Professor Thomas Ryberg on transitioning to remote teaching at Aalborg University in Denmark

By Yamanda Boukmakh, Head of Partnerships at CanopyLAB and Future of Learning webinar series host.



During a time where social distancing is at the tip of everyone’s tongues, has COVID-19 enabled social online learning? Is edtech mature enough to fill the void? What should we expect from the future of (online) teaching? Thomas Ryberg, Professor of Digital Learning at Aalborg University, discusses the future of learning, bringing insightful examples from his own experience as a university professor.

In the history of digital learning, social learning is a concept that has been less explored.

∼Thomas Ryberg


Yamanda: As an expert who has opted for using edtech long before the school closings during the current pandemic, what are the most valuable aspects of elearning?


Our moodle, which is what we use at Aalborg University, is where slides go to die…We upload a lot of stuff, but little activity is happening.

∼Thomas Ryberg


Thomas: If we take the experience of technology in universities and beyond, Martin Weller once said: There are two basic metaphors for technology being used, the broadcast and the discussion. In university and educational institutions, we have been very much using the broadcast model which is about putting up material for learners and then focusing much less on how to interact, do things together or how to teach and learn together.


What we are seeing here during Covid-19 is that people are realizing that online learning is not just about putting material online, it is about engaging people in various online activities. That is an important step in many ways, understanding of learning as also discussion and learning together.


Yamanda: What current role does technology play in the case of Aalborg University?


Thomas: Danish institutions, in particular, have been a bit slow in the uptake of elearning and using technology as a tool for online collaboration. This can be due to the fact that Denmark is a small country and universities are very campus-based in many ways, but that is changing now. People are seeing the benefits of online learning and the flexibility of it all.


Yamanda: As a university professor during the current COVID-19 pandemic, how has it been to maintain and transfer collaborative and project-based learning online right now?


They have to put together tools on their own… like Dropbox or Google. They create and paste together their own learning platform in a sense.


Thomas: Well that is something you will have to ask the students (laughs)… the students have to collaborate every semester and they have to do a lot of stuff together, but we do not actually support them with a platform. They have to put together tools on their own… like Dropbox or Google. They create and paste together their own learning platform in a sense. They have always used some kind of digital tool to support their work, but they have found it a bit challenging not to meet face to face during the past months.


Yamanda: So, what would the challenges of digitizing this university experience be?


Thomas: Well I think there are clear expectations from students that it is an on-campus experience. The challenge for them is suddenly not being able to meet in person whenever they want. I am involved in a research study where we are following 6 groups of students, and they actually do not meet in person very often. They love the flexibility of not having to sit in the same room everyday… They arrange to meet once in a while like once a week, then they work via Facebook, have a Skype meeting, and so on. Students in some groups are seeing that there is a value in flexibility and that they can collaborate differently than they used to.

We need to rethink the idea of presence and distance. We often think of social presence as something that happens when you are in the same room. With Covid-19 we have been talking about social distance, but what we have been practicing is actually physical distance, but obviously, we have not been social distancing because we have been meeting in other ways.


We need to redesign and renegotiate presence: How can we make a learning experience where we feel we are together even though we are not physically close to each other?


Yamanda: Can you describe any example cases of how presence has been redesigned at Aalborg University?


Thomas: It is possible… I know there are multiple Ph.D. programs where people have never met but still develop strong bonds. We have our Master’s in ICT and Learning where students only meet at the beginning and at the end of the semester, the rest is online. They actually work closely together, writing projects together, and are very invested in the program afterward as well.

I had a conversation with a professor at Aarhus University and I asked what has changed for her and she answered: “Well, suddenly I feel a lot closer to the students now.”

The students had to write a lot more to her, and now she saw more of their work… interacting more with them than when she was just doing lectures in the classroom.


Yamanda: What are you looking forward to the most with regards to the future of learning?


There could also be algorithms that support efficient group work, one that is focused on encouraging a discussion about what each individual student contributes to a group written assignment.


Thomas: With AI, in particular, I want to see how tech can empower us to be social and work collaboratively. Taking group work as an example, I am particularly interested in how technologies can facilitate group work, and act as resources they can tap into. For example, assisting groups with compiling literature for a specific project by recommending additional materials and connections that will spark new years of addressing a specific topic. There could also be algorithms that support efficient group work, one that is focused on encouraging a discussion about what each individual student contributes to a group written assignment.


Yamanda: My key takeaways from our discussion is that we need to start thinking about and using technology to empower people to socialize and collaborate. At the student, teacher and institutional level, we need to redefine what presence is, and how we can work collaboratively in online learning spaces. I’ll end the post with an excellent question that Thomas left me reflecting on: Think about the physical and digital space that makes up a learning experience- what are the boundaries and how do people build relations?


This conversation was made possible by the free course on the LAB called Introduction to the Future of Learning I: New and Emerging Trends created by CanopyLAB.

Watch the full webinar.

Feeling inspired and hungry for more? Enroll in the free course here.