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Maastricht students: online education is far from ideal, but demonstrating is a step too far

Maastricht students: online education is far from ideal, but demonstrating is a step too far

MAASTRICHT. Online education is far from ideal, say Maastricht students. The quality of problem-based learning is suffering, whether it is purely online or in a hybrid form. There is less discussion, students are less likely to speak out and for newcomers it is difficult to get to know others. These are some of the outcomes of a round of questions by Observant. But demonstrating (online) with students from across the country last Friday for more face-to-face education, was a step too far for most of them.

FASoS: Faculty is doing its best, but they are just getting by

The tutorial group meetings are not like they used to be. “It is not really problem-based learning,” says Charles de Groot, second-year student of European Studies and a member of the faculty council at Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS), who speaks on behalf of the student fraction in the faculty council. “There is much less discussion. There are quite a few students who find it difficult to speak out in a Zoom session. It is not so easy when you are sitting in front of a computer with fifteen others facing you on your screen. So they talk less and ask the tutor fewer questions. You can see them disconnecting. In many cases, it is mainly the tutor doing the talking, explaining the material.” That same tutor, according to De Groot also gives much less feedback than during a live PBL session.

Bachelor’s students can watch lectures whenever they choose (the master’s students have their tutorial group meetings and lectures on campus). De Groot quite likes this. But it is a “real shame that you can’t see the lecturer’s face. It increases the distance with the students. Now we are just watching a PowerPoint presentation.”

Another thing that didn’t contribute to a pleasant study experience, were the problems with Canvas, the UM’s new Learning Management System that went online in August. “But it is getting better now.” And the fact that they can now choose whether or not they want to take skills training on campus, is a very welcome change.

So no, they are not really happy with online education, but taking into consideration that there is a worldwide pandemic, in which they feel that the response in Netherlands has been “lax” right from the start, “it is quite alright. We see that the faculty is trying to help us and doing everything possible to make education as good as possible,” De Groot concludes. They won’t be travelling to Amsterdam to demonstrate on Friday.

Just one thing that continues to amaze in particular the foreign FASoS students, says De Groot. “Why was wearing a face mask not made compulsory? Coming from Flanders, I don’t get it; most foreigners don’t get it. Why do you need to maintain the one and a half metre distance, but you don’t need to wear a face mask? We do want it to be mandatory. Everywhere abroad has made it compulsory, why not here? We would feel safer.”

SBE: The content remains the same

Maximilian Steinbach, faculty council member at the School of Business and Economics and second-year student of Economics and Business Economics, understands that the students want more face-to-face education, but also realises that it is not possible at the moment. The majority at his faculty are of the same mind, he thinks. “UM students are fortunate that there is still a lot of in-person education; that may be different at other universities. I don’t see any reason to demonstrate with the present UM schedule.”

There is even a group of students who want (some of) their tuition fees back because the quality of education is less. “I don’t know why,” says Steinbach. “The subjects are being taught; lecturers are giving their lectures, and the content has remained the same. It is done differently, but I don’t think there is a difference in quality. The UM acted quickly to achieve the most.” Steinbach even thinks that he is learning more this year than last year, “but that may be because there are fewer social activities”.

FHML: Faculty needs to communicate more with students

Education has improved greatly compared to before the summer, but a lot more could be done, says Lieke Troost, chairperson at Helix, the study association of Biomedical Sciences. “The first-year students have a greater need for more face-to-face activities, including social activities outside the education programme. Everyone says: ‘I know so few people.’ Study associations have only been allowed to organise things again since last week. I don’t think the university really understands the needs of first-year students.” 

Things are better for senior students, but they also have problems. “The lectures were recorded last year, so there is no interaction. Sometimes, a lecturer points to something but we can’t see it, because you don’t see the lecturer. Also, we now have three minor exams during the whole period, instead of one major exam at the end. But no extra time has been set aside for that. The day after the last minor exam, members of the tutorial group were ill-prepared, they didn’t have time for that. And nobody asks students if they have a good, quiet place to take their online exams.”

No matter what, Troost feels that communication could be better. “We hear everything at the last minute. A week before the education programme was to start, we heard whether we had to come to the university or not. We have quite a lot of international students, so that was not great. I also miss moments of reflection. There was a general survey sent out by the UM and the faculty, but not specifically for Biomedical Sciences. While that could prove very valuable.”

Lastly, Troost feels that the new master’s students are being overlooked. “They don’t have face-to-face education or time in the lab. While their situation is comparable to the first-year bachelor’s students: they find themselves in a new city at a new university.”

All in all, Troost supports Friday’s demonstration. “I do see something in a reduction of tuition fees, if you consider for example, that we couldn’t use the library for months and that we are now watching lectures from last year.”

Her fellow chairperson at Health Sciences, Lieve van Woerden from MSV Santé, also notices that in particular the first-year students have to find their way. “But otherwise, people don’t appear to be running into real problems. Most have a practical training session at the university once a week, the rest is online – even the tutorial group meetings. You can sign up for lectures: a limited number of students can be present in the hall, the rest will follow it via a live stream. Of course you would prefer if more were possible, but within the possibilities things have been organised well.”

Law: Less focused during hybrid tutorial group meetings

Law dean Jan Smits has mainly heard positive things, he reports in a video message to all students on 30 September. “Many students are happy that our educational system enables them to be at the faculty to some extent.” In the last faculty council meeting on 16 September, however, there was also criticism.

Hybrid meetings, according to some student council members, do not improve the quality of the discussion. On the contrary, students are less focused and feel less of a need to partake in the discussion. Moreover the Zoomers who are at home, do not always hear what is being said in the classroom. Is problem-based learning still efficient this way, they wonder.

What is the added value of an ‘on site’ meeting, a student council member wants to know. “Would it not be an idea to allow only first-year students to come to the faculty and have senior students Zoom online?”

Then there is the annoyance about students who say that they are coming to the faculty to attend a tutorial group meeting, but then don’t show up. “Maybe that group could be encouraged in some way to turn up for meetings.”

FPN: Hybrid tutorial group meeting is too short

Both the student council members and the member responsible for education, Petra Hurks, feel that the hybrid education system is running reasonably well, they say during the faculty council meeting on 17 September. That doesn’t mean there are no problems. “Many students say that 90 minutes is too short for a tutorial. They continually have to race against time and feel that they cannot really deal with the subject matter properly,” says Novum member Nokhez Usama.

She is supported by lecturer and academic staff council member Anna Sagana. “I did think beforehand that the tutorials should be shortened, because nobody can pay attention for that long in an online meeting. But I always go over time, both in the bachelor’s and the master’s programmes.”

The 90 minutes is the time that a group can be in a room before it has to be aired for half an hour, says Hurks. “Maybe the students could meet up in smaller groups before the tutorial, in order to carry out some preliminary work. I do that myself with my students.”

Usama has noticed something else: “I notice that people who are in Maastricht are quicker to form subgroups. The students participating online feel a little left out because of that. Of course you can’t force people to like each other, but maybe we can help things a bit?” A possible solution: “Maybe we could set up a hybrid study buddy system. This means that the online students would be given a study mate who is in Maastricht and already knows the UM.”

Ana Reinartz Groba, a member for Shape, is worried about the new students, especially in the master’s programmes: “They find it more difficult to adapt. Everything comes together: a new education system, blocks with tough content, shorter tutorial group meetings, technical issues at times. Some would prefer a tutorial that is completely online if that meant that it would last longer.”

Hurks says that more mentor sessions for the first-year master’s students have been planned. “In that way, they will be helped on their way more.”

Wendy Degens, Cleo Freriks, Riki Janssen, and Yuri Meesen

At FSE, the subject has not yet been discussed in the faculty council; student council members have not yet responded to Observant’s individual questions.

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