In spring, when education suddenly had to become digital, many block co-ordinators at the Faculty of Law found themselves scratching their heads. Periods five and six were on the way – how could they ensure that everything would run as smoothly as possible? How do you record knowledge videos? And how do Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and Zoom work? Students stepped up. And they're still busy.
There was a huge need for “digital literacy,” says the Irish Niamh Herlihy, third-year student at the European Law School. She offered a helping hand, as did the Dutch master’s student Roel Niemark and another eight or so fellow students, after the Faculty Board had issued an appeal.
Herlihy: “You don’t stop to think about it, because as a student you only take your own subjects, but in such a period there are thirty to forty blocks, from large first-year blocks to smaller elective subjects, and they all have their own co-ordinators.”
As a result, every student assistant was connected to three or four co-ordinators. As personal assistants? “That was not the intention. We teach the staff how to deal with the systems, so that they can do it themselves,” says Herlihy. Still, the lines of communication between staff and students are short. An urgent app at eleven o’clock in the evening from a co-ordinator who is panicking because they have to teach at eight o’clock the next morning, and everything is not working as it should. “That problem is then solved,” both say.
Niemark: “Recently, I was in my car and I received a phone call from a lecturer who was in her first online tutorial group meeting of the day, but she couldn’t see any students. I parked on the side of the road and got her through it.” It was a case of miscommunication. The lecturer was waiting for her students in Zoom, while they in turn had taken their virtual places in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra (where the lecturer did give her lectures but not her tutorials).
Niemark, as he says himself, is not a great technical genius, “I just wanted to help when times were tough.” He himself learned by just doing things.” Herlihy. “You have to use your head and think logically. Besides, it is such a nice community that I wanted to give something back.”
In the beginning, she noticed how much pressure there was on staff who were actually familiar with technology, such as professor Gijs van Dijck and Assistant Professor Catalina Goanta from the Maastricht Law and Tech Lab. The situation was unbearable; these lecturers were appealed upon too often.
“The initial weeks of the lockdown were mainly about ‘setting up’ tutorial groups in the digital environment,” says Herlihy. The student assistants also “restructured” the blocks concerned, together with the respective co-ordinators; in a digital world, it has to be organised differently than in a ‘physical’ one. Lectures consisting of a two-hour monologue, for example, are not done. Students have more need for shorter videos of about twenty minutes.
And yes, most lecturers were prepared to listen, both said. And to learn. Niemark: “In spring, I worked with a co-ordinator who initially didn’t understand any of it and even became a little agitated. But now he knows more than many of his colleagues; it no longer feels like unknown territory.”
And no, it is not always the older generation that has the greatest problems. Both state that it depends on the person’s flexibility. Moreover, a little technical insight works wonders. In that case, an ‘older’ lecturer with the latest iPhone may be better at it than a ‘young’ lecturer with an ‘old-fashioned’ mobile phone, they say.
Whoever thinks that the students can now stop their help, is wrong. For the time being, they are working hard on Canvas, the new online learning environment that Maastricht students and employees have been using since the beginning of August.
Herlihy: “Canvas is not easy because of the many possibilities and layers. For example, lecturers who want to make an announcement to their own tutorial groups (and not to all groups in the entire block), have to search and keep clicking. Moreover, aside from Canvas, technology is constantly changing, there is always something new to learn.”
Education at the Faculty of Law will remain a hybrid system for the rest of the academic year. The board took this decision in order to dispel uncertainty among foreign students – who are now still living in their home countries. They don’t need to rush and look for a room in Maastricht.
The contracts of a number of student assistants are being extended; these are paid from an additional investment of one million.