The University of Salerno in the Time of the Pandemic

Almost two years have passed since 9 March 2020, when the then Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte became the first country in Europe to declare the whole of Italy a red zone. This was not only the beginning of a three-month total lockdown, forcing 59 million Italians to lock themselves in their homes, without the possibility of moving except in cases of extreme need or small exceptions, but also the beginning of a historical phase that has completely revolutionised our lives. 
Obviously, this has also led to an upheaval in the world of Italian universities, where the pandemic has, on the one hand, exacerbated problems regarding the degree of digitalisation of universities, but on the other hand, has been a historic opportunity to develop new forms of digital distance learning. 
Let us take a closer look at how the teaching staff at the University of Salerno experienced and still experience this period. Nicoletta Gagliardi, Professor at the Faculty of Humanistic Studies at the University of Salerno, answers the interview.

Let us begin at the beginning. How did you experience the time before the closure? What was the atmosphere like? Did you expect such a historic moment? 

''I never expected such a difficult historical moment for all humanity, but I remember well that as soon as the news of the virus in Wuhan spread, I was very worried because I did not think China was so far away from us. For personal reasons, however, I tried to play down what I already feared, and I could tell a number of anecdotes from the period immediately before the pandemic, because I was doggedly pursuing an important project at the University of Padua and visiting the Fisciano campus, which was emptying more and more, which I could not accept.''

 How did you organise the cooperation with the students in the first closure phase?

''The university very quickly provided us with the Microsoft Teams platform and I immediately tried to maintain continuity of teaching and a continuous relationship with students and colleagues, as I was a very present faculty member in Fisciano until then and also very present for the students.''

 What was the biggest difficulty you encountered in relation to distance learning and exams?

''Certainly not the technical difficulties, but the interaction with my students, the immediate and mutual exchange, the gestures, the movement. As a teacher of German linguistics and translation, I was certainly not used to my monologues! In the beginning, it was difficult to get even the slightest feedback from the students in the virtual classrooms, and I had to learn to find strategies, always different artifices, depending on the occasion, to understand the level of attention and reception of those who were on the other side, in their own home environment. The organisation of the exams was particularly stressful because I also had to hand in a written test that prepared for the oral exam. And then, when I taught the third and final year of the three-year course, I felt a great responsibility towards those who had to take the final language exam and who showed insecurities and weaknesses of various kinds, especially at the beginning. After all, the students' computer skills were taken for granted, the wireless network in their houses, the PC or the laptop in everyone's possession... I myself, living in the countryside, had problems with the wifi especially during storms and during maintenance work on the network. I remember the calls to the phone company just before classes or exams that gave me giga but did not solve the problem with the home network.''

Did you already have useful tools in the UNISA system that proved to be crucial in dealing with the situation? 

''Yes, UNISA has always experimented with forms of e-learning. I have been working at this university for more than twenty years and already in 2000 we were offered courses on organising e-learning (or blended learning), which I participated in from the beginning. Then, in 2007-2008, I was the then Faculty of Languages' consultant for e-learning and a PON project of the Campania Region. The following year, together with my colleagues Francesco Colace and Giorgio de Marchis (Portuguese and Brazilian Language and Literature), we organised a conference on Teletandem as a method for learning a foreign language, based on the Brazilian and German examples. The university has always supported us on these occasions of international comparison.''

In view of the past year, what do you think are the greatest shortcomings in our university system?

''Probably that of real 'networking' between universities for the common good. Two years of semi-closure with limited library research facilities have almost cut us off from certain European comparisons, even international conferences or contributions. I remember well the last conference in Germany, which I attended in October 2019. Just over a year later, the organisers launched a call for papers for the conference proceedings with a specific aim, I participated but was excluded because my proposal was too theoretical, they would have wanted me to experiment in the classroom. I also explained the reasons for my choice, which are obvious for us in Italy, but obviously not abroad.''

Do you think Pandemic has been an accelerator for the use of digital technologies in the classroom? 

''I think yes, it has been a necessity, especially for those colleagues who are hesitant or simply less used to technology and social networks, which have proven to be important.''

After almost two years, things seem to be slowly normalising, but will you continue to use digital tools for teaching?

''For a while yet, I am afraid. We can not expect students to return to campus en masse, so we need to give them the opportunity to contribute from home as well. ''

How has the approach to your work changed over the last two years? 

''For my part, I just have a great desire to return to normality at my university and I am optimistic. I experienced first-hand what we are going through globally a few years ago, and after almost a year of being forced to take a break following bilateral pneumonia I contracted in hospital, I have gradually resumed my work. I was fortunate to be working at the university at a fairly young age compared to the national average and to have the privilege of doing the work I enjoy most. Returning to Fisciano meant for me that I could resume the many activities related to my role, and thanks to the help and solidarity of many members of our community, I was able to do more and more and see everything as a challenge. Because maybe that's the secret, not to be overwhelmed by events, to take everything as a challenge and to fight with the support and backing of others.''