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Interview With the New Blended Learning Assistants Jan von Harten and Nils Chudalla

Picture of Nils Chudalla Copyright: N. Chudalla

"Blended learning" means something like "mixed learning" and refers to the combination of classic (classroom) teaching and innovative digital online teaching concepts (e-learning). This includes, for example, measures such as serious games or virtual field trips. As a result of online teaching during the Corona crisis, the topic of blended learning has become more significant ultimately.

How blended learning looks in practice can be read on the website of the Division of Geosciences and Geography and in the newsletters that are published once a quarter.

Jan von Harten and Nils Chudalla took over the position of blended learning assistants at the turn of the year. In this interview they talk about their experiences with blended learning in their degree programs and about their future projects.

  Picture of Jan von Harten Copyright: J. von Harten

You are both currently writing your doctoral thesis at Professor Wellmann's institute. What did you study before and how did you come up with the topic of your Master's or Doctoral Thesis?

Nils: I did both my Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Applied Geosciences at RWTH Aachen University, where I majored in EMR ("Energy and Mineral Resources"). After my Bachelor's degree, I still wanted to do my Master's degree here, because I built up a small network in the student council in Aachen and had contact with lecturers and staff. I finally wrote my Master's Thesis with Professor von Hagke.

Jan: I actually have a very similar career path. I also did my Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Applied Geosciences. My major was also EMR. In classical geology, I was often bothered by the large scope for interpretation. In my Master's degree, I got into programming through the course "Numerical Reservoir Engineering" and learned to appreciate the quantitative approach to geological problems. That's why I also wrote my Master's thesis with Prof. Wellmann.

Nils: During my studies, I always wondered what the subsurface looks like and what tectonic processes take place there. In my master's thesis on numerical modeling, I then simulated a structural geological process on the computer. The idea of trying to build a subsurface model as accurate as possible based on the given data now brought me to Prof. Wellmann's institute.

How did you get into blended learning and for how long have you been the assistants for blended learning?

Jan: The digitalization strategy of the department stipulates that from 2018 to 2023, two professorships, in our case Prof. Neiberger and Prof. Wellmann, will advance the topic of blended learning. Presumably for the coming years, Nils and I will now take over as assistants.

Nils: We both have already gained first experiences with blended learning methods and thus are not completely inexperienced in our work. In the field, for example, I was already able to gain experience in recording outcrops, so mainly in the topics of photogrammetry and virtual reality. Jan knows Python and Jupyter notebooks well. Since we both recently started writing our PhD thesis at CGRE with Prof. Wellmann, we will definitely stay in Aachen for a few more years.


Were there already approaches for blended learning in courses from your studies?

Nils: I can still remember that Prof. Urai had a blended learning concept in his lecture Endogenous Dynamics with small color cards. It wasn't digital, but it went in a similar direction, namely that you rethink learning concepts and come up with new methods. A little later, Prof. Clauser used live surveys with apps like Pingo. In the Bachelor's degree, students learn the basics of programming with Python, for example, and then deepen their knowledge in the Master's degree, which is an important basis for some blended learning concepts.

Jan: Moodle (or L2P) has actually always been used, although only a few courses have really exploited the platform's potential. I'm happy to see more and more versatile concepts being implemented on Moodle because of the digital semester.


Do you use blended learning in the courses you teach?

Jan: Yes, in my Python courses I use blended learning with digital assignments via Jupyter notebooks. Of course, it is partly a matter of definition whether students working independently on the computer in the digital semester already counts as blended learning. The fact that students in my course receive weekly assignments and can solve them as a team at least strengthens interaction.

Nils: I'm still fresh in my doctoral position and will probably only take on courses in later semesters.


Do you have any concrete projects planned yet?

Nils: We will of course continue the newsletter, which is published regularly, and the best practice examples. We also plan to organize competence and interest meetings. Jan would like to present something on Jupyter Notebooks and I on virtual fieldtrips. At these workshops, teachers can share and discuss how the blended learning measures presented can be incorporated into their courses. In this way, we are continuing what our predecessor Charlotte Zippe initiated. For example, she organized a competence group meeting on the topic of "Serious Games". Serious games are a kind of planning game designed to put students in real-life situations. Such a serious game is already offered in the subject area of Economic Geography in the geography program and is designed to teach the complexity of retail development in a playful way.


What should be the relationship between face-to-face teaching and blended learning?

Nils: Blended learning does not have to exclude traditional classroom teaching. You can definitely enhance classroom teaching with blended learning measures, for example by using on-demand videos to deepen learning content or by incorporating measures into lectures to make them more interactive. This could be surveys or practical examples in virtual reality, for example. I would see blended learning as a useful support to improve teaching and incorporate it where it is possible. It doesn't have to be limited to online teaching.

Jan: Of course, it also depends on the courses. Due to the many concepts, there are blended learning measures suitable for almost every course. There is no blanket solution that can be applied to every course. In a programming course, of course, it's difficult to incorporate a serious game. In general, however, I believe that the majority of courses offered can benefit.


What do you think which blended learning measures are best received by the students?

Nils: There are, of course, very different types of learners. Some students like online teaching, some prefer face-to-face teaching. I think that students really appreciate new and unusual teaching methods because they are often more interactive and they therefore get in touch with other students, which is even more important in the Corona crisis.

Jan: I think the better question would be which blended learning measures help students understand and internalize the content being taught in the long term. In the best case, these measures are then also well received because they package important content in a playful way, such as the serious games I mentioned. However, this also requires a lot of commitment and willingness to experiment on the part of the students.

Nils: Jan and I are grateful for every suggestion, especially from the students. I graduated with my Master's degree in September and I know how often students don't take advantage of feedback opportunities. I think it makes sense for students to let lecturers know how they want the material communicated. We appreciate any suggestions!