Turning to virtual learning, cooperation, and communication

The Norwegian Research School for Dynamics and Evolution of Earth and Planets (DEEP) aims to educate solid earth and planetary scientists in a holistic way, placing the Earth's structure and evolution in a comparative planetology perspective. To reach these goals, we usually gather our members to attend courses and workshops, as well as through hosting small conferences. This spring we suddenly had to cancel all travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic and we had the opportunity to think about and implement new course delivery ideas.

Picture of online course participants

Lectures and participating in the online version of our scientific teaching seminar in May 2020. (Photo: Anniken R. Birkelund)

For DEEP, the easiest thing would have been to postpone all activities until a later date, and simply put the school on hold. We could have left our PhD candidates and supervisors “at peace” working from home. But we did not!

It quickly became clear that not everyone would benefit and not everyone would be able to do their work in this new reality alone. We asked the PhD candidates what would be important for them and how we could help. It turned out that most struggled with getting things organised, and motivated to continue with the matters at hand without interaction; they felt alone and they wanted a community. At the same time, many needed the courses to run so they could get their credits as planned. Therefore, we organised for the school members to join a virtual writing retreat whilst testing the diversity of online scientific teaching:

Virtual writing retreat

Our first effort was setting up a daily online meeting schedule for those PhD candidates who were alone at home writing their articles or theses. We invited Mathew Stiller-Reeve (Konsulent Stiller-Reeve, https://www.stillerreeve.com/) to tutor for DEEPs virtual writing retreat. He offered short introduction lectures and continued with daily warm-up sessions including smaller online discussion groups, “shut-up-and-write” sessions and progress updates. The point of this virtual writing retreat was to improve writing skills, and to motivate each other. Above all, we managed to create a constructive interactive space for everyone to enjoy whilst working from the home office.

It turned out to be exactly what the PhD candidates needed and it enabled our research school members to work together each day from all our Norwegian partner institutions. The retreat strengthened our network and got some of our members closer together. It worked so well that unlike in previous physical courses, the participants across universities continue to meet. After the three arranged course weeks, they met up every morning without the teacher continuing to help and motivate each other.

The virtual writing retreat has been a true life saver. This is not only because of the current home office circumstances but also for getting time to work on your text while learning how to write. I have taken Mathews course before, but I took it again as I wanted to freshen up my memory on these things.  We started every day with a warm up session where we analysed and improved texts by using the tools that we have learnt during the course.  This is super helpful for getting your mind started and thinking along those analytical lines. We could also get help and feedback on our own texts. By meeting every morning you are constantly reminded of how to use the writing tools, and you therefore speed up the learning process as you are constantly learning-by-doing, all the time, every day. The virtual writing retreat had many discussions between all the participants. Also, the Shut-Up-And-Write-sessions were genius in these home-office times.

Online scientific courses

The Solid Earth – Fluid Earth Interactions course, one of CEEDs main scientific courses offered through DEEP, was scheduled to run in May 2020. The course leader Carmen Gaina, in collaboration with Adriano Mazzini, researcher at CEED, and several guest lecturers,  decided to offer the course online. To our great surprise, we received more interest for the online version than when announced as a regular in-person course. We had 20 participants; students from Norway were joined by students from around the world, from Brazil, Russia, Denmark and Italy who joined the 2020 class to learn from experts at CEED.

The online course gave me the opportunity to join these excellent lectures. Please do more. Thank you.

The course included pre-recorded lectures, live lectures and presentations by the participants, discussions and exercises. Although very intense and exhausting, all participants evaluated the course to be a great success. They all also asked us to continue to offer our courses as online versions in the future.  

A good course overall, with excellent lectures.

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Lectures and students participating in the online version of Carmen Gainas Solid Earth – Fluid Earth Interactions course second week of May 2020. (Photo: Carmen Gaina)

Offers for young researchers

DEEP initiated a test project about teaching and learning for young researchers. From May 25 to May 28, the Department of Geosciences at UiO, the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Science (KURT) at UiO and the Centre for Integrated Earth Science Education (iEarth) organized an intensive and engaging seminar about teaching and learning for the geoscience community. Instead of a live meeting in Oslo, the seminar was arranged online on Zoom with 25 participants from all our partner institutions in Norway.

The seminar focused on using backwards design to plan teaching, which ensures that the intended learning outcomes, the assessment forms and the student-centered learning activities are all aligned. The participants were PhD-candidates, postdocs, researchers and professors from different institutions, with varying degree of teaching experience. The seminar was a huge success, and the participants gave the course an overall score of 5.6 (scale 1-6). 

Further plans

Since the times are uncertain, we will continue to offer our courses and workshops online in the autumn semester:

Offering more online courses will help us gain further experiences and find out how we can improve and maybe implement some of these offers as online versions in the future. Obviously, this requires good internet connections not available everywhere in the world. We have contact with colleagues at Witwatersrand University of Johannesburg (South Africa) to consult on strategies, which they employ to reach their students who have not home WiFi 24/7.

With online courses, we can include PhD candidates from all over the world within the field to build a bigger network. With writing retreats, we can reach and gather all PhD candidates in DEEP that are sitting alone in their separate offices writing and struggling with succeeding.

Overall, this forced rethinking of teaching has provided new opportunities, and challenges, as we all consider face-to-face meetings and social interaction of educational importance.  

By Anniken R. Birkelund, Administrative coordinator, DEEP research school
Published June 30, 2020 9:52 AM - Last modified July 2, 2020 2:37 PM