Clément Robbe, senior associate Professor in Physics at Chimie Pékin

Chimie Pékin

Publication date : 02/06/2020
International cooperation

Clément Robbe, senior physics teacher at Chimie Pékin, faced the educational challenge of containment.

Clément Robbe is a senior associate Professor in Physics at Chimie Pékin since September 1, 2018. Chimie Pékin is a Sino-French Institute lead by Chimie ParisTech and Beijing University of Chemical Technology (BUCT). He shares his educational experience in times of pandemic and confinement.

"When my partner and I returned to Beijing on February 19, China was still immersed in the COVID-2019 psychosis. We then imagined the start of the semester being postponed for a few weeks, and we prepared for a return to our respective campuses in early March. We couldn't be more wrong ... Today is May 4, 2020 and we can barely see the blurred outlines of an upcoming reopening.
However, we did not remain inactive during these weeks of semi-isolation, and were able to embark full-time on the great challenge of social distancing: distance education. Our students, thirsty for knowledge and weary of this never-ending vacation, could then rejoice: if they could not go to the university, the university would go to them. In their pajamas, and in the comfort of their family living room, they reveled in the educational wonders concocted by their teachers scattered throughout the four corners of the globe.

Among the vast panel of 2.0 means that the 21st century provides us with, to inflict our courses on our dedicated students, two in particular caught my colleagues’ and I attention:
- “real time” courses at a fixed time, as we would do on campus,
- videos made available every week on a dedicated server.
Teachers then pick one or the other of these methods, or even, for digital adventurers, an intelligent combination of the two.

My personal choice fell on the making of videos, posted every Monday morning, so as to treat half a chapter per week, with a video call with all the students every Friday to answer the questions sent to me during the week. On paper, this formula was ideal for me, it allowed students whose main difficulty lies in understanding the language to consult the content at leisure, as many times as they wanted. This allowed at the end week that only problems related to physics itself would remain, which we would clear up in one video call.
This formula also had the advantage of allowing me to adjust my schedule. With three roommates (some of whom also do distance education), and a cat keen on photobombing, it could indeed be particularly difficult to make a video call from more than 10 minutes without an animal appearing on the screen (cat and roommates included) or sitting on my keyboard (only the cat, my roommates are well trained). In addition to these videos (generally ten or so per week, between 1:30 and 2 hours each), weekly exercises were added, with a work report every two to three weeks, so as to force (if necessary) students to work. After a little over two months of this formula, time had come for an overview.

The first remarks I will make will concern the intrinsic technical quality of my videos. The first observation to make is the following: not everyone who wants to be Stanley Kubrick can be Stanley Kubrick. It is obvious watching my videos that we are far from Hollywood standards. You cannot improvise yourself as a director in a day, especially when all the equipment you have is a smartphone and a computer. Here is, for the anecdote, the way I chose to proceed (technophobes can refrain from reading):
- for each lesson, a slideshow was prepared, then broadcasted on my computer screen;
- a dedicated application allowed me to use my phone as a webcam, by connecting it to my internet box, in order to send the image to VLC media player. My phone then placed on a lectern, judiciously converted for the occasion, allowed me to film a sheet of paper playing the role of the whiteboard;
- a screen capture software then allowed me to record my slideshow, the audio being captured by my headphones’ microphone;
- finally, an editing software allowed me to edit the video (deletion of unnecessary moments, of meowing background noises, or of whiskers appearing on the screen);
- last, the file was to be uploaded to the dedicated server. Once the process well set, the realization of a 15 minute video would take me around 45 minutes (against several hours at the beginning), for a final result relatively satisfying, without being fantastic (I challenge anyone to watch the hours of video I have now compiled in one go without being overwhelmed by a certain intellectual weariness which, in extreme cases, could turn to boredom).

Now let’s talk about the reception of these videos by the students, and my impressions on the quality of the training provided. Firstly, this teaching method can work: I was able to observe in some students a real enthusiasm, and a will to work commanding respect. For serious and hardworking students, this type of training at home, allowing them to organize their own time, can be a successful method. However, this only concerns a small number of students, and today, after several months of weekly videos, even the most serious begin to tire. Over the weeks, questions about the chapters covered have dried up, so much so that my Friday live sessions now boil down to sending out a questionnaire marked "Do you have any questions?", unanimously answered in the negative by 53 students. Others, more optimistic than I am, would attribute this phenomenon to exceptionally clear course materials, and explanatory videos worthy of an oriental "C’est pas sorcier!" TV show. As a moderate pessimist, I rather imagine my courses materials being relegated to a corner of my students' computer, between an episode of "Game of Thrones" and a "League of Legends" play.

I will finally conclude this article by giving my final opinion, of course completely subjective and personal, on this distance learning experience.
My impression is that, by massively resorting to technical means that I had only a partial command of, my profession has gone from being a professor to being a mediocre "entertainer". In the classroom, I already had to fight WeChat and the constant invasion of notifications, reducing the attention span of my students to nothing. Today, I am afraid that the precious megabytes of my time will end up in my students' SPAM mailbox.
Before, like any teacher, I could sometimes get intense satisfaction, when I read in the eyes of these young people a real interest in physics, a discipline that fascinates me. Now I am posting videos, like throwing a bottle into the sea, hoping that they end up somewhere on the shore of their attention. Though we are struggling to invent ways to still organize exams, while avoiding cheating, it seems that my mission is more to justify obtaining a French stamp on a diploma, rather than to really care about each student. In particular to care about those less studious, whom we abandon by the side of the road.

As you will probably have understood by now, I am one of those who believe that a direct student-teacher transmission is necessary for effective learning. I am relatively skeptical about distance education. If it can prove to be a valuable asset in support of traditional teaching, allowing serious students to shine, it cannot, in my opinion, constitute in itself a quality training for the majority of students. We can certainly congratulate ourselves on the success met in recent months by mature and applied students, but above all we must prepare to reintegrate some students who, academically speaking, are today in a situation of distress. Fortunately, as life begins again in Beijing, we can be reassured, everything is going back to normal, and this situation will soon resume."

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