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The Pandemic hit the vast majority of European HEI unprepared. The members of AEDiL saw this as a starting point for a collaborative project taking innovative methodological pathways.

The digital shock as a starting point for a collaborative autoethnography

The rapid and unavoidable shift towards emergency remote research, teaching and learning hit Germany at least as unexpectedly as it hit the vast majority of European Higher Education Institutions (HEI). While digitally based learning and teaching had continuously gained growing interest from policy-makers across Europe in the recent decade, the actual practical and strategic implementation of adequate concepts varied broadly between and within tertiary institutions by country, size, and resources (EUA 2020). Broadly speaking, the Covid-19 outbreak in spring 2020 caught the German higher education system exceptionally unprepared in comparison to other Western countries. The pandemic outbreak illuminated the fact that digital forms of teaching and learning were neither widely spread amongst single courses nor yet fully implemented across departments and study programmes. In recent years, German HEI have been far away from adopting systemic and strategic approaches for digital teaching and learning scenarios (Kerres 2020). While digital technologies, such as lecture slides and literature provision via learning management systems, already played a major role in the practices of students and were used for basic auxiliary university services; more complex and demanding forms of technology‐enhanced teaching and learning, such as video conferencing and blended learning, were implemented only occasionally (Skulmowski & Rey 2020). Positive examples of technology-enhanced academic teaching and learning at German HEIs refer mainly back to individual instructors or faculty engagement. Even more symbolically, by the year 2019, only 14 percent of German HEI had a digitalisation strategy in place. While the digitalisation of teaching and learning was a high priority for almost a third of German universities at this time, only 1.7 percent of German universities rated the state of digitalisation of teaching and learning as ‘very advanced’ (Gilch et al. 2019). Kerres (2020), one of the most renowned educational technology experts in Germany and beyond, summarised the way the German higher education system entered the summer term of 2020 as follows:

“No managerial strategies, no teacher training, no debates on technological design or politics, no arguments about the pros and cons – we just do it.”

Kerres (2020)

This very heterogeneous and in a larger sense, rather unprepared, German higher education system was the starting point for a cross-institutional, grassroots based collaborative endeavour to deepen insights into the digital transformation of teaching and learning during the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020. It is our very special story of AEDiL.

Widening perspectives on digital teaching through collaborative autoethnographic research

The acronym AEDiL is the name of a project about autoethnographic research on technology-enhanced teaching and its development (in German: AutoEthnographische Forschung zu Digitaler Lehre und deren Begleitung). When Covid-19 forced HEI to transfer academic teaching and learning into digital spheres, 16 academics with different disciplinary backgrounds, who work and teach in diverse fields at various German HEI connected due to their interest in (digital) teaching and learning. Initiated by a discussion on Twitter in mid-March, six people – who later constituted the AEDiL core group – met online at the end of March 2020 and decided to launch a community-based autoethnographic project. The group developed a call for participation which was distributed across a related disciplinary association to invite interested colleagues from the wider community. Quickly, a first online gathering between the core group and the newly joined members of the community was organized and soon thereafter, the AEDiL project was launched. 

The beginning of AEDiL was marked by relevant methodological preparations to support each group member. This was necessary, because – even though AEDiL was planned as a collaborative autoethnography project – most of the project members had neither heard of nor applied autoethnographic methods before.

As our work was led by autoethnography as a method, we collected data drawn from our individual experiences, perceptions and emotions during the (beginning of) the pandemic. Self-observation and reflective documentation marked our research actions, as individuals, between April and July 2020. This individual reflection laid ground for our collaboration as members of AEDiL. Collaborative autoethnography combines the insights and data of various autoethnographic researchers (Chang et al. 2013). Often this is done by connecting single autoethnographic stories to emphasise individual, sometimes contrasting perspectives, or by collaboratively analysing the collected material. Collaboration marked our work throughout the whole research process: we shared our individual research interests and discussed similarities and differences, we shared our field notes and reflective thoughts, gathered reflective impulses through the notes of others, we used our colleagues’ perspectives to identify the core elements in our material and developed frames for our individual collaborative stories, and finally we designed book chapters to frame our work. The open access publication (Autor:innengruppe AEDiL 2021a) bears witness to the collaborative quality that powered our research. After less than a year, AEDiL managed to launch a working, multi-layered research project which developed several findings, themselves well worth sharing with all those who wished to join us in (re)thinking higher education teaching and learning paradigms.

Opportunities, practices, discrepancies, and tensions – autoethnographic glimpses behind digital teaching

The autoethnographic stories created within AEDiL mirrored the diversity and complexity of us as HEI researchers and professionals as we perceived and managed our daily (digital) routines. These stories, despite their varying contexts and individual cores, offer findings on four key issues related to the unexpected shift to online teaching and learning settings and to the challenges of continued work in a time of crisis. Based on these shared perspectives, we identified four content-related story clusters:

  • Opportunities in the crisis
    • This cluster of autoethnographic stories seeks to demonstrate how unexpected changes and related feelings of insecurity might provoke new lines of thinking. The four stories shed light on the phenomena of how the individual insecurity of university lectures can foster the emergence of alternative patterns of behaviour. 
  • New (digital) teaching practices
    • The autoethnographic stories grouped under this cluster deal with how the emergence of new and the stability of old teaching practices change(d) due to Covid-19. These stories also describe how changed practices might lead to changed perceptions of one’s own role as teacher.
  • Expectation discrepancies
    • This cluster groups autoethnographic stories that focus on implicit and explicit expectations that apply for (digital) teaching in the complex of academic working conditions. These four stories make public how difficult it was for academic teachers to meet these various expectations of students, colleagues, institutions as well as those of their own. 
  • Structural tensions
    • These autoethnographic stories also shed light on various, often competing, implicit and explicit expectations in academia but primarily focus on the tensions between the individual teachers and the structures and institutions of academia surrounding them. Thus, the stories of this cluster allow for individual insights into topics that are often only circulating in academia in internal, informal contexts.

Together, all of the stories that emerged during the AEDiL project (to date) provide unique insights into the experiences of HEI agents; experiences that are grounded in individual and specific academic contexts. By offering these insights, the stories expose the complex web of aspects that influence our daily (teaching and learning) practices in academia. At the same time, they emphasise the immense range of individual approaches that can be found to address the challenges of being an academic teacher in a digital era.

Looking ahead to further avenues of autoethnographic collaborative research on digital teaching

Since the pandemic will undoubtedly occupy our attention for the future and we can assume that digital technologies have and will further become integral parts of academic teaching and learning, we as AEDiL project members see three main perspectives for further research, collaboration and discussion.

Firstly, the AEDiL group itself continues to collaboratively collect and analyse their experiences with digital teaching and learning practices. During the summer semester 2021, the group changed the mode from individual data collection to collective data collection by conducting dyadic interviews. This hopefully allows for deeper understandings of the stability and changes of practices, taking into account theoretical constructs such as habitus, structures and socialisation particularly relevant in academia and its effects on individual teaching routines.

Secondly, the AEDiL group supports approaches to open science. All relevant work is made publicly available for further research. In this sense, the individual autoethnographic stories collected in the published book can be treated as qualitative data material and further analysed focusing on specific research questions which is already been done by individual group members, e.g. the changing roles and routines of education technology experts (Thielsch et al. in press).

Thirdly, we wholeheartedly encourage other people in academia to join together and develop other forms of communities of practice. Applicable recommendations are outlined in the English chapter of the AEDiL book (Autor:innengruppe AEDiL 2021b). The joint reflection of one’s own practices is always fruitful and becomes even easier with the common use of digital technologies within academia. An example like AEDiL emphasises the value of contexts in which academics can discuss and reflect on their teaching experiences together. Furthermore, it demonstrates that (in fact) everybody is able to form such a community for peer learning and support, whether initiated via social media or other (digital) networks. Hopefully, with more such communities, the blackbox of teaching will increasingly disappear. Open discussions about teaching, we would argue, will not only make academia a better place to work, it will also make universities a better place to learn … and not only for students.