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The do’s and dont’s of ‘COVID-19 education’

The do’s and dont’s of ‘COVID-19 education’

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Julia M Cameron via Pexels

Give every student five tacks and a jar during a tutorial group meeting. Each time someone says something, a tack disappears into his or her jar. After five times, they are out of speaking time. “This gives quiet students the opportunity to also contribute to the discussion. The chatty students have no tacks left after twenty minutes,” says Mark Vluggen, senior lecturer at the School of Business and Economics.

This trick – which he learned from associate professor of Psychology Arie van der Lugt – works well in actual tutorial groups, but is very difficult online. What exactly are the do’s and don’ts of ‘COVID-19 education’? About 170 tutors and lecturers discussed the matter last Wednesday afternoon during an online symposium by EDview.

Rector Rianne Letschert kicks off the symposium with a song of praise – “no worries; I’m not actually going to sing” – to all the lecturers who had to quickly transform their lessons into online versions in March. How did that actually go? And how are things now? Three men from different faculties report. Sjoerd Claessens, senior lecturer at the Law faculty, gets the ball rolling. Before the summer, they worked with two models: one in which everything took place like normal, but then online. And another variant in which a lot of use was made of recordings. This included lectures, but also one tutorial group meeting a week, which was then shared with the rest. “The last variant was not received well,” says Claessens. “Students who were not selected, wanted to participate themselves and this option requires a lot of extra technical skills from the lecturer. For example, recording and editing videos.” This academic year, we have hybrid classrooms, says Claessens. Compared to full online education this creates more problems. “Interaction between students at home and those at the faculty is difficult.”

“But,” Claessens emphasises, “students are very grateful for what we are doing.” Mirko Reithler from Arts and Social Sciences, the second speaker, immediately picks up on that. He is “impressed” by the students. “They are patient and inquisitive. It feels like we are in the same boat.” Especially the senior students, who already have an idea and a feeling for ‘the university’. To enable that bond with the building to develop, the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences have hybrid tutorials, says associate professor Herco Fonteijn. The tutorial groups there didn’t start off well either, but by now this faculty has also found its way. The key? Fonteijn: “Giving lecturers the space to experiment with visual material or with break-out rooms (subgroup in a Zoom session, ed.).”

Participants can use the Zoom chat function to ask questions. “Do you have any tips for hybrid tutorial groups?,” they were asked. Reithler: “Divide the group into two and have shorter sessions with fewer people.” Fonteijn: “Create break-out groups: one at home and one at the faculty, and have them work on smaller assignments.” The technology does present problems for staff sometimes, says Claessens. That is why the Law faculty has appointed a number of “technically savvy” students to help lecturers.

The plenary session of the online symposium closes with (some of) the results of the UM-wide survey on the experiences of some two thousand students with online education. “The questionnaire shows that 53 per cent feels ‘worse’ or ‘much worse’ now,” says Stella Wazenitz, one of the researchers. “This is because of, among others, a lack of structure, uncertainty about the rest of the academic year, loneliness, and missing social contact at the university.” There are also some results from the focus groups that followed the survey: “The threshold to take initiative and ask questions is higher in an online tutorial group and it is more difficult to make an online tutorial personal. This often makes them less efficient.” Therefore, one of Wazenitz’s tips is: “Use some of that ‘learning time’ for normal talks and to get to know each other.”

In the last part of the symposium, there is a break-out group for lecturers who want to know how they can involve their students more. It is one of the three topics, in addition to ‘testing’ and ‘working together in a hybrid PBL’. They brainstorm in small groups. A selection from a list of tips: “Small groups are crucial, try to meet everyone at least once in real life, tell personal and recognisable stories to get the subject matter across, and give small assignments.” 

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