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Digital education: what’s working well and what can we improve?

Nearly a year since the abrupt switchover to mostly online learning, the Digital Education seminar gave teaching staff the opportunity to review their experiences. What can stay in 2021 and what must go? Frequently voiced opinions: yes please to digital tools that make lectures more interactive; yes please to working from home more, but preferably not with children there.

The participants looked back candidly on those nerve-wracking days in March 2020. The University had just one week to switch from teaching face-to-face to almost completely digital. An urgent search was launched for new digital teaching platforms and online meeting software. The online Digital Education seminar on 28 January 2021 was organised by the Centre for Innovation and clearly fulfilled a great need: more than 200 members of Leiden University’s teaching and support staff shared their experiences.

Gigantic challenge

‘We didn’t have laptops and software for everyone immediately, but we did have confidence in our teaching staff,’ recalled Koen Caminada (Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs) in the introduction video. 

Vice-Rector Hester Bijl added, ‘It was a gigantic challenge.’ She praised the tremendous efforts and flexibility of all the teaching staff, noting: ‘Now, ten months after the switchover, it’s time to look back and see what lessons can be learned.’ 

Michelle Olmstead, Director of the Centre for Innovation, observed: ‘Digital education isn’t so much about the latest technology as about inventiveness and creativity.’ 

Positive experiences

Discussion leader Cameron Hope asked the lecturers which positive aspects they want to keep, and the participants gave many examples. There’s much more appreciation of teaching now. Digital tools, such as chat options, are resulting in more interaction – even in lectures with a lot of students. Some students with a disability, such as dyslexia, find it easier to keep a digital record of lectures. And it’s much easier to quickly discuss something online with a colleague from another discipline or faculty. 

Make sure digital education is inclusive

Although online education may make it easier to break down barriers within the University, this doesn’t automatically apply for everyone, warned Diversity Officer Aya Ezawa. Some students are less digitally savvy or may not have access to the right facilities at home, like a good laptop or stable wifi. The University must be constantly alert to this because otherwise a group of students could be left behind.

Quizzes in learning app

The participants shared their best practices in online workshops. Ludo Juurlink, an associate professor of chemistry, demonstrated the value of the Cerego interactive learning app. ‘I noticed that students would forget information very quickly after an exam. They really need to keep repeating the information if it is to stand any chance of sinking in.’ He uses Cerego as an easy way to design interesting quizzes and tests. Students answer the questions and if they’re struggling with a specific topic, the app presents them with similar questions. Juurlink says that most students are very enthusiastic: they like the app and find it helps them with their learning. The University has bought a licence for this app, so students and lecturers can use it free of charge. 

Positive about group assignments

In another workshop, Jan Sleutels, an associate professor of philosophy, said that his students were very positive about group assignments in online lectures, such as writing and presenting a policy document together. ‘They really miss the face-to-face lectures because they provide structure and social contacts. My students therefore especially enjoy working together on online group assignments, which give them the opportunity to learn about teamwork and helping one another.’ In some cases, digital teamwork can actually be a better solution, because practical problems – like finding a suitable time and place – are now largely irrelevant. ‘The assignments improve their social and digital skills, and that’s particularly important in these times,’ says Sleutels.

Synchronous hybrid lectures

In the final round of the seminar, the lecturers were invited to say what they want to stop doing or what isn’t working so well. One participant mentioned the ‘synchronous hybrid lectures’, where the lecturer teaches a group of students face-to-face at the University while other students follow online. It’s difficult to combine the two groups, and in practice the online group often don’t learn as much. Online lectures shouldn’t be seen as one-size-fits-all: the pedagogic approach should be adapted to the type of lecture, was one participant’s advice.

Work from homemore

Many lecturers want to work from home more in the future too, but preferably not with their children there. They also said that it can sometimes be annoying if too many communication channels are used at the same time, such as email and chats in Teams and WhatsApp. Another dislike is suddenly being muted when you’re speaking online. And some participants have had more than enough of one particular question in Teams meetings: is that an old hand or a newbie?

Text: Linda van Putten

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