How does online teaching changes the interaction between students and professors? What are the challenges for both sides and positive byeffects? Sebastian Sunday Grève did his BA in German and Philosophy at the University of Göttingen, now he is himself Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Peking University. He is living in the United Kingdom and teaches his students online. In spring 2020, at the early days of the pandemic, the Peking University spoke with him about this particular semester.

What teaching method do you apply currently? (live video streaming or uploading recorded videos?
I am using a mix of live and recorded teaching methods. The students watch recorded lecture videos, which I upload on a weekly basis, and then we meet in small groups for seminar-style discussions using live online video conversation technology such as WeChat or Zoom. In addition, students are reading and writing on a weekly basis, and I provide feedback on their essays.
Have you modified the course content so that it is suitable to be taught online?
No, I have not had to modify the course content. But since my philosophy courses focus on instructing students to do philosophy, rather than simply lecturing them on it, I decided to split my standard weekly three-hour course meeting, during which I would normally have students engage in a good deal of supervised group work, into a mix of recorded lecture and small-group online seminar meetings.
Did it go well when you first taught online? Were there any unexpected incidents during the class?
It went very well so far. There were merely some minor technical issues at the start due to my unfamiliarity with the technology, but these could be resolved within just a few minutes. Also, I have an excellent teaching assistant, a very smart doctoral student, without whom I would probably have been quite lost. And the administration at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, especially the teaching office, have been excellent in their handling of this big move to online teaching.
Do you have any different ideas about this way of teaching, now that it’s been a week since the beginning of this semester? Have you encountered any challenges? And how did you cope with them?
I am mainly positively impressed with how well-developed all of the requisite technology is. This, and the joint effort of so many members of my department as well as the university at large, has made the transition for me as a teacher very smooth indeed.
Is time difference a problem?
It is hardly a problem. I am in Oxford, where my Chinese wife and I still have a flat; and so there is an eight hour difference between myself and the students in China. However, using the university time slots 10-12 (so, 18:40-19:30, 19:40-20:30 and 20:40-21:30) works just fine.

Lecturing, in the narrow sense, is no longer necessary

Do you think online teaching may be a beneficial complement to offline teaching? Do you have any suggestions concerning future teaching methods?
Yes, I believe online teaching is the next stage in the development of certain forms of teaching, especially lecturing; a long time ago, lecturing (which comes from Latin legere, which means to read) was a necessary form of teaching due to inferior communication technology; text could not be produced, reproduced and distributed as easily as it can now, so there were simply not sufficiently many copies for everyone to read within a reasonable time frame, and so one person (the lecturer) would read it out for an audience to hear. Nowadays, text can be very easily produced, reproduced and distributed; therefore, lecturing, in the narrow sense, is no longer necessary. Of course, teachers who engage in lecturing nowadays do not only read out a text; many teachers give elaborate multimedia presentations now, and may not use much written text as the direct basis of their presentation at all. However, the effectiveness of their teaching could be multiplied by many factors if their presentations were recorded or, even better, produced for an online format, so that their teaching could reach many more students, and students could also review important parts of the teaching at their own speed.

Physical meetings will remain an important element in higher education

What do you think students can acquire from this new way of teaching? What challenge does it bring them?
Students are used to the technology, and their habits of communication and learning are changing in such a way that some online teaching, for example recorded presentations, will suit them better than traditional methods of teaching. However, physical meetings will remain an important element in higher education. Taking away physical meetings from higher education would be likely to cause emotional and social problems for students. The current situation is such that many students are physically isolated from each other, and that is perhaps the biggest challenge for them.
How do you interact with the students currently? What’s the difference between this way of interaction and face-to-face interaction?
We interact online only, but in many different ways, via email, WeChat, live video conversations, and in the form of feedback on writing. The difference between this and face-to-face interaction is, from my point of view, small. So, for a certain amount of time this will not be a problem. However, it is not the same, either; for example, there is definitely a reduced amount of small talk and similar forms of daily interaction, which we often take for granted, but which actually play an important role in most people's lives.

Photo: Eleanor Sanger
Interviewing and writing: Chen Leran (陈乐然)
Find the original interview in Chinese here.

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