This also pretty much how several co-workers we have talked to describe the realignment that the corona pandemic made necessary a year ago, both for LiU and for society in general. On Monday 16 March 2020, LiU activated what we came to know as “distance mode”. Everything changed in the space of a few days: from a university that previously had been heavily focussed on campus-based activity to one in which most things were carried out using digital methods.
“It’s almost impossible to understand: the amount of work required was enormous. We took the decision on Wednesday and it was already in force as early as the following Monday. Not everything worked out well. But in general, we can say that we’ve been successful”, says Joakim Nejdeby, head of the crisis management team and chief information officer at LiU.
LiU had already set up a crisis group in January, shortly after the first cases of the new coronavirus and Covid-19 became known, in Wuhan, China.
“The question was when we should activate a crisis management team. We decided that this would happen when the first case of Covid-19 was detected in Östergötland. After that, everything happened extremely quickly”, says Nejdeby.
A baptism by fire in digitalisationOne person who truly had to work out how the realignment should be done was Sandra Skoog, project leader and research assistant at Barnafrid, a national knowledge centre in violence against children. The centre had already planned many network meetings and conferences, many with nearly 400 participants.
“We have been tasked by the Swedish government to spread knowledge about the exposure of children to violence among professionals in the field in Sweden. Much of our activity has been based on organising physical network meetings and conferences. And it’s important that people can meet, interact and share experiences.”
The centre was thrust into a baptism by fire in digitalisation.
“It was a colossal job to arrange our first digital network meeting with children’s homes in Sweden. Participants included healthcare personnel, social workers, the police, and people from the public prosecution service. Both we as organisers and the participants were, of course, total beginners in everything. We sought help from the IT Division and from an external agency for the largest productions”, Sandra Skoog remembers.
She points out that everyone has learnt something during this year.
“Indeed, we have. We can now run much more ourselves, directly from the university. And it’s very appropriate that we have also introduced a digital basic programme for professionals who meet children. I’m sure that digital methods are here to stay, although we must also meet physically.”
“A knowledge leap”Gunvor Larsson Torstensdotter at Didacticum, LiU’s own centre for internal education and the development of teaching methods and theory, had the same experience. The personnel at Didacticum and the IT Division this year were jointly awarded the LiU award for “Team of the Year”. The question of digitalisation took over from essentially everything else.
“We realised that the teachers at LiU must rapidly increase their skills in remote education. The situation felt out of control, and a multitude of questions arose. Suddenly, we weren’t allowed to hold written exams in an exam hall… What should we do? Our IT teaching personnel were under heavy pressure. And we created drop-in sessions for the teachers where we could meet them and answer questions.”
At the same time, she describes the huge leap in knowledge that has been the result.
“We have examples of co-workers who describe how they used to be unsure about how to plug in a computer in a lecture theatre for a presentation. Today, they are running large lectures in Zoom without any problems.”
And the spirit of invention seems to be alive and well.
“Some teachers have built a studio in the basement. But there are also folk who have run into difficulties. This is why we must try to provide everyone with the specific help they need. One problem that arises is during hybrid teaching, which is when you have some students physically present and others online through a video link. The contact with the students in the room is often better.”
One problem that is proving difficult to solve is how to hold exams. The number of referrals for cheating has increased.
“We believe that nearly everybody behaves honourably. But it may be that the examiner suspects prohibited collaboration, that students submit identical answers. It’s also difficult to know who has answered the questions when an exam is held remotely.”
What should teachers do to avoid problems?
“Several measures are available, but we haven’t come up with a completely watertight solution. It’s possible to split an exam into several parts, some of which can be oral. One teacher described how he decided that the students should be able to use their knowledge in the real world, in some way. This makes it more difficult to cheat”, says Gunvor Larsson Torstensdotter.
Changed proceduresJonas Detterfelt, deputy head of department in the Department of Management and Engineering (IEI), says that exams are among the most difficult thing to carry out in distance mode.
“We were a few days away from a week packed with exams – more than 70 of them. And the procedures we were using were extremely well-established and difficult to change. We worked out new methods in a hurry and managed to hold the exams, and are still using these methods.”
However, he points out at the same time that there is considerable anxiety about the legal certainty of the exams, and it’s difficult to know whether the students have gained sufficient knowledge.
“We must continue to improve exam procedures to make them secure. One idea is to use camera surveillance and monitoring over the internet, but this is not an optimal solution. So I’m hoping that we can increase the capacity to hold exams in an exam hall. These are necessary for subjects that require learning by rote such as languages, and for maths and other exams that require calculation operations, and so on.”
Several other improvements have been made, such as the IT Division arranging remote access for students to computers with special programs, physically located in the computer halls on campus.
“We see that the students think that some things have improved. The teachers must connect to one study group at a time, where previously they may have had them as a complete class. This means that the focus on the group is better. And teachers have been compelled to give their courses a better structure, to make sure that they work when taught remotely.”
Is this the way of the future?
“I believe there’ll be a lot more mixed teaching, both digital and physical meetings. And remember – a huge amount of material has been recorded in during this period. Recorded lectures will be used more often. Some courses have been reconfigured to use written exercises at home, and they will probably not be changed back.”
What action does LiU need to take?
“In the long term, we should start to think about how we can keep hold of all the positive consequences. In a more immediate perspective, it’s about how we can arrange a hybrid method of working for the rest of the year. This is difficult since no-one knows exactly what we will have to do without, what we can do on campus and what’s still not permitted.”
A woman lecturing. Standing on a stage holding a microphone, with LiU balloons in the background.
Ann-Charlott Ericson, deputy head of department in the Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences has seen that the situation has put a very high workload on teachers.
The conditions for students to study and learn have probably not been optimal. Both teachers and students feel the lack of personal meetings, and it’s also during meetings that you can discuss questions and things that are unclear, making it much easier to learn.”
How has clinical training (education and exams in the workplace) worked?
“This has differed between programmes. Some have been able to carry out clinical placements without any changes, while others have rescheduled them or found other solutions. Some exams have been held physically: others have used remote methods. The Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences has many practical exams that must be held physically. This has required extensive logistics and more invigilators.”
What will be needed in the future?
“It’s useful if we can get information considerably ahead of time, to make it easier to plan. This means that it’s better to take a decision to impose slightly tougher restrictions well in advance, even if we’re not sure it’ll be necessary, and then ease them.”
Ann-Charlott Ericson believes that both research and education have been affected by the corona crisis.
“Indeed I do. And I’d also like to point to the difficulties that research activities have been facing. A great deal of our research has been put on ice for an extremely long time now, which has caused considerable anxiety in our co-workers”, says Ericson.
The reconfiguration has profoundly affected life as a student, with respect to both teaching and other activities.
Pro-dean Helena Herbertsson in the Faculty of Science and Engineering can also confirm that the reconfiguration was rapid. She praises both students and co-workers, and emphasises how important the support from Didacticum and the IT training team has been.
“The reconfiguration has profoundly affected life as a student, with respect to both teaching and other activities. I’m deeply impressed by the work everyone has done.”
Were any decisions particularly difficult to take?
“Oh yes – the decisions about how to hold exams. Many teachers have been worried about how to design exams in such a way that they are fair and legally secure. They also experience that the constructive link between learning outcomes, learning activities and exams is at risk of being lost.”
Helena Herbertsson believes that many of the new ways of doing things are here to stay.
“We are always working to prepare students for professional life. Since working methods in professional life will be changed after the pandemic, we have to keep up.
Using Zoom or Teams for meetings in project groups is one example. And I’m sure that we’ll use remote methods also for internal meetings,” she says.
I’m surprised that we didn’t use these tools more even before the pandemic
Helena Herbertsson continues: “Our campuses have never been closer than they are now, and I’m surprised that we didn’t use these tools more even before the pandemic. We can now join together activities in the faculty at Campus Valla and Campus Norrköping, for example. Of course, there are advantages of physical meetings, but we have now created new possibilities that we can feel comfortable with.”
Necessary changesChief Information Officer Joakim Nejdeby, who is also leader of the crisis management team, is not only looking back at the past year. He must also look to the future. The corona crisis will change the way LiU works. But nobody knows by how much. Nejdeby has also noticed that IT tools that have been present for a fairly long time in on co-workers’ computers are now in daily use.
A portrait of a man sitting at a desk.
“The use of the IT tools we already had was enough to solve the problems that arose. It’s obvious that necessity helps to create the conditions required for increased use and new knowledge. The changes might have occurred sometime in the future without the pandemic, but LiU has taken a huge step forward in a short time. And you must remember that tools such as Teams and Zoom have been improved and become more user-friendly during this period”, says Nejdeby.
He believes that there’s a point in making these necessary changes.
“But making them as rapidly as this has cost a lot in working hours and stress, while at the same time it has brought about both change and innovation. Together, we have shown that we can reconfigure, and that we can solve what appear initially to be impossible tasks”, says Joakim Nejdeby.
Pandemic LevelsLiU has introduced pandemic levels on a scale from 1 to 7. The levels are described here.
We are currently in Pandemic Level 4:
“Active pandemic with extensive restrictions and large effects on LiU activities.”
This means that all students are to study at home, with exception only for certain timetabled components and some exams. All co-workers are to work at home.
Exceptions apply only to those who must be at their workplace.
January: A working group for the corona crisis is set up, and the first LiU webpage published.
28 February: First meeting of the crisis management team
9-10 March: First case detected in Östergötland. The crisis management team is activated. Considerable anxiety and many questions from students and co-workers
11 March: A recommendation that arrangements be limited to 500 participants
12 March: New guidelines. Travel and other events are cancelled. LiU prepares for distance mode.
16 March: Distance mode is introduced.
22 April: Decision that distance mode is to be in place for the complete spring of 2020
4 June: A decision of gradual return from distance mode to on-campus operations during the autumn of 2020, with restrictions to prevent the spread of infection
1 November: The restrictions are set back at a more stringent level, and the university returns to distance mode.
2 December: Decision to activate Pandemic Level 4, an extensive distance mode, in preparation for the spring of 2021
4 February 2021: Decision for restrictions at Level 4 to remain in place for the complete spring term. All students are to study at home, with exception only for certain timetabled components and some exams. All co-workers are to work at home. Exceptions apply only to those who must be at their workplace.