14 October 2020

Online education at breakneck speed

The outbreak of COVID-19 meant that, as of mid-March, education at UM suddenly had to be offered entirely online. Together with their team, Nicolai Manie, programme manager for online education, and Simon Beausaert, associate professor of Workplace Learning, faced the almost impossible task of achieving this within a few days. That they succeeded is partly down to the cooperation of UM lecturers across the board. How did they tackle this huge operation? And will the switch have consequences for the future of UM education?

Resolute is the key word, says Nicolai Manie. They had no time for endless discussions or policymaking. “We took action immediately. First we gathered people from all faculties to brainstorm the approach. Very soon there was a solid decision in place, supported by everyone involved in education, from programme committees to boards of examiners, deans to lecturers. And a stringent action plan immediately after that. We couldn’t have done it any other way.”

Step-by-step instructions

Online education requires specific technical resources, such as video-calling tools, online whiteboards, discussion forums and tools for audience interaction. Much of this was already in place, but a video-conferencing tool had to be purchased quickly. Manie: “We didn’t do anything without the advice of UM experts. It wasn’t a question of buying just anything—all the options were thoroughly examined and compared, always at breakneck speed.” Assuming that lecturers and students were unfamiliar with online education, they enlisted the help of the communications department to disseminate information. “That definitely contributed to the success. We provided very detailed online instructions that guided people through the process step by step. We also made all the instructions for online education publicly available on the UM website. At most other universities, that information was only visible to staff and students. We want our approach to be completely transparent.”

Manie en Beausaert

Nicolai Manie and Simon Beausaert

Letting go

Within two or three days, lecturers had to say goodbye to their traditional way of working. “Naturally, some people had more trouble than others in letting go of the old approach, but there was no other choice. Some were concerned about how to turn their three-hour lecture into an online presentation. Others thought, great, I don’t have to give a lecture anymore, I’ll just record some clips, split the group up and put the students to work. All in all, I’m impressed: there was very limited resistance. Had there been more, the switch wouldn’t have been possible. Lecturers who were already good at online education, at things like making video clips or interacting with students during online tutorials, helped others. That was nice to see.” And what about the students? “In general, they were very flexible about the switch. There were some problems with exams because online invigilation using our own technical equipment didn’t always go well. But we learned from that.”

What now?

Online education is now running smoothly, but on-campus education is also up and running again, albeit to a limited extent. Simon Beausaert: “The motto is: online for the time being, but on campus if possible. Here at SBE we’re using both options. Lectures are online and pre-recorded, and tutorials are held online, but there are team meetings on site. The teams are made up of four or five students from the same tutorial group. Other faculties have a similar hybrid setup. I hope that, post-corona, we’ll retain the strengths of this approach. You notice that more attention is being paid to self-directed learning and supporting students in their own learning processes with tasks they can perform at home. And consider recording lectures and splitting them into smaller videos that students can watch again later. There are lots of positive developments that we should definitely hold onto.”

Nicolai Manie is programme manager for online education at UM. He advises the university on the development and implementation of digital education.

Future

If it were up to Manie, hybrid education would be the future. “When this is all over, there will need to be discussions everywhere about what a university should offer and how it should be designed. We now know we don’t have to teach in the traditional way. Getting together on campus is currently a luxury, so it’s important to think about what you want to use those scarce opportunities for. It should be a meaningful activity that offers the students more than they can get online. We all agree that being physically present on campus has a lot to offer in terms of socialisation, solving and discussing more complex issues, working in an interdisciplinary way. That adds value to people’s lives and makes studying special. But it can easily be supplemented with online lectures and other digital options, like podcasts.

Online education also opens up new avenues for things like professional education and personalised learning paths. I think we’re at a tipping point. UM can occupy an interesting position in all this.” And as for the quality of online education? Manie: “When the switch is so sudden, it’s to be expected that the quality will not yet be optimal. Lecturers have care tasks, limited experience with the technology and no time to make pedagogical changes. So the quality may initially have been somewhat lower. But we learned from that too.”

Sustainable

For an international university, online education also implies less travel—an added advantage in terms of sustainability. Beausaert: “Online education shrinks the world. Technology is rapidly bringing the world closer and offers countless new possibilities. A visit by students to a company in Rotterdam is suddenly just a click away; likewise a conversation with a graduate in South America who can explain what it’s like to work as a doctor there. When teachers think creatively about different working methods, technology can add an extra dimension.”

Simon Beausaert is associate professor of Workplace Learning and programme coordinator for the master’s in Learning and Development in Organisations. His research revolves around support for formal and informal learning and the organisation of learning assessments in the workplace.

By: Margot Krijnen (text), Hugo Thomassen (photography), Ted Struwer (illustration)