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Start of the semester

“Things will be more routine and we’ll all be more confident”

This Fall Semester will be particularly challenging for all UZH members – for students just as much as for instructors and everyone else working for the university. In this interview Gabriele Siegert, Deputy President and Vice President Education and Student Affairs, answers questions related to the start of the semester.
Interview: David Werner


“The situation is almost even more complex than in the Spring Semester,” says Gabriele Siegert, UZH Vice President Education and Student Affairs.


In the Spring Semester UZH was very quick to transfer all its teaching to online formats. By and large the process went without major problems. How are things looking for the Fall Semester?

On the one hand all of us – and by that I mean both the whole organization on an institutional level and each one of us as individuals – can draw on our experience from the Spring Semester. That will help and give us a certain amount of confidence. On the other hand the situation is almost more complex than in the Spring Semester, because now on-site teaching is possible, albeit with precautionary measures and to a more limited extent. So in each individual case we have to ask whether physical presence is really necessary from a didactic point of view or whether the course can run completely online. If actual presence is necessary and makes sense, in some cases those involved will have to be split into groups, because under the precautionary measures UZH premises can’t accommodate as many people as usual. This involves quite a bit more work for both the instructors and the units organizing the courses. And that’s quite apart from the technical infrastructure and support behind it, which also involve much more work than most people imagine.

Some students have had to put up with waiting times on OLAT. Others have complained that they initially weren’t given access to large courses. Why has access to digital courses not worked in all cases from the outset?

It’s true that there were problems with OLAT at the beginning of Fall Semester, with people having to wait in turn for several minutes. Please accept our apologies. The problems are the result of complex technical dependencies between different components of the system. But our IT people are working full speed to identify and remedy the causes. 

The situation is rather different for Zoom. Zoom has a limit of 300 participants for normal videoconferences. Additional webinar licenses are available for larger courses. I’m guessing that the few cases where there was no access were down to misunderstandings or initial delays between buying licenses and these licenses actually being available.

How would you describe these cases? Are they isolated teething problems or the result of more deep-rooted issues?

We have to remember that there are around 28,000 students enrolled at UZH, and that we offer a total of 3,629 modules and 4,770 courses. We have received feedback on the start of the semester from all the faculties. On this basis I can say that these really were isolated cases. But that doesn’t make it any less annoying for those affected. I can understand that they want the problem to be resolved as quickly as possible. 

Given the large number of courses at UZH, how can you keep track of what’s working properly and what’s not going so well?

At UZH the duties are clearly demarcated: the executive board sets down guidelines and the faculties are responsible for managing the study programs, and in concrete terms for organizing and running courses and modules. We’re in constant dialogue, discussing and consulting with each other. This is why I also got feedback from the faculties on the start of the semester. In addition we’re in close dialogue with the VSUZH, which provides us with feedback from students. Not only that, but the president and myself get feedback on an individual basis as well, especially when things don’t work properly. Now that’s not a call for people to get in touch with us directly (laughs). If something doesn’t work properly, students should first turn to their instructors, then to the study program directors, and then to the deans of studies. What I personally really don’t have is an overview of whether everything is working down to the last detail in all courses.

How do you expect things to develop as the Fall Semester progresses?

I expect that after minor teething problems, most things will work out both technically and didactically. Things will be more routine and we’ll all be more confident about dealing with these complex situations. Naturally problems can repeatedly crop up during the semester. But I think we’re agile and experienced enough to find quick, uncomplicated solutions. Even so, I would recommend that students contact psychological counseling services before personal problems get too much. 

Since the start of the lecture period, a lot more people have been physically present again at UZH than previously. Are UZH members keeping to the distancing and hygiene rules and wearing masks?

The first few days of Fall Semester 2020 have been calm and have run without a hitch. All UZH members have been exemplary in terms of keeping to the new rules. I’m not just saying this on the basis of feedback from the offices responsible. I’ve also seen it for myself whenever I’ve walked through the main building. Wearing a mask has almost become a matter of course.

New students currently face particularly big challenges. Limited on-site teaching makes it harder to find their feet at the university and make contacts. What would you advise students starting out on their studies?

The faculties and departments are aware that on-site presence is very important for new students, not just from a learning point of view, but also in terms of getting an idea of what university life is like. I would advise new students to make an additional effort to get together with their fellow students, form study groups, and meet both online and face to face. This is somewhere where people have to take the initiative. Many departments and faculties are also organizing extra events for new students.

What can students do if they feel they’re getting too little information or for other reasons can’t benefit as they would have wished from the course offering?

Most of these things are set down in writing. Sometimes it’s not so easy to find what you’re looking for. But in most cases the information is easily accessible. You’ll find general information on the coronavirus on theUZH website, faculty information on the faculties’ sites, and specific information on study programs on the sites of the relevant departments and institutes. I would also encourage students to ask their colleagues and instructors. 

Will students who can’t attend a course because of technical problems be given the chance to catch up?

Many courses are being made available to students as podcasts so they don’t miss anything. For each course there is also literature or preparatory material, and in some cases the slides are provided as well. We have to be able to assume that here students will be able to engage with the material on their own, at least for one session. If they still have questions they can ask them at the next session or in the OLAT chat – or if none of that helps, they can ask the instructor themselves.

At some courses students can choose whether they’d prefer to attend in person or online. Are there any initial indications as to what most students are opting for in such situations?

I don’t have any representative indications to share on that yet. But I have heard back that there was still space in the room for some classroom courses. I’ve also heard back about courses that were full – naturally with the relevant precautionary measures. I’ve heard from students who’d like to attend more in person and others who’d rather not be on site at all. 

When will students find out what form exams will take this semester?

The course catalogue already contains information on the exam – both the material that will be examined and the form of the assessment – under “requirements.” Students should ask their instructors if anything’s not clear or if they need more details. But please don’t expect them to tell you what will actually be in the exam (laughs). 

The blend of on-site and online teaching is also a major challenge for instructors. They bear a lot of personal responsibility when it comes to organizing courses and keeping students informed. How are the university and the faculties supporting instructors?

Yes, it’s very challenging for instructors. I think what they’re managing is really great. We’re trying to support them as best we can, both technically and didactically. For example we’ve staged a Teaching Inspiration Weekon university teaching and learning, bringing together those who want to talk about online teaching on a more informal basis. On the Teaching Tools platform we’re also providing concrete material, guidance, tips, and best practice examples. 

When will UZH be providing information on the planning basis for Spring Semester 2021?

We’re planning to give out the first information on the coming semester in October, even though we’re all aware that the situation can change at any time. Whatever the case, the priority will be the health of our students and staff, as it has been this and last semester.


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