function or virtual blackboard. Even though these topics were presented at the beginning of the study programme, students often only asked their questions later on in the course of study, as the online seminar was conceived to support them during this phase of their learning process.

With the rise of digitisation, personal skills such as creativity, team spirit and social competence are gaining importance, because they cannot be computer-automated. At the ZHAW, students can use the e-portfolio platform Mahara to create their own portfolios, in which they can reflect on the development of their strengths and knowledge. The School of Health Professions, the School of Social Work and the School of Life Sciences and Facility Management use presentational e-portfolios for job applications. In these, students can present their personal skills and, for example, introduce themselves in a short video.

Blended learning as an established teaching and learning method

The core element of digitisation is, however, actual classroom teaching. The terms e-learning, blended learning and also online learning describe the different degrees to which technology assists the learning process. E-learning can be understood as a supplement and enrichment to classroom teaching, and blended learning as an alternative to classroom teaching and virtual learning phases. Wholly online courses of study are not an option for the ZHAW. Classroom teaching remains a key pillar of the courses of study. That said, the number of virtual courses continues to grow.

New challenges for teaching staff

This transformation challenges teaching staff. Not only do they have to grow into their new roles as coach and motivator, they must also master and use new technologies and applications. The University assists them in various ways. Self-evaluation tools, for example, help teachers to assess their technical and media-didactic skills. Corresponding continuing education is offered online or as a blended learning course and is organised by the Schools and by the Blended Learning Support Unit, which is part of the Academic Affairs Unit at the University.

Implementing digitisation in teaching takes place within the triangle of the general ZHAW objectives, the technical possibilities and the requirements of the individual Schools – and against a background of rapid technological change. Many questions arise: To what extent should the University open up internal services, making them available to an external public? How will materials be licensed and copyrights guaranteed? And how will the many technical possibilities and applications, as well as the strategies of the individual Schools, be coordinated and developed within the ZHAW’s infrastructure?

Read more: Jahresbericht 2016 (in German)