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“Actually it’s pretty chill”: taking and giving online education

by Anne and Freek Colombijn

The corona lockdown has forced schools and universities to switch to online teaching. While we recognize the often justified complaints voiced by many students at universities and schools of higher vocational education (HBO), we have discovered many advantages of online teaching as well. We have gained this experience with online education as student of pedagogical science at Leiden University and a teachers’ college at the Leiden School of Higher Vocational Education (Anne) and teacher at the anthropology department of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Freek). We do not claim that our views are better and happily admit that other students and teachers can hold different views, especially when you have unfavourable working conditions at home (crowded rooms, poor internet, not an own laptop). Nevertheless we would like to argue that on the whole most teachers and students can profit when they take a more relaxed attitude towards online teaching. Actually, it is pretty chill.

To begin with, planning of the studies has become easier for students, because students can watch pre-recorded lectures when it suits them best. It is also easier to take notes of these lectures. Illegal recordings used to be made of live lectures in lecture halls as well, but then the student had to leave a blank space in their notes if one did not get the point and had to look up the missing words in the recording later. With a properly pre-recorded lecture, a student can repair these gaps by replaying immediately.

However, the advantage of better planning is lost, when the pre-recorded lectures are made available during particular time slots (as is done by Leiden University in an effort to make the students keep a certain rhythm). We argue that most students would prefer total freedom in this respect: if students choose to watch five lectures in one day, and then have some time off, it should be up to them.

Also when students have to watch online lectures live (in real time), online education still offers more freedom, because the student can plan attending the lecture tightly in their schedule of the day. Anne once listened to the beginning of a lecture on her phone when she was running, doing good and wanted to run an extra kilometre. Students can wake up five minutes before a lecture starts and watch from bed. And why not? It is okay as long as students come in on time and teachers should on their side stop in time as well. If a teacher takes extra time, he brings students into troubles when they immediately have to leave after the online lecture. Once Anne had a particularly annoying experience when a teacher started twenty minutes late because of technical problems and then at the end wanted to take twenty minutes extra.

Clearly a new etiquette has developed in the past months. Attending a lecture in bed is not considered a big issue. In large groups, teachers usually do not bother to check whether everybody has switched on a webcam and in breakout rooms students usually feel comfortable and will use their webcam, also in pajamas. What matters is that they pay attention and take notes, not where they sit. Sometimes students use the lecture to put up a face mask and keep the webcam off, also in breakout rooms and in our experience most fellow students will understand and accept the situation. At least, keeping a webcam off because one uses the lecture time for a face mask is far less annoying than putting the webcam on when students participate simultaneously in virtual breakout rooms and other activities in the real world room (the more so when they participate in those activities with their microphone open).

Teachers and students may hold different views on what is appropriate and a wise teacher takes this new etiquette into account. For example a drama teacher, giving an unexpected assignment to her students to enact a scene in front of the webcam, allowed them a five minute break to get properly dressed.

Not all teachers are so much at ease with the new circumstances as this drama teacher. We have also experienced that some teachers may become suspicious of students when the technique fails them. While Freek indeed once was taken by surprise by a student who somehow was drawing an image on screen when he was sharing a PowerPoint with his students, in general there is no need to fear of evil intentions. Teachers should be aware of the fact, though, that outsiders may watch the recordings as well, both when they are doing a fine job, or when they have an off-day and are struggling with the IT technology or the material. During lectures students maintain a parallel network of communication through WhatsApp messages commenting about that lecture, but in Freek’s experience staff do exactly the same during lectures or meetings and do not show more restraint than students in this respect.

Not only teachers, but of course also students are being watched and may evoke amused reactions from their peers. Anne once discovered a humming bluebottle next to her on the window, which had kept her awake for several nights. She attempted to beat the bluebottle, but had to smash several times, believing she was off camera. When she went back to her seat, she discovered the surprised faces of her peers who had seen her smashing frantically on the window, without understanding what was going on. 

Arguably the best reaction of teachers is to take their own blunders with a good sense of self-mockery. Teachers of Leiden University who compiled a film of bloopers could count on much praise from their students. Or at least should keep a resigned posture when a loud clock strikes twelve, the postman delivers a package, or the cat curls its tail in front of the screen.

Teachers may underestimate that attending lectures is very much a social activity, also when they are online. Friction between students and teachers in this respect become particularly clear when breakout rooms are used. Anne, for instance, encountered problems when in summer she was following a lecture on one laptop with two friends in a park in the sun, when suddenly they were sent to three breakout rooms. The teacher had not imagined they were sharing one laptop in the park and had planned to check participation of the students in the breakout rooms.

If we may end with one concrete recommendation to teachers: only use breakout rooms with a very concrete task to be completed in a set time. Just telling students “to discuss something” will not work, because then they seize the opportunity to catch up with the latest stories from their respective lives.

Anne Colombijn is student of Pedagogical Science and bachelor student Education. Freek Colombijn is Head of Department of VU anthropology.

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