The coronavirus outbreak presented a lot of challenges for the university. One of these was how teaching activities could be organised during and after lockdown. We had to change the way we did things very quickly. Online teaching became the norm. What have we learned from this period that we can take forward into teaching at our faculty post-coronavirus? We asked Monique Snoeck and Alea Fairchild, experts in online teaching.
Monique Snoeck: Yes, in March we had to adjust suddenly to a new way of teaching. The switch had to happen very quickly. For professors who were already familiar with blended learning, this transition to online teaching went reasonably smoothly. But for others it will have been more of a shock. Everyone got to grips with the tools provided by KU Leuven (Kaltura, recording studios, online lecture facilities etc.) very quickly, in order to get teaching back on track as soon as possible.
Alea Fairchild: We all had to start multitasking a lot too, and responding to rapidly changing conditions. In a traditional lecture you never have to jump up to run and open the door because you’ve got a parcel and your two-year-old son can't come along and press the mute button either. We had to learn to deal with a high level of unpredictability and constantly changing circumstances. In a traditional lecture you feel like everything is a bit more under control. Of course, we mustn't forget that it wasn’t always easy for students to make that switch either. Suddenly the campus was shut and in some cases, it was more difficult for them to get in touch with us too. Blended learning meant that they sometimes had to deal with technical problems as well. A number of my students work with Mac computers and they didn't have the right add-ins. You saw a number of students ‘disappearing’ too, then emailing a couple of days before a deadline to explain that they were having problems. Students aren’t really accustomed to having a lot of active contact with the lecturer. So they really have to break away from that passive attitude they used to have, where they only began to get moving once the exams were approaching. I like to use discussion forums, for example. Instead of students constantly sending me or each other the same question, a discussion forum is much more convenient.
Monique: I do the same thing. And every time a student asked me something by email, I said: ‘Dear student, please post your question on the discussion forum and I will answer there’. The Education Development Unit (DOO) has provided outstanding support for teaching staff. We were also able to contact them with any questions. Students seemed to have much less of this kind of support, which meant that I was sometimes spending a lot of time helping students with technical problems. In terms of the staff, you can’t underestimate the impact of everyone suddenly being stuck at home working on their own. No spontaneous exchange over lunch, no chats when you bump into each other in the coffee room, no popping into a colleague’s office for a discussion or to ask their opinion on a specific issue...
Alea: Our research group held regular online meetings so that we could all have an informal chat and see how everyone was doing. We also provided a backup for every professor who was teaching a course, to ensure continuity of the lessons if someone were to be infected with Covid. Luckily that didn't happen, but it reassured everyone.
Monique: That’s definitely something we could think about when it comes to on-campus teaching too. For many classes there is no backup. If a professor is sick, the class has to be cancelled.
HOW DID YOU FIND THIS TRANSITION?
Monique: It wasn't a big adjustment for me: I was already very involved with blended learning and I was already teaching a lot of my classes online. I tried to create as much structure as possible: every Monday I would send an email explaining which week we were in, what I expected from the students that week and when they could reach me with any questions. I think this structure in online teaching is very important for students. You have to rely on their ability to self-regulate and students who are good at this will get a lot more out of the course. The challenge is how to reach the students who aren’t as good at this and make sure they are fully engaged. Alea: With this structure, we also need to consider whether there is a good balance and make sure we are not holding their hands the whole time. Sometimes they need to learn by failing. How can I be more organised, what works for me and what doesn't? That’s good practice for later on, once they're in the work environment. I want students to think about why they have chosen to take the course. Students have to learn to take responsibility along the way. They need structure but they also need to learn to be flexible with their study choice.
IS ONLINE TEACHING MORE BENEFICIAL FOR FIRST-YEAR STUDENTS OR FOR MASTER’S STUDENTS?
Monique: First-year students are focused on their points, but that isn't quite the same as keenness to learn. In the higher years you can still see that they are studying for points, but they are often more intrinsically motivated and they want to learn. It’s that kind of deep learning that we want to achieve. The size of the group is very important. If you record the theory in a video, you don’t have to explain the theory over and over again. That leaves you with more time for student-centred learning. It's not just about transfer of knowledge, it's also about really encouraging students to learn through all kinds of different activities. The work you’re actually doing as a professor is very different to the work you do in traditional teaching. It’s also much more fun. There is a big but though. In a traditional class, it doesn't matter if you are lecturing 10 students or 200. The work you have to do as a professor is the same. If your objective is to encourage students, the number of students does have a really big impact on the amount of work you have to do as a lecturer.
Alea: You can absolutely save time by recording the theoretical knowledge, which results in more time to spend on supporting students. That means I put more work into helping students develop the skills that they need Monique: The size of the group remains a problem though. If you spend the four hours originally allocated to lecturing on supporting students, you will only be able to help the most active students. You will not see most students or be able to support them.
STUDENTS SHOULD ENGAGE MORE. WHAT’S YOUR OPINION ON THAT?
Monique: Students are still shy about contacting the lecturer. They discuss things with each other on closed Facebook groups but they don’t do that as much on the Toledo group, which the professor can see. That’s a point I always hammer home: students should not be scared of contact with their professor and they should take a much less passive approach. Alea: Another problem is that the students sometimes use social media to obtain (false) information, rather than going straight to Toledo or to the lecturer. Intrinsic motivation is important. Students have to learn what they are good at and what is important and interesting to them. Monique: Students have to develop maturity. I’m using the word develop consciously, because not all 18-year-olds have that maturity when they start higher education. Online teaching is a completely different model to traditional teaching and that doesn’t just affect teachers. Students have to organise themselves differently and become more proactive. And our students can do that, but it requires a shift in mentality. In the way we teach and assess but in the way they study too.
SHOULD WE CONTINUE TO USE ONLINE TEACHING MORE AFTER COVID?
Alea: Covid was a shock for everyone. Perhaps more people have come into contact with this way of teaching and the technologies, and they can now see advantages that they might have taken longer to discover or never discovered at all without Covid. We have to look at the benefits: it gives us more control over our time. I’ll record my lesson at this time and then I’ll give feedback to students. For me, it also offers more peace of mind. Not all urgent emails from students have to be read and answered immediately. You get to a point where you say: I’m not going to answer my emails over the weekend because there’s a discussion board. And students should not expect an immediate response to an email either. For real problems or urgent personal issues that you don’t want to post about online, email is a great option. But in other cases, the online forum is easier. I think it’s fair to say that the faculty has done really well. There were things we could have done better, and we need to reflect and think about where we can make improvements and what we should continue doing. We have definitely managed to keep the ship afloat though.
Monique: Professors do much more than just teaching. So, professors’ workloads need to be evaluated, to ensure that everything keeps working. I agree with Alea that as a faculty we have coped fantastically with the crisis. Not only in terms of teaching, organising the on-campus exams was a major challenge too. In the future, I think we will need to look at where online teaching offers added value and where it doesn't. And consider the feasibility for professors. But the fact that it can offer added value is indisputable.
BIO MONIQUE SNOECK
Achieved a doctorate in IT at KU Leuven in the Faculty of Science in 1995.
Teacher at FEB since 2001 in the Policy IT research group and head of this group since 2017.
Researches conceptual design of information systems, code generation and technologically supported learning
Programme Director from 2005 to 2009
Vice Dean for Education from 2009 to 2013
Since then: Member of diverse work groups around education
BIO ALEA FAIRCHILD
Lecturer in Marketing and Research Methods, Campus Brussels
Researcher in technology business processes and marketing automation.
Avid user of Toledo course automation, third party API integrations and LMS, project academic leader from Toledo 4.0 educational project (TOLEDO 4.0: Problem-oriented learning in large international student populations)
Postdoc for nine years at Economics Faculty of Tilburg University