Before we describe the situation at Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) in February 2020, we give an insight into the situation in Austria.
4.1. E-Learning in Austrian Higher Education
As for most European universities, Austrian universities are—in addition to single dedicated distance learning universities—traditional presence universities with a focus predominantly on face-to-face teaching. Nevertheless, support of learning management systems, and online communication and services, are widespread and accessible for potentially all students and lecturers in Austria, where mobile internet services are widely used and available in good quality in most locations. Thus, by 2015, for example, all universities of applied science used learning management systems [14
]. A total of 49 of 72 Austrian universities (including universities of applied science and universities of teacher education) took part in a survey [15
] and described their experience in e-learning over the years: 41 universities showed that they have been using e-learning for over five years, with public universities reporting significantly longer experience in comparison (p. 39, see Figure 1
Thus, the broad majority of Austrian universities have had experience with e-learning for over ten years. However, currently the official implementation of pure online or blended studies is not widespread. In an Austria-wide survey concerning e-learning in higher education in 2016, the authors discovered that only 5 of the 22 Austrian public universities had already officially declared “blended learning studies” within their intellectual capital statements [15
]. It is of note that there are 15 private universities in Austria [16
], but only a small portion (4%) of Austria’s students are enrolled at one of these [17
]. More recent studies are not available, but we assume that the situation did not dramatically change before the end of 2019: all Austrian universities and ministries support strategies and activities to support the integration of technologies into learning in teaching, but had not shifted to pure online education.
It might be helpful to also refer to an OECD study to describe the general level of digitalisation in education in Austria [18
]. One of the newest comparative datasets was made available in the Austrian national education report 2018, building upon data by the OECD. According to the data, digital literacy in Austria is more prevalent than the average of the 28 EU countries. For example, 66 percent of 16- to 34-year olds in Austrian have digital skills above the basic knowledge, compared to 52 percent in the 28 EU countries, and, for example, only 61 percent in Germany [18
4.2. E-Learning at TU Graz Following the Model for E-Learning Readiness Assessment by Alshaher (2013)
In Austria, TU Graz has about 16,600 students and 2400 lecturers and researchers. The university was founded in 1811 and has 96 institutes which are classified in one of the seven faculties, namely architecture, civil engineering, computer science and biomedical engineering, electrical and information engineering, mathematics, physics and geodesy, mechanical engineering and economic science, and technical chemistry, chemical and process engineering and biotechnology [20
]. TU Graz is—as are other Austrian universities—included in the top 1000 ranking of Times Higher Education (place 400–500) [21
We will now give a status quo description of e-learning at the end of February 2020 at TU Graz, using the e-learning readiness assessment framework by Alshaher [7
]. Whereas [7
] refers more or less to a special e-learning system, we use a broader description of the situation of TU Graz regarding e-learning. As described before, we tried to deliver “objective” data, but our own readiness, or “shared values” have not been evaluated in a study to date, so the objectivity of our description is potentially limited.
The first category for readiness assessment is “strategy
”. For this, we cite official statements by the university concerning vision, mission, goals and strategic plans
. First, TU Graz describes itself as a “traditional university” (English version), or “as an avowed presence university” (German version, own translation) which “will not replace but enhance classroom teaching with digital media” (English version of [22
]). The vision of the department of Educational Technology is to sustainably enhance classroom teaching with modern media to improve communication by a centralized service. TU Graz shall represent a community of teachers and learners in tomorrow’s information society. This vision is expressed by the guiding principle “the Power of the People”, underpinned by the slogan “We care about e
]. The strategy of the Educational Technology department is reviewed every three years and concerns nine fields of action, which are part of the department’s mission statement [21
]: “Operation, maintenance and development of digital online platforms for teaching and learning and applications; design, production and deployment of digital resources for teaching and learning [amongst others e-books, streaming media]; support and consulting for planning and realisation of digital supporting measures in teaching; qualification measures and skills development; open access to education and knowledge [open educational resources]; organisational setting and incentive systems; Interuniversity co-operations and enhancement of (inter-)national exchange in the subject area e-learning; strengthening of lifelong learning and research and innovation”. In 2017, the university published internal Guidelines of the Rectorate and the Senate on: “Virtual Teaching at TU Graz” [23
]. Within the summary, it highlights the now official “three pillar model” to anchor virtual teaching at TU Graz in the long term:
“(1) The use of digital learning elements and formats is always possible as a didactic means of enriching classroom teaching.
(2) Virtual teaching as a didactic tool within the framework of lectures or the lecture section of a university can be freely implemented by the lecturer up to a threshold value of 20% of the semester hours to be held.
(3) In all other cases, the proportion of virtual teaching must be approved by the Study Commission Working Group and the Curricula Commission for Bachelor’s, Master’s and Diploma Studies or the Curricula Commission for Doctoral Studies and University Courses and anchored in the curriculum accordingly.” (from the summary, own translation).
Our external counsellor describes his current perception of the e-learning strategy as follows: “I feel that the approach to e-learning at TU Graz is cautious, careful not to frighten or snub anybody, very pragmatic, not blatant, not expressively visionary, but still constantly evolving and this feels very good to me. A straighter vision could give more direction, more confidence and motivate even more to go into this direction”.
Concerning the second category, structure 
, the situation of e-learning at TU Graz can be described as following: First, there is a clear centralisation
of responsibility for e-learning, as a department of Educational Technology was already established in 2006 as a working group, and in 2007 was established as a division of the Central IT Service with 2 people. In 2016, the Rector established Educational Technology as an organizational department under the direction of the Vice Rector for Academic Affairs at TU Graz [24
]. The department has been permanently growing and has, as of today, reached about 40 staff members (28.5 full-time equivalents in January 2020, see internal organisation plan, described below in more details). Universities have better conditions than smaller institutions because there are “bigger pools of sophisticated professionals” and a relatively big budget [7
]. In the case of TU Graz, many department members are or were students at the university, and at other universities it is probably more difficult to identify good suitable people. Concerning structure, the importance of a CIO (chief information officer) within an organisation is highlighted [7
], which is the head of the IT services, an established department, and a position existing for several decades.
Several technical systems
are in use at TU Graz: TU Graz is well-equipped concerning technology
, it has, for example, campus-wide Internet access and free WiFi (eduroam), all students and lecturers have access to private or institutional computers, and an IT service department is responsible for technology, security, communication network and infrastructure. Furthermore, the department provides a university-wide learning management system, an e-assessment platform, a video portal and also the Austrian massive open online course platform iMooX.at. Content
-wise, a special feature of TU Graz is a strategic emphasis on open access and positioning regarding open educational resources (OER). The first strategy towards OER was established in 2011 [25
]. Educational content and materials are made available within the learning management system TeachCenter and special services and platform support
such as Tube, which offers videos and live streaming. The Educational Technology department runs these e-learning services and others, such as several apps (TU Graz My Apps) and an e-book author system (ABC ebooks). Documentation
of these services and technologies is available in detail, not least because of the strict European General Data Protection Regulation and its implementation at the university.
Concerning style and culture, the situation at TU Graz will be described from the authors’ perspective as well as from impressions of people from outside the organisation. The organisational culture concerning e-learning can be described as a non-enthusiastic, pragmatic attitude concerning technology as support for teaching amongst management and lecturers. Most of the lecturers and researchers are reluctant to use (new) technologies in teaching. For these, the implementation is not really needed and an extra effort. The official university’s strategy is to sustainably enhance classroom teaching with modern media to improve communication by a centralized service and to remain a traditional university with face-to-face lectures (see paragraph above). Thus, there is only a moderate expectation, but not pressure, to adapt technologies for learning. Similarly, the top management support for e-learning topics is given, as demonstrated by the establishment and expansion of the Educational Technology department and the anchoring of the topic in strategic papers of the university and its general efforts towards digitisation. Concerning leadership and communication, we asked an external counsellor and trainer who has supported the development of the department for some years: concerning leadership, he points out that the leader of the department is a well-known expert in his field, who has learned to make and communicate strategic decisions, which are comprehensible to others. By developing team leaders in Educational Technology who take on leadership in an operational sense, there is also an opportunity for strategic considerations for the head of the department. Concerning communication, our counsellor shared the following: “The department leader is very well connected in- and outside of the university and has an effective stakeholder management. The Rectorate knows that the Educational Technology team can deliver trend-setting results without friction losses and therefore supports the department. Within the department, communication is characterised by situationally necessary and relevant topics and is operationally optimised”.
Concerning the staff
at TU Graz, [7
] focuses on the educational technology department, specifically the e-learning team. The first criterion is “sufficient manpower
”. The Educational Technology team of TU Graz comprises about 40 persons (about 28.5 full-time positions) and is this well positioned compared to other Austrian universities; however, the persons are largely financed by third-party funds, which means that they are in fact only partially available for internal activities. In the last five years, strategy papers, communication structures and organisational changes have been made to clearly position, integrate and stabilise the team within the university. In January 2020, the team
of educational technology comprises 41 persons (not equivalent to full-time positions), organised in five teams responsible for instructional design (eight persons), videos, recording and streaming (nine persons), IT projects and research (10 persons), technical infrastructure (12 persons), management and administration (two persons). Most of the staff are funded externally, so they are only partly responsible and available for internal activities of the university (source: internal organisation plan). The head of Educational Technology is constantly striving for further development of the team, also regarding inner trust
: For several years, regular team training and development days have been offered with the help of an external moderator. Concerning inter-trust of the e-learning team and other departments, there has been good cooperation for several years. Concerning the training and education
of users, there is a wide range of materials and offers for lecturers at the university. The instructional design team offers two get-together activities on a regular basis, namely “Teacher’s Regular Table” and the “Educational Technology Breakfast” where lecturers are provided with news related to innovative teaching. Furthermore, lecturers can book individual counselling to enhance their teaching with new technologies and possible blended learning scenarios; e-didactic courses; and courses within the university-wide Teaching Academy (open educational resources trainings, on-boarding courses for learning management, coaching for technology-enhanced learning, flipped classroom trainings). Recently, in 2019, the team developed and realised a project called “TELucation folder” (TEL refers to technology-enhanced learning) which comprises current issues concerning e-learning and educational technology tools for higher education teaching in an analogue folder-format but with a digital equivalent in the TU Graz learning management system TeachCenter. This project is intended to bridge the gap between the lecturers that still work in analogue and helping those who are already into digital teaching with further information.
, ref [7
] takes skills of all stakeholders into account, namely management, IT staff
and students’ skills
. As a university of technology, the conditions here, as well in comparison with other higher education institutions in Austria, are sufficient. Even beginners bring in base skills [26
Finally, the last category which describes e-learning readiness is “shared value”. We cannot refer to existing texts or study and need to describe the situation from our perspective as a support team with support requests from lecturers and students. Perhaps because we are a university of technology, there is a great understanding, a shared belief and also a demand for technical infrastructure and technical support of the lecturers. Questions relating to didactics in higher education are comparatively less important, even though the department’s services are gladly accepted. To promote internal e-learning champions within our university, we have had experienced and innovative lecturers speak at our internal training sessions since 2018 or present them in our internal magazine. Since 2019, e-learning has additionally been part of the internal award in “excellence of lecturing”.
4.3. E-Learning Activities in Figures in Winter Semester 2019/2020
Differently to other universities, only lecturers who actively request a course will have an active course within the learning management system TeachCenter or they reuse existing courses (and content) from previous semesters. This approach ensures that most of the courses in the learning management system are active. The system currently holds 1906 active courses. The learning management system in the winter semester 2019/2020 shows about 860,000 to 1.43 million activities per month. Within our statistics, we count for example, if a user opens a course page, opens an activity, downloads a file, opens the forum, writes a post in the forum or subscribes to a forum thread. Students performed about 606,000–974,000 activities and 39,000–92,000 were from lecturers. About 32,000–86,000 were from tutors, who are typically advanced paid students (see Table 2
). With about 16,600 students and 2400 lecturers, a lecturer had about 28 log-ins on average per month, and an average student about 49 log-ins per month, in the winter semester 2019/2020.
These data are also available for the previous semesters, so that a good overview of the constant growth of activities in the TeachCenter can be given (see Figure 2
): the winter semester starts at the first of October, the summer semester typically at the first of March with some small variation; the winter semester is the typical start of study programs. Looking at the last four semesters, we can see a trend of increase of activities in the learning management system: while it is continuous amongst lecturers, there are fewer activities amongst students in the summer semester, but 500,000 more activities between the summer and winter semesters.
As described, TUbe is a video portal hosting recorded and streamed videos at the university offering lecture videos, event videos, and other interesting videos of TU Graz. Lecturers and institutes also use other video hosting options such as YouTube. Within the winter semester 2019/2020, there were about 120 uploads (“publications”) and 29,000 clicks on all TUbe publications on average per month (see Table 3
The described dates and activities mainly refer to winter semester 2019/2020 and thus to the period before COVID-19 became a topic that influenced the activities at our university.