Online isn’t everything
What does the future hold for lectures?
People were not exactly happy with the rector magnificus’ remarks about the upcoming academic year in an UKrant interview earlier this month. Cisca Wijmenga said that on-campus classes should provide added value, suggesting that lectures, which she called ‘a fairly passive form of education’, don’t do that. ‘They work fine online.’
We’ve survived this past year of online classes relatively unscathed. This could suggest traditional lectures are old-fashioned and outdated and could easily be replaced. But can they really?
Lecturers at the law faculty felt that cancelling on-campus lecturers was such a bad plan that they wrote a passionate open letter to the university board. Education expert Rick Huizinga, with the Centre for Information Technology (CIT), also argues in favour of lectures. ‘Other forms of education might work better’, he says. ‘But lectures are a crucial part of education.’
One on one
Huizinga knows what his ideal method of education would be. ‘From an educational standpoint, one-on-one education is the best kind’, he says. As much attention as possible in combination with a custom approach would serve students best. ‘But that’s obviously not realistic.’
Lectures still have their use
A lecture attended by five hundred students is on the other end of the spectrum, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. ‘We need a little bit of everything’, says Huizinga. Some students and lecturers actually prefer lectures, while others would rather attend or teach seminars. ‘It’s important to have diversity in education.’
Good education, he says, depends on the context: the subject area, the lecturer, the educational goals. Together, these elements determine the best method. ‘We have to trust that the lecturers know the best way to teach their students the material.’
Passion for the subject
Professor of labour law Saskia Peters can’t imagine a world without lectures. She was one of the people to put her name on the law faculty’s letter. She utilises her classes to enthuse her students. ‘There’s a theatrical aspect to my classes, I want to convey my passion for the subject’, she says. ‘You can really only do that in lectures.’
Lectures are also the best way experts can structure all the information students read in their books, says Peters. Law students have to master the law system. Experts can help them understand it in a realistic context. They create an overview and can explain difficult concepts. ‘Lectures lie at the heart of academics’, says Peters. ‘It’s not the only way to teach, but it’s an invaluable one.’
Huizinga agrees. ‘Lectures are not old-fashioned, and they still have their use’, he says. ‘Some students can read the material and understand things on their own. But others require an explanation.’
However, lectures should be more than just students listening to someone talk for two hours. Classes should be as interactive as possible. This is the best way people learn. ‘It’s a misconception that lectures these days just consist of one person sending out information and others receiving it’, says Peters. Using polls, quizzes, and discussion statements in lectures has been regular practice for years. ‘Classes have progressed with the times.’
Classes have progressed with the times
The mandatory switch to digital education means the progress has accelerated, although the UG had been working towards ‘blended learning’ before the start of the pandemic. ‘The idea is to take the best parts from online and on-site education’, says Huizinga. ‘But which parts are best varies per course and faculty.’ That means that not all lectures can easily be taught online.
Blended learning only works when it’s been thoroughly thought through, and it’s important we use lecturers who are good at teaching online, says Huizinga. ‘We didn’t have time to develop everything properly last year, but we’re trying our best and I think we’re doing a pretty good job.’
It’s that interaction however, so important to the quality of education, that’s been mostly lacking in online lectures. Alex de Vries, who teaches at the chemistry department, has experienced this for himself. ‘Normally, I would do a bunch of little experiments in class, but I haven’t done that at all this past year’, he says. After all, they’re difficult to do when you’re sitting at a desk facing a computer screen. ‘I would have to pre-record my experiments, but then I might as well find online videos to show my students.’
I miss jumping around the room
The threshold to interact with students online is a lot higher, lecturers say. They don’t respond to questions as much, which means there isn’t as much debate as during a live lecture. Because it’s harder to involve students in an online lecture, they don’t all learn the same. ‘There’s no way of knowing whether students are absorbing what I’m trying to teach them. It makes me wonder if everyone understands what I’m saying’, says De Vries.
He doesn’t think on-site lectures will be a thing of the past any time soon. ‘You can listen to a music performance online, but it’s not the same as being there in person’, he says. Watching a lecturer talk about their subject in real life therefore isn’t the same thing as watching them talk online. ‘I can feel that I’m less convincing when I teach online.’
‘Online classes are a watered-down version of the real thing’, says Peters. She feels the rector’s suggestion is a dangerous development. ‘The situation right now is fine, as long as it’s temporary.’
Huizinga doesn’t think there’s much to worry about just yet, but he does predict a move towards more flexible forms of teaching. Active learning classrooms are already under way. These classrooms don’t have a traditional set up with a board on one end of the room; instead, lecturers stand in the middle of the room. The tables and chairs can easily be moved. ‘Talking and listening are at the basis of communication, so we’ll always need that’, he says.
De Vries is happy about that. ‘I miss jumping around the room from blackboard to blackboard. I can’t wait to get back in the classroom in front of two hundred people.’