From the room known as the "Café des sports", one of the virtual videoconferencing rooms of the biology department accessible from the Study portal, François Roudier, Director of the department and Nathalie Alazard, Assistant Director, tell us about almost 4 weeks of intense remote work. Four weeks, three phases, a first assessment and a constant optimism despite the complexity of an ever-changing situation.
Phase 1: Ensuring the welfare of all students and setting up individual support
A comprehensive list of French and foreign students enrolled in the department has been drawn up from several databases (including ENSCOL) and the strong mobilization of teaching staff and educational tutors quickly made it possible to take stock of each student’s situation and to set up individual support for them, says François Roudier. "Special attention has been paid to the many students working abroad, whom we have strongly encouraged to come back home," he adds. The IDD and the Covid19 monitoring unit have done an outstanding job in connection with embassies and host institutions to advise these foreign students and help them return home as quickly as possible. Today, almost all of the students have returned home; however, a few have chosen to stay there: for example, one student is in lockdown on an experimental farm in Togo, so we communicate regularly on a satellite phone. Another student is waiting at the border between Uruguay and Argentina, while continuing his exploration of biodiversity. They're both safe and well!
Since March 16, individualized support has been available to all students, wherever they may be. We are also paying particular attention to the few foreign students who wanted to stay in France. Regular contact with these students is divided between the tutors and there is a specific space in the bio department, where students and members of the teaching team, including our recently trained instructors, can have a chat. It's very important for morale!
The virtual room where we meet, the Café des Sports, is also a space dedicated to informal discussions amongst the teaching staff, who also find themselves in a complicated situation to continue their assigned tuition. Talking with other colleagues is really important to keep sprits high.
Phase 2: Ensuring the continuity of tuition
François Roudier has also seen the same team spirit concerning switching to distance learning. On Friday, March 13, we had a meeting with department directors during which the Dunes department presented us with the BigBlueButton virtual class interface. On Tuesday, March 17, distance classes started! He recalls with a smile the strikes at the end of 2019 that had forced teachers to start the practice of distance education and the challenges they faced. The experience at the time has paid off now. Not to mention that, for many departments, the majority of course materials were already on the study portal. “You learn on the job” Mr. Roudier notes. “We realize that several hours in a row of video lectures, is exhausting for everyone and counterproductive, so we use other possibilities to create a mixture of solutions: recording the courses beforehand, which is very appreciated by students giving them more flexibility, organizing "chats" and group workshops... Our teachers’ dedication has also helped adapt L3 practical classes: the main concepts are presented; experimental devices and expected results are illustrated with photos or recordings. This is obviously no substitute for practice and familiarization of experimental tools; but these can be implemented at a later date. No courses have been cancelled; some content has been lightened but the essential elements are still there. This whole experience has been very instructive for us.”
He points out that everyone has played the game, the support services, fellow teacher-researchers and of course, the students themselves. “Of course, the new organization hasn’t been without a few problems, especially concerning practical work and the training of research students, but we have adapted, and we have found or rediscovered that there are virtual resources, such as JoVE, if the situation lasts for longer than expected or presents itself again. It also enables us to take a step back from our teaching practices and these tools will be used to set up future training” adds François Roudier. “For many of us, the BBB virtual class tool has even been a revelation.”
So, what consequences has the Covid-19 epidemic had on the content of classes? Nathalie Alazard, who is teaching a multi-disciplinary course on viruses and microbes has of course put the corona virus back in the spotlight. Some hospital-related research placements have been redirected to the study of the epidemic.
Phase 3: course validation and thinking about the future
The primary objective is for students to be able to formally recognize the many efforts they have made before lockdown and validate their semester, their year, their Master's, or their diploma, in the best way possible. This means that we will consider their difficulties and educational expectations very carefully to take this unprecedented situation into account, without giving up the academic values of the School.
The issue of Master's and PLR internships, which were in progress, has concerned a great deal of colleagues, to enable all students to continue their training in and through research, in conditions adapted to the constraints, i.e. remotely. François Roudier notes that the solidarity of the scientific world has played a full role; all internship managers, both in France and abroad, have agreed to continue their supervision remotely.
The issue of L3 internships scheduled to start on May 18 is now being addressed. François Roudier hopes that French tutors and research organizations will continue to take on undergraduate students, even if this means working remotely.
The teaching team is currently planning the organization of the exams. For François Roudier, it is important that students can validate their work, even in a different or lighter format. Hence the importance of testing the quality of video conference connections for all students beforehand... and adapting evaluations to suit. It is still too early to talk about the organization of the competitive entrance exams and the new academic year, but all our teaching staff are already heavily involved, along with the President and the Vice President of Studies.
In short, François Roudier, who describes himself as a natural optimist, acknowledges that this experience, however complicated, has forced everyone to rethink the ways of working and to get back to basics. We have no choice but to adapt! He and Nathalie Alazard also add that paradoxically, during this period of social distancing, the bonds and solidarity between students, pedagogical tutors and all members of the biology department are strengthened. What seems quite clear is that each student, in addition to the changes that this may have on their future career, will all come out of this stronger and more able to adapt to whatever life throws at them.
The biology department in figures
- 59 teacher-researchers, instructors and technical staff
- 223 students enrolled for the 2019-20 academic year, 80 of whom were in internships or gap years abroad at the beginning of the epidemic