Zoomen with the Minister
MAASTRICHT. She has a debate in the Lower House today and it almost feels like an outing with all those online meetings, says minister Ingrid van Engelshoven on Thursday morning at half past nine to eleven UM students. They were invited – every faculty asked one or more students – to speak with her for an hour or so about the quality of education during the corona pandemic. “What is it like for you to spend days on end in front of a computer screen? How do you find your feet as a first-year at a university during this pandemic? What do we need to remember when the pandemic has passed?”
It will be an informal discussion, says the panel leader from the ministry beforehand. “We won’t be writing up a report. But it will help the minister enormously if she could hear from you what works and what doesn’t. She will take the points into account for her policies.”
First up is the quality of education. This is less than before COVID-19, the students agree, although they do see that the faculties are doing everything to keep it as high as possible. Tanne Nevels, final-year law student: “We have problem-based learning here. We try to convince each other through discussion, show different points of view, we brainstorm. That is a lot tougher via Zoom, the discussion vibe is less.” Fortunately we still have the so-called break-out rooms (with four instead of twelve students), a European Studies student adds, which make the discussions easier.
“It’s great fun in the classroom”
Hybrid education: the fact that one half of the group is on campus, the other half is at home in front of a computer, creates other problems. “When you are in the classroom, it is great fun, you can respond immediately and have contact with the others,” Anya van der Vleuten, first-year student of Global Studies, explains. But those sitting at home in front of a screen, can’t respond well. Indra Gesink, master’s student of Econometrics & Operations Research confirms this. “If you listen from home, you can’t hear the discussion by the students who are on campus properly. Often you don’t see what is being written on the board." He feels that it is actually better if everyone is online.
Arie van der Lugt, who introduces himself as an “education fanatic” connected to the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences, having just joined in, just like rector Rianne Letschert, explains that the UM is “constantly experimenting. There isn’t just one solution. Circumstances are continually changing, which makes it difficult. We must be flexible and continually adapt. But it is also great, there is a lot of innovation power emerging.”
Dialogue with students
Van Engelshoven wants to know whether this innovation take place in a dialogue with the students. “It didn’t in March,” Sacha Lamers, master’s student of Biomedical Sciences replies. “That was logical at the time, the lockdown hit us so abruptly. Now we do have discussions more often about what works and what doesn’t. We look for solutions together.” First-year student Nikki Peeters: “Everyone is open to feedback and improvements.”
Studying yes, student life no
When the international character of the UM was touched upon briefly, the minister wants to know how the students are doing now that they have to miss out on so much. First-year student Anya van der Vleuten remarks that she does study, but hasn’t really experienced student life yet. “You have much less contact than you would like.” Third-year student of University College, Belle Boss, also misses her fellow students. “Normally, you would meet each other regularly. If you are stressed about your study, you can have a cup of coffee with someone and talk about it. It helps, now you just sit at home with your laptop. I now study with three or four others, otherwise I won’t manage it.” She is supported by Maaike Hooghiemstra, chairperson of student association Koko and student of Data Science and Knowledge Engineering. “It is much more difficult now to motivate yourself, you no longer have the brief discussion after class. I am dealing with a lot of formulas, often you cycle home together after a tutorial and you talk about it, that is gone now. I try to replace it using WhatsApp.”
At the end of the round-table talk, the rector is given the floor. She points out the work pressure that students and employees are under and it worries her. Also, the students who cannot return home this Christmas. “We are setting up a kind of buddy project, so that they have a place at someone’s table.” She also thanked the minister for her efforts to not close down higher education completely, making on-campus education still possible. Even though that also produces worry for the lecturers who fear becoming infected. Van Engelshoven feels that safety is an important point. “I am glad that we are now looking into faster testing together with higher education organisations.”
With a “thank you for your stories, great to see how bravely the younger generation is getting through this pandemic. I realise that it is highly taxing for everyone. Take care of each other,” the minister takes her leave after an hour.