Are lecturers struggling with online education? Mostly not, but it remains awkward

Photos: Shutterstock, 123rf. Illustration DUB

What can UU do to improve online education? The Faculty of Science asked this question to its 7,000 students last year. Many of them then replied that their lecturers could use some more training in online teaching. “Apparently, some lecturers were struggling with transitioning their classes from an in-person format to an online environment”, the researchers concluded.

That study was conducted during the second lockdown, at the end of 2020, when all classes had to take place online. Meanwhile, a hybrid of online and in-person education has become possible. When asked about their experiences after the first semester of this academic year, lecturers have indicated that their workload has increased now that they have been asked to provide classes in-person as well as online at the same time.

That is why we asked the DUB panel: Are UU lecturers not very handy with online education?

No, they are not, a number of panel students say. After two years of online education, most of them have gotten the hang of it. Our panellists understand that it is difficult for some teachers to adapt their regular classes to an online format, especially when they don't have a lot of time to do so. 

Loes van der Woerdt, a Social Geography and Spatial Planning student, is quite pleased with the way her lecturers have livened up online lectures with in-person team meetings, narrated PowerPoint presentations, taped lectures, working groups with break-out rooms and lightboard knowledge clips.

“As a teacher, it’s not easy to give creative and interactive lectures, but I think my study programme has done quite well in this regard. In my opinion, the teaching assistants are playing an important part as well. Although I wish I would never hear 'can everybody hear me?' and 'you’re still muted!' ever again, I can only admire most teachers’ creativity. Of course, not everyone is equally adept at giving online lectures, but no one is truly awkward anymore after two years.”

No one is truly awkward anymore after two years

To Sterre van Wierst, a Master’s student in Life Sciences, teachers have become quite good at Teams and know how to record videos. She wouldn’t call the online format ideal, after all there often is often less interaction. Still, in her experience, most teachers know how to use “fun digital tools” to provide a replacement for that.

“When it comes to small-scale, engaging education, you can’t say teachers aren't handy. It’s just very difficult to make your online classes as fun and engaging as they are in person, especially on such short notice due to the lockdown. Some have gotten the hang of digitalisation more quickly than others, but that is not awkwardness per se.”

Master’s student in Psychology Melissa Alberts complements: “For many teachers, this has been quite the transition, and there are still some points for improvement. Nevertheless, most lecturers have gotten quite proficient. For me, the main thing that still needs to be improved is the facilitation of good equipment for lectures about to teach online. Initially, it may seem as though lecturers will be the ones most benefiting from that, but students will as well eventually.”

A teacher’s natural habitat is still the lecture hall

Cultural geographer Bouke van Gorp also refrains from using the word “clumsy” when describing teachers’ online education, but rather “unaccustomed”. 

“For many teachers, their natural habitat is still the lecture hall or workgroup space. There, they can multitask to their heart’s content, with no apparent effort. But online, things are different. They need to do many more things: sharing their screen when presenting a PowerPoint, not sharing it when they want to see the students' faces, then sharing it again if the class so requires. Then, providing students with some interaction through a voting tool, yet another screen, another button…

“And as soon as something goes wrong, everyone is just waiting around. In a lecture hall, a teacher can move on more easily when they experience technical difficulties: for example, they can speak while trying some stuff out, or have students discuss something with their neighbours.”

Innovation researcher Frank van Rijnsoever also agrees that most lecturers have gotten the hang of online education by now. He, too, has noticed that teaching a hybrid class from a lecture hall doesn't come easy for everyone, as it can be “technically challenging” for some.

“You need to work with two computers and press the right button at the right time. Well-made instructional videos can still be quite complicated to make, and you can't just grab Microsoft Teams' instruction manual in the middle of a class. One would need support for that, just to make sure that the differences between being there in person and sitting at home are as small as possible.”

Both Van Gorp and Van Rijnsoever observe that lecturers sometimes have to deal with technical constraints due to software not being up to date, or hybrid setups in which the cameras aren't placed in the best way.

Philosopher Floris van den Berg also prefers not to call fellow lecturers "clumsy”, but he does acknowledge that “they could use some help sometimes, such as a student or a teaching assistant who can make sure that everything goes smoothly and can moderate the chat during class”. In addition, he thinks teachers could do with some more training, even though the university already offers quite a bit. “It’s not just about technical knowledge and possibilities, but also about pedagogy and knowing to see which functionalities contribute positively to education and which are fancy but don’t offer much.”

Students don't need better online education, they need education on location

However, some of our panel members consider online or hybrid education “awkward” by definition. Chemist Stefan Rüdiger can see why Science students were so critical of online education during lockdown.

“It's hard to teach exact sciences online. You’re trying to explain complex relationships, answer questions, ask questions. As a teacher, it’s clear when a group of students has fully grasped your explanation when they’re sitting in front of you, but that is not self-evident online, not to mention body language is absent. So, for many courses from the Faculty of Science, online lectures cannot truly replace real lectures, even though teachers are trying their best.”

Law student Stephan Verhulst writes that teachers will always come across as “awkward” for students when they are teaching online. After all, they are suffering from loneliness, lack of interaction with fellow students and teachers, and a heavy workload. 

“Last week, one of my teachers asked students to switch on their cameras, but not a single one of the hundred students present did that – and I can understand why. Many of my classmates are watching the lecture from small, noisy rooms. Some of them are in bed or still wearing their pyjamas. They are not able to actually meet with their fellow students, but they have exams in a few weeks. In sum, students don't need better online education, but rather education on location in which interaction and the material are central, instead of having the dreaded exam be the climax".

Marte Vroom, Master’s student in Urban & Economic Geography, stresses that lecturers should really think things through before deciding whether a certain class is going to be given online or on location:

“On the one hand, online education gives you flexibility: students and teachers do not have to be in the same place. On the other hand, it deprives students and teachers of true contact with each other. I think it’s good to reflect critically on that. Perhaps larger lectures can take place online more often, but working groups should be in person. Maybe we could make some improvements with regards to the quality of online education, but at the same time many students need to gather face to face right now".