A closer look at the uni buildings
Will classrooms become obsolete?
The university has approximately 250,000 square metres of functional space. That doesn’t mean hallways, broom closets, and doorways, but every bit of floor space that can be used for work. In other words, offices, classrooms, and laboratory space.
All this space isn’t cheap: it needs to be cleaned, heated, kept up to date, etc. All in all, it costs around 300 euros per square metre per year, says Lodewijk Tillema, UG real estate controller in charge of calculating the housing costs.
Large lecture halls are mainly used at the start and at the end of semesters
This means that not using more space than is absolutely necessary is cost efficient. Besides, while student numbers are currently still rising, fewer people are expected to attend university after 2025, due to a population decline. Should the university add space just to accommodate a temporary peak in students? Or should they attempt to save space and money?
These questions are already being considered, since the housing strategy is due to be overhauled. The new plan, which will be finished in the summer, states the UG’s future housing strategies. It’s important to take into account who uses which building, and to which end, the real estate controller says. Research and education are the ‘primary process’. Housing should primarily serve its purpose and not cost too much. ‘You have to make sure the space is used as effectively as possible’, says Tillema.
Tillema says lab space is especially expensive, although he has no specific numbers yet. Large lecture halls also cost money. ‘They mainly get used at the start and at the end of semesters, so that’s not very efficient.’
UG educational specialist Rick Huizinga would not particularly miss large lectures. ‘Hundreds of students passively listening to a teacher is not that different from the same student watching a lecture on screen’, he says. It would be easier to switch to online lectures. Other than that, Huizinga thinks we should return to in-person education as much as possible.
Professor of movement sciences Han Houdijk says that the added value of the current situation ‘is that students are able to watch recorded seminars and lectures for reference’.
However, he does miss the interaction with students; the look in their eyes that signals whether they’re still listening to him and understanding what he’s saying. ‘Teaching a class isn’t quite the same as just talking for two hours. It’s not as easy to replace as people might think.’ It’s not just about the interaction between students and teacher, but also about the interaction between the students themselves.
‘People work harder at things they enjoy’, says biology lecturer Martijn Hammers. One way to get students to enjoy your course is through interesting classes and interaction. It will make them actively participate, which in turn helps them learn better, says Hammers. ‘Active learning beats passive learning.’
Law lecturer Laurent Jensma says it’s important to create a bond of trust, especially with first-year students. They need to know that it’s okay to ask questions. ‘But it’s harder to forge that relationship online. Sure, I could yell at my screen every ten minutes, asking if my students have any questions, but it’s just not the same as when you’re in a room together.’
Digital classes will never outweigh being together in person
It’s even more difficult for the students to create that bond with each other, says Jensma. ‘Real classes have breaks during which students get coffee together, and afterwards, they all walk out together. There are no real breaks online and everyone just closes their laptop at the end.’
But those small contact moments are important, says Tracy Poelzer, a UG educational specialist who hosts a podcast about online teaching. ‘Digital classes will never outweigh being together in person. I think it’s become abundantly clear that technology will never replace human teachers.’
Doing everything online makes it harder to feel like you’re a part of something, says Houdijk. He was hired last year, but he’s only been to his office ten times so far. ‘It’s important for the UG to develop a clear identity, especially since it’s always competing with the Randstad. But that’s difficult to do when everyone is so far apart. I still don’t feel like a Groninger.’
Poelzer doesn’t think there’s much room to be saved when it comes to education. ‘We’ll definitely keep using some tools and we’ll have online meetings, record classes for people who can’t attend, and invite people from abroad to the class, but I don’t think we’ll need less space. I think we’ll want to physically get together.’
Hammers is more optimistic. ‘A lot of traditional educational activities, like discussions with other people, can also be done online or at home. You don’t necessarily have to be on campus for that.’ He had students study crickets at home, and he’d like to go outside more.
Doing sums can also easily be done online rather than during a seminar, he says. ‘Students can do the sums on their own time. We’ll make someone available for when they have questions.’
What else could be done online? One-on-one conversations, says Jensma. ‘It makes no difference whether you do those over video call or in an office.’ Large courses with minimal interaction can also be online, and lecturers could answer students’ questions they’ve emailed.
One-on-one conversation can easily be done over video call
‘I’d suggest that everything that requires group participation remains in person’, says Jensma. ‘Otherwise, we could just give them the course books and tell them to learn everything in ten weeks for the exam.’
Jensma, who’s become the online-exam expert at his faculty, expects exams to go back to being in person. Not because online exams are easier to cheat on, though; in fact, he thinks they aren’t. But paper exams are simply less work for lecturers. ‘But if I had to choose between administering an exam on Saturday or online, I’d prefer online.’
The university would be able to save the most on office space. On a survey from the first lockdown, more than 65 percent of staff said they’d like to keep working from home, at least partially. Almost 10 percent wanted to work from home as much as possible. This would lead to empty office space, which wouldn’t be an efficient use of the available means, says Tillema. ‘It would make sense for other people to use the space.’
The offices could become flexible workspaces. People could put their personal items in a locker or a cart for when they’re not there.
Sounds good, Houdijk says, although he’s worried about open-plan offices. Hammers thinks it wouldn’t work for people who’ve filled their offices with all kinds of stuff. Jensma agrees. ‘I fear many colleagues have more items than might fit in a locker or a cart.’ Then there’s the matter of hygiene, says Poelzer. ‘People are worried about that, and they will be for a long time.’
No one has to be worried about coming to work next year to suddenly find open-plan offices, says Tillema. Everything would first have to be renovated. The design for the new law faculty in the former public library building is in a pretty advanced state, says Tillema, ‘so I don’t think they’ll be making any changes there’. Where should we expect changes to be made? ‘The Harmonie complex, now that the law department has vacated that space.’