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WATE PGR 2020 Commendee: Alexander Noll (Computer Science)

Why did you start teaching? What (or who) inspired you?

Teaching represents an integral part of working in higher education to me. Doing a PhD is not only a training in creating new knowledge but also in disseminating it. Sharing my knowledge with other people and learning from theirs brings me great joy. Furthermore, it is wonderful to support students on their way and contribute a tiny bit to helping them achieve their full potential. For me personally, teaching is also a great training in expressing academic contents in a comprehensible manner to a (yet) non-expert audience. Lastly and in all fairness, for PhD students, teaching always represents an often necessary extra income.

I have had my first teaching experience during my undergraduate studies in which I was involved in tutoring first-year students during my final year. I have had my fair share of good and bad teaching experiences as a student. The most inspiring teachers engaged on eye-level, being curious about their students on a human level.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you started out?

How many hours of work are hidden behind a 50-minute seminar.

If you were mentoring a first-time teacher, what advice would you give?

  1. There is only so much you can prepare for ‘on paper’ – much of the learning experience in teaching comes from practice.
  2. Some students know more than you think they do – and others less than you think they do. Be prepared for both.
  3. Think of your own worst and best learning experiences in taught modules and consider which consequences you want to draw for your own style of teaching.

What advice/top tips would you give to more experienced teachers?

To remain open to new teaching resources, especially digital advancements, and to be aware of students’ individual needs and backgrounds. Even small personal encouragements can go a long way.

What does being recognised through WATE PGR mean to you?

The thought that I was able to contribute positively to somebody’s learning and their time at university in general just sparks great joy. In turn it is a great honour to be recognised for my tiny contribution to a community of teachers who work on creating a positive learning environment.

What do you enjoy the most about teaching? What’s the best part of your job?

Sharing knowledge with others can feel quite rewarding in general. The best part of teaching, however, is meeting inspiring young people, engaging in imaginative discussions with them, helping them to overcome hurdles and seeing them flourish within and beyond university.

How have you adapted your teaching during Covid-19? What have you learnt from the experience?

I have not been involved in direct teaching since the start of Covid-19 lockdown measures. However, in one of my term two modules my students had to write an essay on a computer-science related topic discussing its social, legal and ethical dimensions. Several students decided to write about distance or online learning, especially in light of the current pandemic. From this I see evidence that online learning plays an increasingly important role in higher education. Nevertheless, the tenor was also that face-to-face teaching remains important. The best tip regarding current Zoom-culture I have read on Twitter was to not design online courses with their offline equivalent in mind but to fully embrace and consider the online space with all its opportunities and restrictions.

What new technologies are you currently using to enhance your teaching? What are your top tips for using them?

My personal use of (new) technologies in teaching was restricted by already existing curriculums and tasks that I had to deliver. Where possible I have tried to implement additional audio-visual material or include small online polls to make the learning more interactive. My perception of newer technologies so far is that it should be considered well whether it adds more value to the learning experience or whether it overcomplicates existing, offline technologies. In general, it is worth considering seeing the online/digital options in their own right and not to force an offline technique on an online tool.

What are the biggest challenges faced by teaching staff? How do you overcome these?

For PGR teachers one continuous challenge certainly is the increasing casualisation of higher education staff which has gained structural dimensions. In addition, universities are not excluded from the accelerating pace of our world. This leaves less time for students to learn and develop their own thoughts, puts increasing pressure on teachers and reduces the odds of providing individual support to a diverse group of students.

What lessons have you learned from your students?

Generally speaking, by being open to the students’ interests, I can learn a lot from their experiences, their views on the world, what they want to know and how they want to put their knowledge into action.

If you could write a recipe for the perfect inspiring teacher, what ingredients would you need?

Basic ingredients:

  • Being human
  • Open-mindedness
  • Empathy
  • Encouragement
  • Curiosity
  • Pinch of humour

Enjoyed hearing from Alexander? See the full list of 2020 winners and commendees and read other interviews.