Teaching experiences with “Organizing in times of crisis”

JKU analogue lecture theatre

For all of us that have taught “Organizing in times of crisis” for the first time last summer term, and with the last student essays as well as student feedbacks coming in, now is a time to take stock and share our experiences.

One of our aims in providing this open course platform was to provide course material for a full 6 or even 8 ECTS module, but also give instructors the opportunity to “mix and match” just selected elements of all the course materials. This is exactly what happened: some of us taught all the classes, requiring all the assigmens, for full credit modules; others used selected modules and reduced the number of assignments to fit with smaller 3 ECTS modules or to accompany lectures; and yet other used just individual sessions as part of other courses. Similarly, while we provided a course structure that could be administered in a fully asynchronous way, some of us actually followed this asynchroneous model, whereas others offered some (2-3) synchronous sessions and yet others had weekly synchronous online teaching sessions in which students had to give presentations, for example.

We had mixed impressions of the advantages and disadvantages of synchronous versus asynchronous teaching. Those that had many synchronous sessions felt that it was very tiring to concentrate over time, especially with the absence of non-verbal cues and already very high screen time. Conversely, the synchronous sessions were a great chance to catch up with students and get a sense of how everyone was doing. Hannah Trittin from the Leuphana University, for instance, used the synchronous sessions to give students a place to talk to each other during a difficult time. Hannah says that “The students valued that my session openers encouraged communication. For example, I would ask students to quickly grab an object that is valuable to them and present it and its meaning to them in class.”

Those that followed the largely asynchronous mode – which includes myself – felt that giving only written feedback to assignments was not only very time-consuming, but also made it difficult to explain the complex issues at hand in an adequate way. Synchronous teaching sessions are great for addressing some general questions that all students might have and also probing a bit deeper into students’ understanding. These impressions were largely mirrored by the students: at JKU, for instance, I offered the opportunity for additional synchronous sessions, but the majority of students preferred the autonomy of the asynchronous learning mode because they also already had to spend so many hours in front of the computer screen.

Students from Leuphana University appreciated the flexibility of self-study and being able to watch presentations in their own time, the flipped classroom model, the collaboration with other university professors that were experts on their respective topics, the practical relevance of the course and the various small and sometimes creative assignments students had to complete. At the same time, some students missed more opportunities for feedback and exchange. When deciding on the right mix of synchronous and asynchronous teaching of this – or other – courses, context conditions like students’ work loads (how many hours do they already spend in front of the computer?) as well as student numbers and teaching resources (how many written assignments is one able to read and give feedback on with the resources at hand?) thus need to be considered. One of us had great experiences with voluntary virtual Zoom sessions, which only the students that wanted more feedback and exchange attended. Such a model might be useful should the intensive distance learning situation continue. Otherwise, a hybrid approach in which reading, listening (to lectures, but also student presentations) and writing is asynchronous, but regular reflection and discussion sessions for all are held synchronously is probably preferable to a purely asynchroneous mode to deepen the learning experience. Yet, these sessions should be short if they have to be online to limit the screen time, but could be much longer if they were held in person.

Another key aim we had was to bring the expertise of different colleagues that we knew were experts on various facets of crisis management into the (virtual) classroom. All of us found it greatly enriching to not just read and discuss our colleagues’ articles, but to actually have their voices directly with us. Furthermore, we wanted students to be able to transfer the sometimes quite complex and “dry” organization theoretical knowledge to the actual, real-life crisis situation by connecting lectures, scientific articles and newspaper pieces. On this, a student from Viadrina University commented that “I really liked that you picked the article on the Stockwell shootings and I appreciate that you do not just look at management issues, but big societal problems. This is very important to me personally. I also think it is really special that this course is not just a Viadrina course, but that students from other universities are dealing with the same topics. Thank you very much for this opportunity.” Similarly, a student from Hamburg University stated that “Finally a course that really meets the current „Zeitgeist“! Congratulations to the professors for putting together a course in such a short period of time, filled with relevant and genuinely interesting topics. This course really encouraged us to engage with the COVID-19 situation on a deeper level rather than observing it from the sidelines.” As instructors, we felt the same way. If the Covid-19 crisis continues into the next year, which it most likely will, we will surely teach this course again. Some of us will shorten synchronous online teaching, some of us will expand it – and all of us will hope for more in-person interaction time with our students.

We actually have not received much feedback about the blog which accompanies our teaching platform. We think that the blog is a great place for sharing information and reflection on ongoing developments, giving reading and even literature and movie advice, as well as for posting selected student essays and assignments (e.g. here, here and here). This way we can enable a virtual conversation between professors and students from different universities thinking about similar topics. Maybe students were so busy with their regular assignments that they did not follow or use the blog very closely. Thus, another opportunity for the next iteration of this course might be to actively encourage students to write blog posts as part of their assignments. For instance, we posted one video interview with an Austrian company owner and his way of dealing with the crisis. Conducting and sharing such videos on the platform could be a different kind of assignment for students to complete, thus contributing to collective knowledge on “Organizing in Times of Crisis”.

Let’s close with a longer reflection from a student from the Viadrina University: “2020 has been a challenging and confusing year, leading to chaos everywhere. During the most intense phase of social distancing, the semester at the University began. The weeks before were characterized by uncertainty and missing information. This unprecedented time forced a lot of companies to initiate a hiring freeze, which lead to a lot of challenges for the organization I am working for, as it is making revenue through placing job ads. It is obvious that we were and still are facing one of the most challenging crises of my lifetime. This crisis motivated me to try to understand how my co-workers, my supervisors, and I should respond and why some actions were undertaken. Nothing was working the usual way. Because of that, the course with the title “Organizing in Times of Crisis” evoked interest. The description convinced me that I will get a different perspective on the situation and the challenges I personally, my company, and the world face. I hoped I would be able to interlink my own experiences with research and knowledge. I enjoyed the chance to get insight into teaching at other universities all across Germany and Austria. Despite being unable to discover new places it created a sense of unity. In addition to that, even though the material was aligned, the multitude of content created by different people in different manners resulted in a multi-facetted, diversified course. As I was allowed to choose the material that was most appealing to me I was able to learn more about topics that really connected with me, like the article about the hospital in Sarasota where I worked as an intern in 2016. Eventually, the task of writing an essay instead of a seminar paper introduced me to a different format of academic thinking and writing and allowed me to interpret this overwhelming situation more openly. All of these aspects convince me that the knowledge I compiled is stored in my long-term memory.”

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