A year of online education – this is an anniversary that creates mixed feelings. Everything appears fine on paper, says Han van Krieken, rector magnificus at Radboud University Nijmegen. The numbers of credits obtained are slightly higher than before, as are the numbers of students who achieved the BSA threshold. 'I am incredibly proud of the students and teachers who have achieved this. These are averages, however. This is an incredibly difficult time for some students and lecturers. We are very concerned about them.'
Vocational training schools are saying the same. 'We're doing a lot more than simply keeping things running. That is something to be proud of, but we cannot wait for things to be different,' says Enno van der Werff, executive board member at Alfa-college, an ROC (vocational education and training centre) with branches in the north and east Netherlands. 'The longer it lasts, the more difficult it becomes for many students and faculty members. We see some people flourishing, but others benefit greatly from spontaneous interaction, which is simply less present in online interactions. Those differences are much more clearly apparent than before.'
All interactions online
In 2020, we had to switch to fully online education practically overnight. Most institutions were already working on digitalisation, motivated by the belief that blended education strengthens interaction in physical education. However, the need for interaction to take place entirely online was unexpected. Many institutions have campus-wide Microsoft Office licences which they use for video meetings via Teams. They resorted to this solution on a massive scale. In addition, Microsoft and SURF jointly designed a Teams environment that was used for cross-institutional consultation by various education bodies. Agreements were set up with Webex and Zoom on a good educational proposition, with attention for matters such as privacy and security. Education also had a number of functional requirements that were not standard elements of these products.
'We were certainly not the only party who asked for functionalities such as sufficient breakout rooms, but we have been an important voice in the international arena, because, as institutions, we spoke with one unified voice,' says Christien Bok, innovation manager ICT and Education at SURF.
Mass video calling
There was also a technical challenge. Large-scale video calls have significantly increased network usage. SURF and Microsoft were in frequent contact about these services and about how to guarantee sufficient capacity at Microsoft and on the SURF network. Together with the Acceleration Plan (Versnellingsplang) partners, SURF set up an Online Education Community (Vraagbaak Online Onderwijs). Practical knowledge about the use of online educational services has been (and still is) shared here: from an online community site to webinars. 'We managed to accomplish all that thanks to our establishment of various links, including with IT departments, purchasing departments and users,' says Bok. We were able to find each other when it mattered, as lines were already short.
The Online Education Community is an initiative of SURF, the Acceleration Plan (Het Versnellingsplan), ComeniusNetwerk and ECIO.
The transition to online education brought new issues. Suddenly, webcams allowed lecturers into students' homes. Not everyone was in favour. 'Many students kept their webcam turned off at first,' says Van Krieken. 'Teachers taught to a completely blank screen. It was quite alienating.'
The Alfa-college decided to offer 'emergency arrangements' to students for whom distance education was not possible, either because they did not have a quiet place to study or because they lacked the necessary hardware. 'Digitalisation only works as long as you keep your eyes and ears open for tailor-made solutions,' says Van der Werff. 'Social equity starts there.'
'Online education only works as long as you keep eyes and ears for customization. That is where equality of opportunity begins.'
Online proctoring is another hot topic. If there is no alternative, Radboud University wants to be able to deploy remote fraud prevention, but just as at many other institutions, the university is struggling with the privacy aspects. Van Krieken: 'This kind of topic is best tackled together: what is possible, what is allowed and how can we approach the matter with care? SURF has an important role to play here.'
The coronavirus crisis resulted in a widespread realisation that education represents important public values. Christien Bok is impressed by the fundamental debates that have taken place over the past year. 'The fact that we have become so dependent on digital tools raises the question of how we should relate to them,' she says. 'The use of invasive tools with a significant impact on the content or didactics of education in particular is a topic of debate. The fact that a broad group of people is involved in these discussions is very special.'
More flexible education
The idea that closing the (institutional) doors for a few months would suffice to beat the coronavirus for good proved a fantasy. Our extended fight against the virus does, however, offer an opportunity to consider what aspects of online education should be retained in the future. Enno van der Werff: 'Differentiation and flexibilisation weren't unknown concepts before, but the experience with online education gives us a much clearer idea of how that can be done and what it will take.'
He envisages a future in which students' wishes drive the systems, rather than the other way around. 'That will require a sector-wide and organisation-wide digital transformation,' he asserts. 'We will all need to contribute our bit to be able to accommodate students' individual learning demands.' Digitalisation should assure faculty of more tailor-made solutions as well. For example, soon there will be no need for lecturers to travel to The Hague or Utrecht for a work appointment if they'd prefer to attend from behind a monitor way up north.
Krieken expects institutions to learn that some aspects of online education are truly benefits. 'The experience we have gained also offers new opportunities. Perhaps in the future we can have working groups with students from different institutions or physical education supplemented by other online enrichment, for example.'
No more one and a half meters
At the moment Van Krieken is still in the midst of a fierce debate about how to re-open the university in September without everyone maintaining a distance of one and a half metres. 'I expect that we'll work it out, but the virus won't be gone. We expect that there will still be regular instances of people who are ill, in quarantine or restricted from travelling abroad. We are therefore preparing to provide a great deal of education in person, while also continuing to take into account those people who cannot be present. We will do this by incorporating additional digital working groups, recording more lectures and setting up interactive lectures with a stream and a chat. '
Van Krieken and Van der Werff trust SURF to deal with the technical aspects of future online education. Safety and the protection of public values are topics that both directors also believe institutions should deal with jointly. 'Certainly, everyone needs to conduct the ethics debate, but organisations shouldn't all be trying to define their own framework independently,' says Van der Werff. 'Nor should we be figuring out matters like security, tenders and open source alternatives on our own. That requires so much time, money and energy. We'd do better to invest those in our students, the vitality of our faculty members and our collaborations with the business world.'
'We have seen what we can achieve when we move towards the market together.'
Freedom of choice
This is exactly what Christien Bok is working on. As far as she is concerned, the ways in which the institutions collaborated on organising video calls can serve as a blueprint for a broader portfolio. We’ve seen what we are capable of when we present a united face towards the market,' she says. 'Together, we are strong and can make ICT work for us, rather than being dependent on it. We can achieve more by focusing on our similarities instead of the differences. Not to arrive at a single solution for everyone, but rather to create a greater freedom of choice.'
Text: Marjolein van Trigt
Image: De Hondsdagen
'1 year of online education: time to determine what we should keep' is an article by SURF Magazine.