COVID-19. Maintaining instructional continuity through remote learning
After their campuses were closed on March 16, Université PSL’s component schools activated an instructional continuity plan to ensure that learning could continue remotely. Now, more than a month after the lockdown was instituted, professors and students give us their impressions of this unique solution.
Research seminar, Inorganic Chemistry, cc Gilles Gasser, Chimie ParisTech - PSL
At Université PSL, as elsewhere, in-person activities came to a halt on Monday, March 16. The entire university community very quickly joined forces to ensure that instruction could continue through remote learning.
A standardized approach within each program
More than just finding the software, the challenge was to reassure students as quickly as possible that we would maintain continuity, and at the same time ensure some commonality in the courses offered.
From Microsoft Teams to GoToMeeting, from Zoom to Discord, each component school deployed the solution or solutions it found most appropriate. “We had to act quickly and effectively as a team,” says Isabelle Catto, Vice President for Undergraduate Education and Academic Affairs. “But more than just finding the software, the challenge was to reassure students as quickly as possible that we would maintain continuity, and at the same time ensure some commonality in the courses offered.” At Dauphine–PSL, for example, more than 1,660 courses were conducted via Teams beginning on March 26. In each member school and institution, the IT and educational engineering departments rapidly deployed tutorials and support services to help both teachers and students become familiar with those tools. “Remote learning can’t operate in the same way as classroom learning,” says Vice President Catto, who also oversees the CPES instructional team (lien). “The teachers have done a remarkable job of revising their instructional objectives, their methods and their timetable in a very short period of time, all while dealing with the problems faced by students and the stress of coping with a technical tool that can sometimes leave you in the lurch.”
New forms of interactive learning
The idea is to keep the class interactive and generate discussion. It’s an instructional format that we’ve been using for several years and for which we have tools.
From small-group classes to language courses, academics and students had to adapt and change their habits. For Anne Varenne, a research professor at Chimie ParisTech–PSL, it’s been a positive experience: she quickly found a rhythm for maintaining her discussions with students. “For small-group classes, where students are responsible for a fair amount of work, we provide them with the topics in advance. And a few days before class meets, we put documents online, with an initial set of responses, so the students can continue their thinking. And then we all tackle the subjects together during the hour of class time. The idea is to keep the class interactive and generate discussion. It’s an instructional format that we’ve been using for several years and for which we have tools. Now we’ve made it stronger.” Moreover, some students view this as an opportunity to refine their soft skills, such as creativity, adaptability and team spirit. Says Marion, a student at Chimie ParisTech–PSL, “The advantage of this system is that it gives you a certain freedom to take responsibility for how you study, especially with regard to tutorials. The professors send us the corrections, we work at home and then we can discuss them during the class. Personally, it’s a format that really suits me, because it gives you a lot of independence in doing your work, so you can organize things the way you want.”
The students have helped a lot to make this transition a success – they’re doing their part and participating. Without them we’d never be able to manage it.
For Valérie Derkx, an teacher in French as a foreign language (FLE) at EPHE–PSL, being able to recreate oral and written exercises with her students was essential. So for her class, she supplemented videoconferencing with Framapad, software based on collaborative spreadsheets. “We’re fortunate in that we typically have small class sizes. So combining those two tools worked very well. It will never replace a real classroom, but we manage to stay connected with the students and maintain the pace of work, which is important. With regard to practicing oral skills, there too, the fact that it’s not a big class means we can all see each other and talk to each other. The students learn self-discipline, they cut off their mic when they’re not talking, so everyone can speak freely and still show respect for the other students. The only drawback is that they can’t talk among themselves as much, and we can’t do work in small groups. The students have helped a lot to make this transition a success – they’re doing their part and participating. Without them we’d never be able to manage it.”
Teaching research remotely
Just as with language instruction, distance is a complicating factor when you’re conducting seminars at the Master’s or PhD level, since one objective of a seminar is to teach students the basics of the research in progress. To address that issue, academics have been able to draw on a host of digital collections that the libraries at PSL’s component schools have now made available to students. A list of those resources can be found at the PSL-Explore portal. Anne Varenne, for example, encourages doctoral students who are unable to do laboratory experiments to make the most of their time by “doing bibliographical research, evaluating what they find and seeing what kind of laboratory work hasn’t yet been done and how they can do that work once they get back in the lab. It’s not lost time, they’re just using their time in a different way.”
All scheduled sessions for the class are being conducted on Klaxoon and Zoom. Students were asked to introduce themselves online in a light-hearted way and to pitch in as much as possible in organizing the class.
A number of instructors and researchers have also seized the opportunity to rethink the traditional format for scientific seminars. For example, Terence Strick, Research Director at IBENS (ENS–PSL), and Anahi Molla Herman, a researcher at the CIRB at Collège de France, decided to take their 2020 teaching seminar on advances in developmental biology and cell biology (ABCD 2020) online. All scheduled sessions for the seminar are being conducted on Klaxoon and Zoom. Students were asked to introduce themselves online in a light-hearted way and to pitch in as much as possible in organizing the seminar (by introducing speakers, presenting articles, etc.). That’s helped to forge ties and a feeling of kinship and an upbeat mood among participants, despite the distance between them. They were even able to devote a session to science posters, using an application that’s typically reserved for virtual art exhibits.
Lisa, one of the workshop participants, says it was a big success. “The poster session was especially inspiring. In addition to giving us a chance to improve our skills in scientific communication, we were able to get constructive, wide-ranging feedback on our own research activities. Despite working remotely, the organizers managed to use innovative online tools, like the virtual museum, to make the class very lively.”
An excerpt from the scientific posters session of the 2020 ABCD seminar
Maintaining a connection
PSL’s shared resources for providing medical and psychological help and financial aid were a valuable resource in helping them deal with the situation. That’s a concrete example of what we can offer by being a more integrated university.
In addition to preserving instructional continuity, these various resources have helped professors stay in touch with students who are facing difficult circumstances. Says Sabine Mage, Dauphine–PSL’s Vice President for Academics and Student Life, “Some students were doubly anxious at the start of the quarantine, because of the danger from the virus but also the fact that they could no longer do their job or internship. PSL’s shared resources for providing medical and psychological help and financial aid were a valuable resource in helping them deal with the situation. That’s a concrete example of what we can offer by being a more integrated university.”
These are unusual times, and the University has had to react quickly in order to respond to students’ requests and problems. “The University has set up a support program for students experiencing mental health issues, and we’ve speeded up our deployment of the PSL medical service, notably with regard to preventive psychology and psychological counseling,” affirms Anne Devulder, Vice President for Student Life and Social and Environmental Responsibility. “Nightline, a student organization that we help fund, has also made a big contribution in providing moral and psychological support to students. And material support for CPES students has been set up as well. We’ve done all of that in cooperation with the Paris chapter of CROUS (the student services organization) and the Cité Universitaire de Paris.
The PSL student life newsletter, which was created just prior to the quarantine, is being published more frequently. It’s gone from a monthly to a weekly publication during the lockdown, passing on helpful information to students while also keeping them entertained with online activities such as sports instruction, lectures and fun ideas. We’re trying to adapt on a day-to-day basis and provide the most appropriate support resources in close cooperation with our partners such as CROUS.”