Teaching Award for Prof. Alexander Himme and Dr. Peter Schubert

The KLU student body has spoken: Prof. Alexander Himme was voted best internal teacher, while Dr. Peter Schubert, ZiviZ (Stifterverband) Berlin, was distinguished as best external teacher. Just as in past years, the winners were honored as part of the KLU graduation festivities. We spoke with the two educators about winning the award, and about the challenges posed for educators by the COVID-19 pandemic, e.g. by hybrid or purely online teaching.

Students voted you the best teachers for 2021. Were you surprised to be chosen?

Peter Schubert: For me it was a complete but quite positive surprise. Granted, I had received positive feedback from some students after my course last year, but nearly a year had passed since then, a time in which there was quite a bit going on.

Alexander Himme: Over the last six-and-a-half years I’ve actually managed to win this award four times. I’m very pleased, proud and grateful to get this type of feedback from the students. All four times, it’s come as a surprise. And especially this time, given the mix of hybrid, online and classroom teaching, I thought it could have been better. And of course, there are plenty of other educators out there who receive excellent feedback and do a fine job. As such, it’s definitely not something I take for granted.

The last year and a half were dominated by COVID-19 and a great deal of online and hybrid teaching. How did this change how you taught?

Peter Schubert: Needless to say, switching to online teaching was a challenge for everyone involved. From an educator’s standpoint, I don’t so much mean the technical implementation of online formats, but rather, adapting how we approach teaching. Good university-level education consists of more than just passing on knowledge – it thrives on personal exchanges, discussions and, ideally, getting students excited about the topics. For this to happen, you have to create a space in which everyone feels free to ask questions and contribute. With online formats, this can sometimes be more difficult.

Alexander Himme: You have to rethink your entire course; you can’t simply transfer a course that you’ve held live one-to-one. Online teaching means more distance, which means, in my opinion, that you have to integrate more interaction. This starts with a few “icebreakers” at the beginning, and a number of “breakouts” (Note from the editors: Using virtual “breakout rooms,” students are split into small teams, e.g. for group work), plus plenty of exercises so the students always have something to do. It’s simply easier to focus in the classroom. If you’re just sitting in front of your monitor, you can quickly get distracted or bored.

How easy is it to get in touch with students online?

Peter Schubert: Theoretically, it shouldn’t be any problem to get in touch with students. But in my experience, some students are far more active online than others. In classroom teaching, this aspect is much easier to compensate for. Also, one-on-one talks “on the fly” are a bit harder to manage virtually.

Alexander Himme: It can be done, especially in the breakouts, when I make the groups even smaller. Nevertheless, it is a bit harder. I’ve always offered the option of Zoom calls, when students have a question or want to arrange an office appointment. And of course, you can always get creative and integrate exercises.

Are there things that you’ve learned and can now use for your classroom teaching?

Peter Schubert: The COVID-19 period demonstrated to me just how valuable classroom teaching is. Accordingly, when I’m teaching I especially focus on the informal and interactive elements that sometimes get lost in virtual space.

Alexander Himme: Now I usually record one or two sections of each lesson that don’t involve much interaction, so that students can view them again at home. Working on shared documents, e.g. with Google Docs, is another aspect that I’ll keep using.

When it comes to online teaching versus classroom teaching, would you say that one or the other works better – or do you have a personal favorite?

Peter Schubert: I definitely prefer classroom teaching, because it’s easier to ensure that every student takes something away from the course and feels like part of the group. I’m convinced that being physically present helps some students be more receptive to new content. Gathering and getting to know each other face-to-face is an element of the university experience that’s just as important as conveying information. For me, hybrid learning formats, with some students in the classroom and others participating online, are still a real challenge. Trying to get everyone involved takes far more coordination. This aspect is somewhat easier with purely online formats.

Alexander Himme: That’s easy to answer: I prefer classroom teaching. Especially here at KLU we have small groups, there’s plenty of contact between professors and students, you get to know one another. International exchange and all the cultures represented – some of it is invariably lost online. Of course, I can do my best to compensate, but it’s still different when you see students in the classroom. Online is still just a supplement.