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#Newsletter 7 Teaching and learning continue as the ParisTech schools prepare for the new academic year

Marie Mathieu-Pruvost and Riad Haidar

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 health crisis, the ParisTech schools have introduced numerous measures to keep classes running and to accommodate distance learning. We spoke to two members of staff to find out more.

  • Marie Mathieu Pruvost, Director for Education at the Ecole des Ponts ParisTech
  • Riad Haidar, Deputy Director for Education at the Institut d’Optique Graduate School

 

How have you handled the Covid-19 crisis in terms of remote teaching?

MMP: At the beginning of March, the Directorate for Education at the Ecole des Ponts ParisTech started preparing for the possibility that the school would have to close, focusing on the need to ensure the continuity of teaching and learning. Despite lockdown, we were able to run 85% of classes remotely thanks to the outstanding efforts made by staff, guest speakers and module leaders to adapt their teaching materials and deliver sessions online. All of our language classes ran as planned. However, some things did of course have to be cancelled, for example the inter-school “Design week” and certain practicals and lab sessions. To ensure ongoing follow-up of students, we made arrangements for staff to work from home, and our administrative personnel worked in fixed pairs to limit contact. Students are sitting all of their exams remotely.


RH: SupOptique was quick to realise the impact the epidemic was going to have and cancelled the European ATHENS exchanges even before restrictions were imposed. During lockdown, thanks to the tools we had available and the flexibility of our teaching teams and technical staff, we were able to move almost all of our classes online and stick to our original teaching timetable. We managed to organise some practical sessions too, for instance by having students analyse simulated data. Language classes were conducted via video link, and most of our interns were able to work from home. These measures were adopted at all three of our sites (Paris-Saclay, Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne) and we even took the opportunity to organise a number of joint sessions. Our year leaders and tutors are closely monitoring students to keep an eye out for anyone who appears to be struggling or at risk of dropping out.

 

What are the main tools you’ve been using?

MMP: Lecturers have been given access to a number of different tools, such as Adobe Connect Meeting, which we used to run 37 virtual classrooms simultaneously! But staff are also free to choose other solutions to suit their particular teaching requirements or classes. The Educational Engineering Innovation Team (S2iP) has been an invaluable source of support in terms of training and assisting staff and monitoring students. If staff have technical issues or teaching-related queries, they can also contact our two digital learning designers via a special hotline.


RH: We’ve been using the eCampus platform that was developed at the Université Paris-Saclay. Thanks to a rapid response from our technical teams and the flexibility of our teaching staff, students have been attending lectures online, via video link. Some lecturers choose to pre-record videos or PowerPoint presentations with audio comments which they then follow up with live Q&A sessions – from an educational point of view, creating these kinds of opportunities for staff-student interaction is one of our priorities.

 

What should students expect when the new term starts?

MMP: Given the ongoing need for social distancing, we’re planning to run remote sessions alongside on-site classes and set up a rotating attendance system to limit the number of students on campus at any one time. We’re also aiming to increase the quality of the teaching we provide online. International students who are due to undertake an exchange in the 1st semester will be able to postpone it to the 2nd semester. Those on double degree programmes will be able to take all or part of their 1st semester classes remotely, and specific support will be provided as the situation evolves.


RH: The new term is still due to start in September as planned. International students joining us usually take French language classes at EPF/ESTP in Sceaux. Given the circumstances, the courses will run remotely for the time being, but this may change as restrictions are lifted (opening of borders, availability of visas, etc.) The biggest challenge we face is undoubtedly what to do about practical classes. Experimentation is one of the cornerstones of our academic programmes but is obviously very difficult to do online – although Covid-19 has forced us to make rapid progress in this area!

 

What has the crisis taught you?

MMP: The thing that stands out for me is how quickly everyone rallied together in the face of such an unprecedented and worrying situation. As Frédérique Vidal (the French Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation) commented, the agility demonstrated by higher education institutions has been truly remarkable. We’ve seen a huge response from our alumni community too, with many former students offering to support students facing financial difficulties or assist those looking for internships. I also think the new methods we’ve implemented for remote teaching and meetings will prove to be useful in the longer term too, even replacing more traditional formats where they are most beneficial. Ideally, I’d love to see “blended learning” – the combination of e-learning and conventional face-to-face teaching – become the norm.


RH: It’s been a chance to put the efficiency of our entire academic structure to the test (academic staff, administrative teams, student representation committees) and has highlighted the value of being part of a transverse network like ParisTech: together, we’ve been able to share best practices and set up a support fund that no single school could have financed alone. Finally, looking beyond the difficulties we’ve encountered in a number of areas, I’d like to underline the opportunities now open to us to accelerate the transformation of education and training. We need to rethink our approach to digital and hybrid learning (even for lab work), to reflect on how our three sites can interact with one another, and to redefine fundamental principles about skills acquisition and assessment, including for internships.

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