Imagine doing laboratory experiments in Jena from abroad: this should soon be possible with the help of Augmented and Virtual Reality, as part of the international Master’s programme in Photonics at the University of Jena in Germany.
The further development of the programme will now be supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) with 400,000 euros over two years, for the “digiPHOTON” project. “With this project we are responding to the increasing demand for digitally and flexibly available teaching content, especially among international students,” says project leader Prof. Thomas Pertsch. “This need is enormous and there is great potential, as the past semester under pandemic conditions has certainly shown.” Major aims are to develop the photonics programme into the University of Jena’s first course that can be studied completely online and to raise its profile internationally.
The coronavirus pandemic has prompted all universities in Germany to work intensively on digital teaching. While it is comparatively easy to go digital in lectures and seminars, digitising the teaching of practical research skills in the laboratory is a challenge, notes Dr Christian Helgert, CEO of the Abbe School of Photonics in Jena. As a strongly research-oriented study programme, Photonics places great emphasis on acquiring practical skills in the laboratory. With the help of digital techniques such as Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, students who are not present in Jena should be able to conduct experiments and investigations in the laboratory.
“In the long term, one aim could be to operate research infrastructures and technologies remotely and obtain access to otherwise severely restricted laboratories and facilities in virtual environments,” explains Helgert. “Exams must also be digitised, while still allowing fair and comparable conditions for all students.”
In principle, Helgert considers the situation at the University of Jena to be a good starting point for digitisation. “The e-learning infrastructure used so far offers a good basis for incorporating, for example, analysing elements into the system, with which students can take responsibility for measuring their learning progress objectively and fairly during their studies in order to prepare for a digital examination in the best possible way,” he explains.
An important aspect of the entire project is to carry out the strategic expansion of digitisation and to further increase both the quality and the range of teaching in Jena. “A key goal of our project is to create a symbiosis within the study programme, so that students can switch flexibly between face-to-face and online teaching, depending on their individual circumstances,” says Pertsch. Lecturers and other university staff must also be mindful of this change. Helgert is optimistic in this respect: “Many colleagues are very digitally savvy and have already shown great commitment to trying out their own – sometimes very different – approaches in the past semester. This will be of benefit to us in our project.” However, we do not want to settle for this, but instead, for example, appoint a digital learning designer for the project, who will professionalise and implement the appropriate design for the methods and instruments for digital teaching.
This project to digitise the study programme should make access to teaching in Jena crisis-proof and flexible. In this way, potential obstacles to studying, such as travel restrictions, but also restrictions on physical access or the difficulty of combining childcare and studying, could be dismantled bit by bit. The physicists are also convinced that the range of digital services will enhance the international perception of the University as a modern and innovative institution for science and research. Furthermore, over the long term, digitisation will make more students aware of what is on offer, so that the study programme can grow.
To carry out the planned project, project leader Pertsch is collaborating internally with the Master’s programmes Intercultural Business Communication, Physics and Medical Photonics. With graduate students in mind, there are plans for greater cooperation with the Max Planck School of Photonics, which is coordinated in Jena. In the “Digital Teaching Lab” recently presented and opened there, the first innovative formats for digital learning and teaching have already been developed for Photonics.