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The big September puzzle
A puzzle. That’s the word people keep using to explain what it’s like to figure out what on-site education will look like in September. ‘The schedule is an enormous puzzle’, says Klaas van Veen, vice-dean at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. ‘We have to do so much, and there are difficult choices to make.’
Not all classrooms will be accessible, and people will have to keep their distance everywhere. Who are allowed on campus and who aren’t?
One decision the faculties made is to prioritise first-year students. ‘It’s really important for them to familiarise themselves with student life’, says Gerda Croiset, pro-dean of education and programmes at the UMCG. ‘The social aspect is really important. They need the opportunity to get to know the department, their lecturers, and their fellow students. You can’t really do that online.’ The faculties will also be organising mentor meetings for the new students.
Priority will also be given to master students. ‘Doing a master programme is like starting a whole new programme. Sometimes master students come to us from outside the UG’, Van Veen explains.
The social aspect is really important to first-year students
At the Faculty of Spatial Science, every student will have at least one on-site class. ‘We decided to include one on-campus class for every programme in every period’, says education director Viktor Venhorst. ‘It just makes everything clearer. We’re a relatively small faculty, so it’s not that hard for us.’
But the small scale of the faculty doesn’t mean it’s not complicated. Venhorst: ‘It all depends on the size of the classroom and how many students are in the class. One thing we could do is teach one group in the even weeks and another in the odd ones.’ In the week that they’re off-campus, students can watch their classes online.
Many faculties have decided to work this way when September rolls around. They do have to make sure the online classes are up to scratch, though. ‘In March, we had to make a sudden switch to teaching online. We barely had time to prepare’, says Van Veen. ‘We do have that time now.’
They’ll be investing in proper cameras, microphones, and studios that lecturers can use to record their classes. ‘Trying to record a class from home while your kids are playing in the other room is far from ideal.’
Practical education is a whole different ball game: it simply can’t be taught online. ‘We can’t graduate doctors who’ve never treated any real-life patients’, says Croiset. ‘Almost all the programmes at the Faculty of Medical Sciences teach contact professions.’
The students will be practising on each other and on patients, but they will always wear surgical-grade face masks. But, says Croiset, ‘we’ll have fewer opportunities than we normally would. A lot of students won’t be coming in, so we’ll have to videoconference with them.’ She promises all students will be able to follow a full programme.
We can’t graduate doctors who’ve never treated a real-life patient
At the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE), they mainly teach practical classes and lab research. ‘Figuring out the scheduling of the practical classes and making them compliant with the RIVM and UG guidelines is a really difficult puzzle’, says vice-dean Rob Timmermans. ‘Many of our programmes teach practical classes that take place in the lab and need a computer, or a robot. We have to find a way to make these happen. We don’t want our students suffering any delays.’
Timmermans says that even under normal circumstances, FSE was struggling with the capacity of its classrooms. ‘That’s because our student numbers increased. Corona is making everything even more difficult.’
Dirk-Jan Scheffers, assistant programme director at the department of life science and technology, certainly isn’t optimistic. ‘With the current regulations in place, we’ll never make it work. Students need to have twenty square metres of space in the lab, so you can only have three or four students there. We know we’ll have approximately 260 first-year biology students… Just do the maths on how long it would take to teach everyone that class.’
They’re trying to figure out a way to rearrange the labs in such a way that they can have more students in at once. ‘We’re working on a plan and we hope it’ll be approved soon.’
Scheffers realises that this is a difficult time for lecturers. ‘We didn’t know until fairly late what all the restrictions would be. Lecturers have to take care of everything at the last minute, but they need a holiday, too. That makes this so difficult. I hoped we’d be a little further along by now.’
Online practical classes are an option in some cases, but he’s not a fan. ‘Watching a cooking show doesn’t make you a professional chef. They have to learn by doing. The people we’re teaching right now are the scientists who’ll be helping us out in whatever next crisis hits us.’
And then there are the exams. ‘They need improvement’, says Van Veen ‘We’re working hard on making the exams more cheat-proof. We’re working with experts to see what we can improve or do differently.’
But this isn’t an easy task. ‘If eight hundred students normally sit a multiple-choice exam, you can’t suddenly change that to an open-question exam. Lecturers can’t possibly be expected to grade them all.’
Watching a cooking show doesn’t make you a professional chef
‘It’s just a really complicated situation’, says Roel Jonkers, vice-dean at the Faculty of Arts. While this faculty doesn’t have as many practical classes as FSE, lecturers are still worried. During the last faculty meeting, it turned out they didn’t quite know what was going on and what was expected of them. A Q&A session will hopefully lead to some clarity this week.
Plans will not just apply to the faculty as a whole; arts is making separate plans for each programme. After all, they vary greatly. ‘One such programme is archaeology. Students have to go out into the field to do work. You can’t do an excavation online.’
Van Veen has noticed that both students and lecturers are yearning for on-site education. That’s understandable, he says. ‘Good education hinges on the interaction between students and their teacher. That difficult to do right now. They’ll live, but it’s just not an ideal situation. Fortunately, we can slowly start everything back up in September.’