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A public policy school meets a public policy crisis during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the last week of March 2020, Mashal Hashem, a first-year student at the Hertie School, set her alarm for 2:59 am and fired up her computer for her International Negotiations course. The class was due to start just one minute later, six hours ahead in Berlin. At home in Washington, DC, the Master of International Affairs (MIA) student was finishing up her first week of classes since the COVID-19 pandemic forced a move to online teaching mid-semester. 

Hashem and many fellow students in the MIA, Master of Public Policy  (MPP) and other programmes had scattered across the globe to finish the semester. “It's not as easy to motivate yourself when you're doing everything online,” Hashem said, noting that some  students were feeling the isolation of being far from home or alone in flats in Berlin.  “But I am really glad that the semester is progressing as it is,” she said, especially after her professor helped her switch to a class that didn’t require burning the midnight oil.  

At the end of February, Hertie School President Henrik Enderlein asked faculty and administration to assess their needs for an off-site contingency plan. A month later, the school was running more than 100 classes online, with 687 MPP, MIA, PhD and Executive MPA students participating from 21 countries across four continents – a move that would allow the class of 2020 to graduate on time.

“I think this was a pivotal moment for our institution: How do you respond to a public policy crisis as a public policy school?” said Christine Reh, Dean of Graduate Programmes and Professor of European Politics. The school was committed to presence-based teaching and would never have dreamed of jump-starting a digital operation in this way, and this quickly. “This was a crisis response. But I have been amazed by how willing everyone has been to respond, to learn, to train, to change. It's a huge effort – it’s not just that suddenly you put everything online that was offline.” 

Screen time

Devising a strategy for “putting things online” was the task of Annika Zorn, PhD Programme Director and head of the school’s Digital Learning Team. The founder of a school for online education and author of a book on digitalisation in higher education, Zorn drew upon and adapted concepts for digital learning after many years of training PhD students in pedagogical methods – teaching them how to design courses and provide inclusive and engaging classroom experiences. 

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Zorn, who joined the Hertie School in September 2019, had already started working with faculty to devise joint online courses and research collaboration for the new CIVICA alliance of seven European universities, including the Hertie School. 

“One of my very first projects was with Lion Hirth, trying out a ‘flipped classroom’ – recording class time that was not interactive in order to make these lectures available to students ahead of class and create more time for discussion or group work,” she said. Zorn and Hirth, who is Assistant Professor of Governance of Digitalisation and Energy Policy, had already recorded a series of talks at a professional green screen studio in Berlin. 

“This works especially well in a class where about half the course involves lectures, and students come with different levels of knowledge,” Hirth said. “Students who need to can watch the lectures more than once, while others may only need to watch parts.” Zorn and others expect pre-recorded video lectures will be one feature that is likely to stick in the post-coronavirus “new normal” of higher education.

Educators reckon the digital experiment sparked by the crisis will see global education more permanently offer a mix of classroom and online teaching. Christine Reh sees possibilities for “more blended forms of learning,” using online elements to enrich the classroom teaching. But, she says, the Hertie School and other university communities are places where people gather to share experiences beyond the classroom. “As a school located in a capital like Berlin, with students from all over the world, it would be a loss if we didn't have face to face human interaction.” In May, before the end of the spring semester, Henrik Enderlein announced the school would prepare for a presence-based start to the Academic Year  2020-2021 and would remain flexible in its approach as regulations evolved, in order to meet the needs of future and current students. 

Social distancing, physical distancing and distance learning

For students, moving to online teaching was about more than unreliable wi-fi or access to library resources, such as specialized software for courses like statistics. It also meant managing academic workloads in a completely new way, dealing with isolation or working in crowded group flats, worries about family, health or financial concerns.

“There was an assumption that we are all digital natives, and this would be easy for us,” said the president of the Hertie Student Representation (HSR), Tania Gitler Ortega, a second-year MPP student from Mexico. “I think students saw that it was somehow important to continue the courses. But I do believe there has been a lot of anxiety.”

HSR did two surveys to learn more about students’ experiences and needs. “Overall, the surveys showed most students had the proper infrastructure. However, the students who didn’t were really struggling.” Many said they needed time to adjust to the new situation. “In the second survey, their main concerns were about what will happen in the future, the uncertainty of the labour market and the economic impact on their lives,” Gitler-Ortega said. 

MPP student Mahima Shah Verma from California, stayed in Berlin to finish her thesis and her second year. It was not always easy finding a sense of normalcy between her responsibilities as a student and being aware of how the pandemic might affect her personal safety or the well-being of her family back home, she said. “It was hard to separate my personal space from my study space in my bedroom and have reliable internet access to support my thesis research, but I managed with the help of classmates,” she said. 

Shah Verma had  found herself alone when her flatmates left to quarantine in their hometowns in Germany and abroad. More worrying, she noted, was the prospect of entering the job market during a pandemic. Some of her friends saw jobs they had already been hired for disappear and were forced to seek short-term opportunities to adapt to the entry-level job market . 

Henrik Enderlein wrote to the community on 20 March as the school went online: “All of us are realising that the current situation can lead to increased uncertainty, stress, and sometimes fear as well as mental health challenges.” But the school also wanted to offer students the option of finishing the semester, he said. The shift online was a way to make this possible. 

Policies were established to give students some extra leeway in completing their work, and IT provided help to students with difficulties getting online. In the end, a handful of students – seven – took up the school’s offer to postpone their studies until the fall, but the vast majority decided to complete the semester.

Getting faculty to purr along online 

Size was an advantage for the Hertie School in quickly transitioning to online learning. Annika Zorn and her Digital Learning Team – e-learning expert Jose Núñez and multimedia specialist Matt Langthorne – worked closely from the beginning of March with the school’s leadership, faculty, IT and Curricular Affairs to find a platform for conducting online courses. They quickly settled on Clickmeeting, which the school had already used for recruitment webinars and could be integrated easily into the existing learning management system, Moodle. 

Around 75 student assistants and faculty researchers were hired as “course assistants” to help facilitate the online classrooms – hosting meetings, managing chat boxes, dealing with technical problems – so faculty could concentrate on teaching.  Zorn and her team spent the following weeks working evenings and weekends in group and one-on-one training sessions for faculty members, adjuncts and assistants. “Sandboxes” allowed trainees to explore online tools like an interactive whiteboard or the use of chat boxes for class discussion. 

Zorn’s Digital Learning Team then focused on boosting the confidence and creativity of their colleagues. “The next step was to help them with that second stage,” said Núñez. “This meant improving engagement and making their classes into a high-quality digital product.” Some professors pre-recorded lectures so they could devote more time to class discussion, others organised small breakout groups for discussions and projects. One made a point of showing up in a suit and bowtie, another surprised students with his artistic – and comedic – talents, using stick figures to illustrate his lectures. 

But, Núñez noted, it takes time to get used to the new way of working outside the traditional classroom. “There will be glitches,” he said in an interview via videoconference. The trainees not only got to know the tools and pitfalls – they also got to know Camilla, one of Núñez’s three cats, who liked to jump in his lap during tutorials. “She doesn't understand working from home, so she comes to all my meetings,” he said. 

Working together, apart

By mid-March, all faculty and administration were working “together” from home, and online efforts involved the community well beyond the Digital Learning Team. IT, headed by Akmal Yaqini, not only ensured students and faculty had access to the online tools, they also created digital tutorials, and organised laptops, telephones and other technical equipment so the entire administration could continue to function remotely. 

Nearly every facet of the university rallied together to make the transition happen or developed ways of supporting the community’s  future and current policy leaders.  Student Life created a go-to information page for students, #HertieLoveFromHome; Alumni who graduated into the 2008/09 financial crisis offered advice for job hunters; and Admissions expanded its online events, created virtual office hours and started a blog for prospective students. Executive Education put together a new online Certificate for policymakers facing crises like the pandemic – Governing in Global Crises, and Curricular Affairs helped find solutions for courses that did not fit the traditional lecture and discussion format. 

The Executive MPA course Power and Influence, for example, taught by Professor of Organization, Strategy and Leadership Johanna Mair, normally relies on simulation exercises with a lot of class participation and exchange. A lively discussion was vital, so Mair worked with students to define how Clickmeeting tools were used – like using symbols in the scrolling chat box to signal agreement or disagreement. Some of the topics in the course lent themselves well to the current situation, such as a discussion of ethical considerations in allocating a kidney to a patient. “This was very timely because it is the same situation doctors face now every day: who is going to get a respiratory device and who is not?”

Professor of Public Policy Anke Hassel said she found it strange at first to lecture into what felt like “a black hole”, and found herself asking more frequent questions of students as a way of  getting the class to engage. In the first class, she had technical problems: “The headset didn't work, the connection wasn‘t good, the answers to the surveys disappeared.” But a session with Matthew Langthorne helped her adjust the earphones, cable and webcam. “I knew how to open my slides and the whiteboard; I only had one survey question; the students presented their materials and the discussion was actually quite smooth. Many people wrote comments in the chat. I read them aloud and asked some to elaborate, which worked quite well. I got positive feedback so I am happy.“

Joanna Bryson, Professor of Ethics and Technology and an expert on digitalisation, is a big fan of the digital classroom and sees many advantages – although, like many, she misses the more personal side of presence-based learning. But she has observed some shy students speaking up more than they might in a regular classroom, and notes that students can hold parallel chats. “You don’t have four people waiting with their hands raised,” she says. “It all depends on having a good facilitator” – the course assistants who moderate the chats.

Most professors say they don’t see online classes as a substitute for in-person teaching. “For one thing, I miss seeing all their faces,” says Anita Gohdes, Professor of International and Cyber Security. She teaches a large introductory class of around 100 students on international security with Julian Wucherpfennig, Professor of International Affairs and Security. They decided to divide the class into 50% lecture and 50% seminar, pre-recording each lecture in five or six short videos and splitting the class into groups of 15 for discussions. Students like the videos because they can re-watch the lectures to prepare for exams, Gohdes says. “I recorded them by screen-recording the slides and my voice-over. But if I wanted to include them in the regular lectures in the future, I would want to make them more interactive and take the time to record them in a professional studio.” 

What the Hertie School’s administration, faculty and students created in a matter of weeks, Annika Zorn notes, not only jump-started plans for  digital research and teaching with its CIVICA partners, but it will also foster the use of digital tools in the Hertie School classroom. As part of its online teaching efforts during the crisis, the Hertie School also produced a podcast series written by Annika Zorn, in which she instructs educators on how to incorporate digital tools into their classrooms. “I think we could really be one of the leading universities in Germany to share our expertise and our advice in this area,” she says.


About the author

  • Ellen Thalman, Senior Editor