• Main building ESCP Business School, Campus Berlin

    Using Whiteboards to Combat Digital Fatigue

Dr. René Mauer is Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at ESCP Business School in Berlin. It almost goes without saying that innovative teaching concepts are in demand in these subjects. But the ESCP, with its six locations in Europe, is currently primarily focusing on online teaching. So what to do when distance is suddenly the order of the day? René Mauer gives an insight into his - not only digital - toolbox. 

Professor Mauer, how has the Lockdown affected your teaching?

For me, teaching is something that is thoroughly three-dimensional, a spatial-social process. However, teaching online is a contradiction in terms, because there is one dimension missing - and with it a good deal of the learning experience. In the area of entrepreneurship, too, the switch to 2D and spatial distance was initially a challenge: I rely less on PowerPoint presentations for my events and more on flipcharts, whiteboards and the walls of the classroom. By doing so a whole learning journey is created in the room over a few hours or a day. In order to apply this to the online world, we worked very quickly with digital media, especially with digital whiteboards, voting systems and breakout rooms. And this has its advantages online, because it means that even larger groups can be easily divided into small groups, be assigned and ready to work in seconds. Just as quickly, I brought the groups back again, for example to do a debriefing. 

Which digital media would you not do without, even after Corona?

What will definitely not disappear from teaching are the digital whiteboards: Six or more groups can easily work on it at the same time. If you zoom out a bit on the whiteboard during group work, you can see how fascinated everyone involved is, those who not only work on their various tasks at the same time, but also create a visible work result on the whiteboard. When everyone comes together again, the result is usually visually impressive: Something has been created. And what has been created can now also be viewed by everyone together again. For some courses, the whole learning process is thus created on a digital whiteboard. We have also had good experiences with not using the flipcharts in the room for some joint work, but instead using the shared whiteboard, on which work can also be continued later from home. What is missing now are dynamic walls, in other words the ability to arrange digitally created content in a room as flexibly as I like to do with real paper.

How did your students react to the changed learning situation in the past year?

The idea of having to spend several hours - or even a day - in a video conference generates some resistance. Whereby there are major differences: Students or participants with work experience are sometimes more open to an online learning experience. Younger students, who have also decided on a certain social experience with their choice of study, sometimes struggle more. But the students received both the breakout rooms and the work on digital whiteboards very positively. And there was a lot of praise last year: When it came to designing a good learning experience online as well, we clearly exceeded expectations.  

Prof. Dr. René MauerESCP Business School Berlin

Prof. Dr. René Mauer

The idea of having to spend several hours - or even a day - in a video conference generates some resistance.

Keyword learning experience: In which areas can online teaching not keep up with physical classroom teaching?

What the last year has shown is that there is a great deal of life missing from all online concepts. I call it "in-betweens": the chance meeting of a colleague in the corridor, the short conversation following an event with students, joint lunches or simply the hustle and bustle of the campus. I believe that many students will enjoy coming back to campus. Personally, I would also find that beautiful; For some time now, I've also noticed that I value the work “place” in a completely different way.
What you sometimes have to try harder to generate online is the energy that students bring into a classroom. And of course there is now also a lot of digital fatigue among students and the related scepticism.

From your point of view, what helps against digital fatigue in the university context?

Interaction is indispensable for making the digital experience a positive one. As long as groups do not exceed 25 participants, I ask everyone to keep their camera AND microphone switched on. That does not work for all groups. Younger students in particular occasionally have a hard time. Although they are usually tech-savvy, it is still challenging for them to turn their home environment into an effective home office or home classroom environment. Many attend the video conference without a microphone or video being switched on. Sadly, this not only makes the experience much worse for them, but also for all the other participants. The participants are not present and interaction is barely possible.

We recently created a very interactive course in which we had incorporated theatre elements, among other things. After several hours, we lecturers insisted that all 20 participants stand up and put their laptop on a chair on their table to get the camera at eye level. The difference was amazing! The attendance was many times higher and the quality of interaction increased enormously.  The end result was an improv show for 80 guests who came to the event as spectators - and who were thrilled by the presence and interaction of the students - all in 2D. 

They also deal with “effectuation”, a corporate decision-making logic that helps to plan despite uncertainty. To what extent have you been able to use your expertise for the unfamiliar teaching environment?

It sounds strange to say this, but I think for our work as a department and institute, Covid19 was actually helpful. After the first emergency phase, we managed to come together as a European team in a way that we probably wouldn't have done otherwise with our normal on-site activities. Great things came out of that, and effectuation must have played a role in that. In autumn 2020, for example, we organised a European event with 120 students from three programme locations: We celebrated the final of Option E, the specialisation in Entrepreneurship, online. It was like a little Eurovision Song Contest - only instead of songs we had business pitches.

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