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Gaby Probst:"Creating a presence in distance learning is an art!”

14 Oct 2022

Gaby Probst is head of education, member of the board of directors, and teacher of business German at the University of Applied Sciences Fribourg (HEG-FR). Above all, she is an expert on e-learning. One of her articles was awarded the prize for the best presentation – held at a distance, to be sure - at the International Conference on Quality in Higher Education ICQHE 2022.

Gaby Probst did not wait for the Covid-19 pandemic before taking an interest in distance learning. She has been passionate about this topic for many years.  When she was a student herself - and long before video conferencing tools such as Teams or Zoom became part of our daily lives - she was experimenting with distance learning. The HEG-FR professor and education supervisor enthusiastically shares advances in the field with her colleagues. As a freelancer, she created the "Certified Live Online Trainer" course for teachers and works as a trainer for the German company, TELC (The European Language Certificate).

How was the distance learning experience for you during your studies?

The first module of my Master's degree in Adult Education was on e-learning. The technology then was different from today and the program was necessarily given in that form. You have to know that distance learning works only with discipline and self-motivation. Knowing how to build on progress and successes and not getting frustrated by failures are essential. It is precisely this emotional side that we wanted to highlight in the article, co-authored with Dr. Laura Zizka.

How is teaching emotional?

You can't not have emotions. If you want to support teaching through positive emotions, you have to interact. You have to create connections and positive relationships.

Is it the teacher's job to instill positive emotions?


Yes. Teachers coach students. So, if teachers have had a bad day, this can be reflected in their teaching. This is true, whether distance or face-to-face. I always say that students are the best psychologists because they recognize a teacher's mood even before they enter the classroom. They have been psychoanalyzing teachers since they were 5 years old. I am convinced that it is the teacher's role to bring a good atmosphere to the classroom.

Is the emotional component more important at a distance than in person?

I don't think so. During the pandemic, there was also the anxiety of infecting loved ones, of illnesses or deaths within one`s surroundings. This emotional aspect, brought about by the pandemic, had its impact on teaching. Beyond this exceptional situation and in healthy surroundings, if everyone is well, teaching takes place differently and the differences between distance and face-to-face teaching are less noticeable.

But how to connect from a distance?

Since much of our body language is not visible on the screen, we have to be much more human. This is even more difficult for teachers when students don't turn on their cameras. It's hard to smile at your own image. We are not clowns. We are not trained actors. As a result, teaching with emotion cannot play on the emotions of others, since we don't see them. But there are tricks to make yourself (more) human: you can slip in little jokes, show the cat walking around the apartment...

We address the social network generation, who have learned the importance of caring for their image.

Gaby Probst

Is it embarrassing if the whole class turns off their cameras?

I completely understand students who don't turn on their cameras. I have defended them to teachers who have complained about this. Few of our young people live in castles on Lake Geneva. In addition, we are addressing the social network generation that has learned the importance of taking care of their image.  A video conference on Teams may not be Instagram, but someone can take a picture of a colleague in their surroundings and pass it on. Young people are protecting themselves. It's absolutely consistent and understandable.

You say that the social aspect is important in learning. Why?

Learning is, a priori, social, even if it`s clear that we learn alone. It is important to differentiate between passive learning, centered on the teacher transmitting their knowledge, and active learning, which involves the student in the learning and helps them create new skills. This active learning needs others. It needs interactions.

A far cry from the ex cathedra lecture...

Yes, teachers are comfortable telling their stories and students are comfortable listening and taking notes. But if you want to encourage active learning, both groups have to get out of their comfort zone. And that's unsettling. However, it must be done if the teaching is to be improved. Ping pong classes, where the teacher talks to the students and vice versa are not enough, because you have to include everyone.


So how do we involve the whole class?

Let's play volleyball instead of ping-pong. If the discussion moves from one student to another, that's when it gets interesting. This is when behavioral changes are needed. Students need to listen to each other as well as the teacher.

It's not easy to create these kinds of exchanges in a video conference...

No. But to create deep and really interesting learning, it is necessary to establish contact. Creating a presence at a distance can be learned, but it's a learning process. It's an art.

How do you foster a class spirit under these conditions?

There is, of course, group work, which must be monitored to ensure that the instructions are clear and that everyone participates. During synchronous classes, the teacher can question people, as in any face-to-face class. The difference is that remote learning requires a little more patience. You have to wait for the person to switch on their microphone or camera.

You are in charge of teaching at the HEG-FR. What will change as a result of your research?

We are thinking about launching a pilot class in a blended learning format, with both face-to-face and remote components to facilitate positive group dynamics. Personally, I think this is the future of teaching.

Pranks with Deepl

Unlike older generations, digital natives have always had technological tools at their disposal. "They are curious, of course, but sometimes lack technical knowledge and critical thinking skills," says Gaby Probst. For example, a language teacher received texts translated into German by the automatic translating software, Deepl - a trick that the teacher can detect from the very first line. One of the funniest assignments - even if the teacher is not at all amused by a machine translation - was a grammatically perfect text about polyethylene terephthalate, better known as PET. Of course, the machine translator failed to identify the plastic material, but offered the word "fart" (from the French, pet). "It was really a Furzidee (translated literally, ”fart-idea” or silly idea), laughs Gaby Probst, using the fitting German expression. On the other hand, the teacher notes that although young people are familiar with the latest software, they are sometimes at a loss when it comes to changing the verification language of a text in Word.