Online education, a profession in its own right
On Monday 25 May, the ComeniusNetwerk and ISO (Dutch National Student Association), in collaboration with SURF, the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science (OCW), and the Acceleration Plan, organised the Reflection Rooms digitisation of higher education post-corona crisis. Lecturers, students, educational innovators, and higher education policy officers spoke (online) about the profits and pitfalls of the digital transformation.
The programme consisted of two parts. During the first part, the consequences of digitisation of higher education were discussed in four online rooms, based on four themes. In the second part, participants shared the results of the Reflection Rooms with Minister Van Engelshoven. Discussion leaders Kees Gillesse (ISO) and Marc van Mil (Utrecht University, ComeniusNetwerk) took the minister along in the discussions that had been held.
Digital (in)equality and student well-being
In the Reflection Room about digital (in)equality and student welfare, the participants spoke about vulnerable student groups such as first-year students, international students, and students with concentration problems. It’s important to keep track of them and to stay in touch with them. Hugo Hegeman (ISO): “Freshmen still have to learn how to study, which makes it extra important to prioritise them in certain facilities. For example, by having them return to the campuses first.”
The Minister responded: “I share your concerns about first-year students. It’s important to pay attention to how we welcome freshmen. It takes more than digitally training them and teaching them remotely.” According to Van Engelshoven, it’s important to use the physical space that is available: “I think it’s of great importance that students meet physically, learn how to find their way around the campus, meet fellow students, and are supervised on location. Therefore, I would like to argue in favour of forms of physical contact, within the current possibilities.”
Gerard Baars (NRO) added: “I also see face-to-face contact being important for first-year students. That’s why I advocate a strategy for mentorship and study groups to make sure a social safety net for students continues to exist after the initial introduction: How do you set up good mentoring online for students who may be left behind?”
Marian Kat-de Jong (ComeniusNetwork, Acceleration Plan, Avans University of Applied Sciences) was the moderator at the Reflection Room about digital didactics in which they discussed the digital profits they want to preserve: “During this rapid shift to online education, we gained insight into the possibilities and the infrastructure already there. We’re now using it better. In addition, we now also know the limitations of online education and our applications. In the future, we will probably be better able to make informed choices about what part of education can be offered and what should remain on campus. We’re better able to estimate the value and relevance of face-to-face versus online education.”
Another frequently mentioned topic was the willingness of lecturers to redesign their teaching, and quickly acquire the skills required for online education. However, as became apparent from the lively discussion during the session, it’s important to continue to support lecturers in this and we need to carefully consider what they need. Fleur Prinsen (Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, Acceleration Plan) agrees: “Redesigning education is a team effort of colleagues who help each other.”
Remote testing was another much-discussed topic. Lecturers have started testing more formatively and testing more on insight, than on factual knowledge. Perhaps prompted by a fear of fraud, but this certainly has its own didactic benefits. Marian: “It’s a great development. But we have to investigate whether it’s really effective.” The Minister agreed: “I take the importance of research into this, to heart. I also understand we have now quickly switched to online education to keep the learning process going, but what do we want to preserve in the long term? ”
Eline van Hove (ISO, Acceleration Plan) and Laura Korn (ISO) led the Reflection Room on practical skills. Laura told the Minister: “We talked about skills that are difficult to train in an online setting. Think of soft skills and communication skills. Working in small-scale online groups can help, as can the use of special tools.” Tools used in online education include 360-degree videos, demonstrations, and simulations.” These examples of tools for online education exist, but they’re not yet sufficiently found by colleagues. Eline described: “It takes a lot of time to develop tools and to use them properly in your education. The fact that lecturers don’t always find them, is a bottleneck.”
Marian Kat-de Jong told that her Professional development zone was already working on showcasing good examples of online education before the COVID-19 crisis and that they’ll continue to do so. Marian also talked about her work with the Online Education Guide, a collaboration between VH, VSNU, SURF, ComeniusNetwerk and the Acceleration Plan: “We try to stimulate learning with and from each other.” SURF is also trying to promote knowledge exchange, says Annette Peet (SURF): “At SURF, we are working hard to disclose good examples that stem from the Ministry of Education’s incentive scheme for Open and Online Education. I find it inspiring to see how, for example, PleitVRij, a project by VU Amsterdam and the University of Groningen and the courts, in which law students can practice pleading using VR, sought to collaborate with other institutions during the project period. Now several law programmes can benefit from these developments.”
Hans Savelberg (Maastricht University, ComeniusNetwork) led the last Reflection Room, which didn’t have a predetermined topic. All kinds of subjects were discussed. Hans shared the aspects of online education he’s currently concerned about: “I’m concerned about public space and internationalisation, among other things.” For some students, it’s not feasible to attend physical classes if they are during the limited timeframe of 11 am and 3 pm. Of course, we appreciate the fact that students should be able to travel outside of peak hours, but travelling for two hours, for one hour of education isn’t profitable for everyone. Hans is also concerned about the lack of international travel next academic year: “From a didactic perspective, internationalisation brings different insights and diversity. If foreign students are not able to come to the Netherlands, we might lose these advantages. The same applies to Dutch students who wish to go abroad.”
Taking into account Hans’ concerns, Van Engelshoven closed the day: “Thank you for sharing this with me. I think it’s good to hear what you are all working on. For the future, it remains important that we continue to shape online education even better and that we think about what we do remotely, and what we need physical contact and interaction for. I’m happy to hear about the reappraisal of education and the profession of educating. Online education is a profession in its own right. ”