Op-ed: Thirty squares with faces do not a classroom make
On Friday, 2 October, students in Amsterdam protested to show their dissatisfaction with the online education they’re currently receiving. In September, a Groningen student told UKrant that she couldn’t wait ‘for everything to go back to normal’, and in Dagblad van het Noorden a spokesperson of the Groningen student union expressed his concerns about the quality of the courses that had been moved online. This academic year falls short of many students’ hopes and expectations.
We share these students’ concerns. Lecturers and support staff are doing their best, but it is difficult to offer the quality of teaching we want to. Online courses are exhausting for both students and teachers, and the relief students express when a seminar turns out to be in person is understandable. In hybrid courses, it’s hard to involve those attending online to the same extent as those present in person.
What could explain all of this? One possible answer is failing tech. But this is too simple. The software used by the UG offers a fair range of functionalities, and after some teething problems, most students and lecturers seem to have found their way around these programmes fairly well. So why doesn’t online or hybrid education reach the quality we aim for? As lecturers, we see a number of explanations.
Online courses are exhausting for both students and lecturers
First, both students and lecturers miss information from non-verbal communication. Even if all students have their cameras switched on, lecturers miss a lot of the input we’d normally have. Usually, we adjust our pace in light of the verbal and non-verbal signals we’re getting from the group and the body language of those present. Now, we often find ourselves guessing as to whether we’re going too slow or too fast, whether the material is too difficult or rather too easy, etc.
Second, interaction in an education setting works best when students feel safe to ask critical questions. This requires a bond of trust not just between students, but between students and lecturers as well. But it’s hard to build that relationship when everyone’s confined to their own offices.
What might seem like a dumb question can sometimes be the perfect introduction to a new concept or to an interesting problem. But while it can be intimidating to ask a question you don’t feel quite certain about even under normal conditions, this holds true all the more when it’s hard to gauge how your fellow students might respond to your question.
Third, the success of a lecture or seminar is determined in part by the group dynamics that develop in a lecture room. In a successful lecture or seminar, one question leads to another to bring the discussion to a higher level, and ideally, a feeling emerges that participants are collectively working on a problem or question.
The success of a lecture or seminar is determined in part by the group dynamics
Not all lectures go like this, and it’s hard to achieve this ideal. But it’s particularly hard to achieve online. A grid showing thirty or so faces does not a classroom make. Indeed, it’s hard to develop a sense of belonging to an academic community when we don’t see and talk to each other during the breaks, and when there’s literally no room for spontaneous encounters and chats in the university buildings and cafeterias.
Fourth, it tends to be easier to focus on something when those around you are doing the same thing. A student following a lecture from behind their laptop, however, is literally and figuratively alone. Something similar holds true for lecturers. It’s relatively easy to stay focused when you have the attention of a room full of students. It’s much harder to stay focused and inspired talking to a laptop– especially when Blackboard fills the screen with your own PowerPoint presentation.
What to do? Here, we need to make a distinction between the short and the long term. On the short term, we’ll probably have to live with the present limitations. Organising safe, in-person education on a large scale will . With regard to the longer term, we want to highlight three points.
The UG’s ambition should be to return to what was normal until March 2020
First, we will no doubt learn from the experiences of the last few months. For example, we may have discovered digital platforms we’ll want to keep using to collaborate with colleagues and students abroad.
Second, we must not be naive about the degree to which IT can replace in-person education. Perhaps there once was a time when we thought that online was the future of education. In practice, we now find that it’s hard to provide the quality we want in an online or hybrid setting. Moreover, lecturers and students alike miss personal interaction.
Third, the UG’s ambition should be to return to (a version of) what was normal before March 2020. It probably won’t be easy. But if the last six months have taught us anything, it is that an in-person model of education, built on personal interactions between students and lecturers, is well worth the effort.
Lisa Herzog, Hanna van Loo, and Han Thomas Adriaenssen are members of the Young Academy Groningen (YAG). They wrote this opinion on behalf of YAG.