Building the boat while sailing

By Mirko Reithler

I am a complete novice to online teaching. Embarking on this journey with hasty preparations seems like a daunting task that reminded me of the saying “building the boat while sailing”.

Googling the expression, I discovered a 2012 painting with that title by Brooklyn-based artist Dana Schutz. Its chaotic and colourful playfulness made me smile and it somehow seemed like a fitting image for teaching and learning in our current times: When sailing in rough weather – from a computer virus that suddenly prevented us from working online to a real virus that is now forcing us to interact exclusively online – it is good to know that we do not have to face the storm in isolation.

We are all in the same boat and our community has shown fantastic spirit and resourcefulness. That is what the painting celebrates to me: creativity and inventive tinkering.

Having no experience with online teaching yet, I have no concrete solutions to address its challenges or to realise its potentials. But while gathering information, exploring digital tools, attending webinars and in conversations with colleagues – some of whom have already taught online during period 4 – three general thoughts came up:

  1. Whatever we do in teaching, in the end we do it for students and together with students. More than ever, it is important to ask and listen and to hear from them what is helpful and what makes sense now. Maybe there are students with specific needs in this crisis that we do not sufficiently recognise. On the other hand, there is surely a lot to be learned from the online skills of digital natives.
  2. A key challenge in our transition to online teaching is finding ways to preserve the heart of PBL. Simply moving our tutorials into the virtual realm may not be the best option. When thinking of smart ways to adapt our formats, it may be helpful to remind ourselves of the core principles that the UM community formulated when trying to capture the idea of Problem-Based Learning. Let us explore pragmatic ways to keep our teaching self-directed, collaborative, contextual and constructive. For example, by including asynchronous opportunities for group work into our routines.
  3. When teaching and learning works, it has this beautiful power to energise. And the past weeks have generated a truly amazing amount of creative energy. But I also feel – and hear from colleagues – that communicating online can be quite exhausting. Let us make sure that our activities and innovations contribute to building communities that encourage, motivate and keep us all engaged.

Things will be different for the period to come and that requires unusual flexibility. At the same time, I think we should not hesitate to provide more structure in our teaching. Simplifying procedures, decreasing the amount of content to be covered, being more prescriptive and explicit about mutual expectations and learning goals, may contribute to finding a new productive rhythm of learning. As tutors, our role in online sessions may shift from being a facilitator to becoming more of a moderator.

Whatever the changes, staying pragmatic, allowing ourselves to embrace the failures that inevitably come with experimentation and a little extra kindness and patience will surely take us to a good place.

I wish you a healthy, safe and enjoyable start of period 5!

About the author

Mirko Reithler is lecturer with the faculty’s Department of Society Studies and mainly teaches in the Bachelor in Arts & Culture. Mirko is faculty coordinator for the Problem-Based Leaning and tutor training, a member of the steering group for Maastricht University’s EdView project on the development of and innovation in teaching and learning at Maastricht University, and one of the editors of the FASoS Teaching & Learning Blog. Mirko is new to online teaching and learning, like most of us.