A rapid change of direction to cope with Covid

​All planned on-site exams cancelled. All change to exams on home PCs, full access to aids and zero checks. And, at the same time, distance learning off to a flying start. Since mid-March, not much has stayed the same for the university’s students and teachers.​
The first exams of the spring semester were only 36 hours away when Chalmers’ Executive Committee for Education realised that the situation was untenable. A meeting was called at short notice. It was a marathon sitting, and one result was a decision that students would take all exams in the imminent exam period on their PCs at home. This was on Thursday, 12 March, five days before the Swedish Government urged higher education institutions and upper secondary schools to provide all further teaching remotely. However, it was already clear that the coronavirus pandemic would have far-reaching consequences.
“We realised what was likely to come, as several of our partner universities started to shut down, including Politecnico in Milan and DTU near Copenhagen,” says Anna Karlsson-Bengtsson, Vice President of Education and Lifelong Learning at Chalmers.
Anna Karlsson-Bengtsson, Vice President of Education and Lifelong Learning at Chalmers
There were also clear internal signals that radical decisions needed to be made. The most pressing matter was the imminent exams.
“A number of students got in touch and wondered whether they should really take their exams, despite having suspected coronavirus symptoms. Some also expressed general doubts about sitting in a large room with other people. And the invigilators started to say they couldn’t attend. Many of them are over 70.”

The Executive Committee for Education therefore decided to switch all planned on-site exams to remote exams taken at home. This had rarely been tried at Chalmers before. Teachers were forced to quickly try and adapt the exam questions to the new circumstances. Students had to adapt just as quickly to a different type of exam task than they had prepared for. Anna Karlsson-Bengtsson describes the first examination period as “a bit of a shock for everyone concerned”. However, thanks to the new learning platform Canvas, most of the technical arrangements for home exams were already in place. But remote exams also meant difficult decisions:
“It would have been silly to prohibit aids as we had no way of checking. Consequently, we permitted textbooks, the internet and all other aids instead,” she explains.

However, even with this change it was impossible to check whether anyone was cheating.
“We simply had to trust the students. What we can see from the answers is that some students obviously worked together, although that was not allowed.”

Ahead of the examination period before Easter, the remote exam arrangements were modified, and checks were made stricter. And for the remote exams after the Walpurgis weekend, checks were made even stricter, involving surveillance via webcam. 

Although exams were the issue that was most urgent, it was far from the only one that required action. At virtually the same time, all undergraduate education for the rest of the semester had to be switched over to distance learning.
“We had around 300 courses in study period 4. So we asked all the teachers, Assistant Heads of Department and examiners how many of them we could switch to distance learning,” says Anna Karlsson-Bengtsson.
“The answer was all of them. We didn’t need to cancel a single course.”

However, she says that this required a huge amount of work, primarily by Chalmers’ teachers.
“I can’t even begin to estimate how many extra hours of work went into this. With no preparation at all, they had to handle their own teaching and also develop new working methods for distance learning. I am moved by the effort everyone made.”

Perhaps the most important precondition for the transformation to distance learning can be expressed in one word: Zoom. According to Anna Karlsson-Bengtsson, use of this IT platform for video communication, which was previously used very little at Chalmers, has increased almost explosively. It is used not only for teaching but also as an alternative to physical meetings and other get-togethers.
“Sunet, which administers Zoom use for all Swedish higher education institutions, increased the number of licences from 20,000 to 250,000 within three or four days, a truly dramatic increase in access to the app.”

Anna Karlsson-Bengtsson thinks that, with a few exceptions, the switch to distance learning has worked extremely well. However, she also points out:
“We could, of course, implement distance learning in a more advanced manner than we do at present. A two-hour lecture via Zoom is more like a computerised version of it and probably not the very best way of making use of the options.”
“At the same time, it is clear that teachers, both here at Chalmers and throughout academia, are currently take giant steps towards more digital teaching.”

Is there a risk of students suffering and of the quality of their education decreasing because teachers have not yet mastered this new way of teaching?
“That may be the case. We will try to monitor developments by talking to both teachers and students.”
The many practical features of some programmes are what is mainly at risk.
“Being able to be in a lab and do experiments. I am a chemist myself and I am aware that this has been lost for the moment. I hope that the replacement features we have implemented for a while will be adequate.”

In the midst of the major switchover to distance learning, the Swedish Government indicated a dramatic increase in the number of places at Swedish higher education institutions. How welcome was this proposal on top of everything else?
“We took a deep breath, of course... But the discussion soon turned to how rather than if.”

The results of the discussions between the Swedish Ministry of Education and Research and Chalmers were partly to expand the programme of summer courses and partly to more than double the number of places for the engineering preparatory year from 300 now to 670 in the next academic year. The increase, which also means that undergraduate education has 200 additional places from the following year, will largely be implemented in the form of distance learning. Perhaps also with more creative use of the potential of digitisation. Anna Karlsson-Bengtsson thinks that faster development in this direction may be one positive consequence of the coronavirus crisis:
“Advanced learning, integrating digital models with standard campus learning. That’s what I believe in for the future.”

Students missing social life

Additional work for teachers and great self-discipline from students have been two of the consequences of distance learning – and it works. On the plus side, there is greater focus on studying. Tamara-Lea Adzic came to Chalmers from Sydney in the autumn to study for a Master’s in Entrepreneurship and Business Design.
“I’m glad I had one and a half semesters of normal student life before all this happened. It would have been so much harder to meet and get to know people if I had come in January.”

She thinks that studying via Zoom has largely worked well, although the dynamics in the dialogue between teachers and students are lost to some extent. She also has more free time now that she does not need to travel to lectures in person. But there is a downside to studying at home of course:
“Concentration. I am easily distracted and have to make a real effort not to watch YouTube for four hours.”

To avoid this trap, she has spent much of her time studying in the city library. Exams at home, with full access to the internet and old exams, were something of an eye-opener.
“I was lulled into the belief that I didn’t need to revise as much. I didn’t realise that the teachers and examiners would be much tougher in their assessments.”

The restrictions have meant particular challenges for programmes with more practical examination formats. Veronica Olesen is a senior lecturer and is head of the Mechatronics bachelor programme. Her first-year students would normally design and build a system for controlling a lift at the end of this spring semester. How is this organised now that physical contact in the lab between teachers and students have to be avoided?
“We solved it by letting students work remotely on lifts in a simulated environment,” she explains.

However, to create a link to reality and check that the students understood what they were doing, the physical lift equipment was also rigged up in the lab. The students then instructed the teacher on how to connect it all up via Zoom. And in most cases, they were also able to see that the control systems actually worked. This arrangement caused a lot of problems and many additional hours of work for Veronica and her colleagues:
“We definitely worked twice as much as usual in those weeks,” she estimates.

Lorenzo Björck, a third-year student of industrial economics specialising in IT, is spending a great deal of time on his bachelor’s thesis at the end of the spring semester. He and his colleagues managed to conduct most of their interviews before the restrictions took effect. Consequently, the work was not affected too badly by the pandemic. He sees the cancelled ‘cortège’ (a student parade) and all the other cancelled social activities as a big negative in student life, but still thinks that his studies are going well:
“The Zoom lectures work well, the course material is available...” “I’m probably doing more work than I would usually. There’s not much else to do.”

From Chalmers Magasin no. 1 2020
Text: Björn Forsman

Chalmers is constantly monitoring the development of the Covid-19 outbreak and is following the recommendations and decisions of Swedish public authorities. Up-to-date information is available at chalmers.se/info.

Published: Thu 18 Jun 2020.