The AV-Team is suddenly in the spotlight because of the corona

The AV team. pictures are property of the team itself, unless otherwise stated

"Professor Ebbe, could you lower your webcam a bit so you're more visible?" AV technician Matthijs van der Plaats checks the image and sound of the committee members, the promoter and the beadle in the studio of the Educatorium on Friday April 17 before the online promotion officially starts. On this day, he will supervise his first online live promotion. On the technician's desk there will be a laptop, two monitors with a webcam, and a square studio lamp. Van der Plaats's conversation partners who are part of the promotion can be seen on the right screen and are seated in the virtual committee room where the preliminary consultation and deliberation takes place.

Matthijs van der Plaats (photo DUB)

This Friday, Dany Tiwa of the Law Department will be promoted. He will defend his research into the lynching of criminals in Nigeria from out of his home in Cameroon. This is the twelfth UU promotion that will take place via the internet, but it is the first for Van der Plaats. The eleven previous candidates have been technically supervised by his colleagues. Martijn Cober, who assists Van der Plaats today, is one of them: "Half of all PhD candidates choose to do their promotion via video calls. Until the end of this academic year, we will be doing ten online promotions per week, that's about a hundred in total".

Martijn Cober

During this corona crisis it is not allowed to do a live promotion in the Academiegebouw, and without the support of the AV-Team it is not possible to do a promotion on line, Van der Plaats emphasises. "For example, we have to make sure that the internet in this building does not suddenly go down. When a person disconnects, they cannot get back in."

Maybe online promotions like this become as normal as a dissertation defence where everyone is physically present in the same room, says Cober. "Then no one has to come to the university by plane anymore, which saves travel time and is better for the environment. And this way it'll be less crowded in the Senate Room, which is convenient in the new ‘metre-and-a-half’ society."

Some teachers want to teach using a blackboard

In addition to the online promotions, the AV team is also crucial with regard to the online lectures in order to continue classes now that students and staff are not allowed to come to the university. When all university buildings were closed last month, the AV-Team, together with Educate-it, made instructions for StarLeaf, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom that the same day so that classes could continue via the internet. The following week, the first lectures were recorded. The AV-Team sends cameras and headphones to teachers who want to record lectures at home. Twice, lecturers came to the university to get explanations from the technicians. "Some teachers, for example, want to teach using a blackboard and they don't have one at home, so they record their lessons in a lecture hall," says team leader Richard Cats.

Richard Cats

Those instructions for the online tools were not made in vain, because Microsoft Teams has been used much more often by UU staff and students since the corona crisis, says department head Elzelien Van Buuren. "Until mid-March, almost nobody used the programme, on April 9th more than 3400 meetings and lectures were held via Teams and almost 2400 conversations.

Back to the promotion. It is time for the second part of the exercise: moving the committee members from the committee room to the promotion room where the PhD candidate and the paranymphs will also appear. This room can be seen on the left screen of Van der Plaats. One by one, the same faces will appear on the other screen that were just visible on the right screen. Two committee members have difficulty with this move, but with the help of Van der Plaats and Cober they succeed. "Good thing we're practicing this," one of them says when she's in the 'Senate Room'.

Some people didn't manage to quickly get from one room to another

Early this month, Utrecht University had its first digital promotion. "We learned a lot from that," says Cober. "We didn't practice changing rooms beforehand; they had to do that for the first time during the promotion itself. Some people didn't manage to quickly get from one room to another. We also used only one screen for both rooms, but because of that we couldn't be in two rooms at the same time. Now, we use two screens and two different accounts to keep an eye on everything. That's necessary, because this way we can help people better if they don't understand how to go from one room to the other".

The beadle, promoter, and committee members return to the committee room, this time with little effort. While the beadle has risen to put on her robe because it is almost time for the real promotion, Van der Plaats tests the image and sound of PhD candidate Tiwa and his paranymphs in the 'Senate Room’ on the left screen. The official promotion can begin.

Van der Plaats turns off his camera and microphone. For him, most of the work is done now - all he has to do is keep an eye on the connections of everyone present. Occasionally, the connection with Tiwa in Cameroon fails. "You need 2.5 MB per second to make adequate video calls," says Cober. "That's fine in Europe, but in other parts of the world the internet is slower sometimes. Yesterday, we tested Tiwa's connection; via the hotspot of his smartphone he reached about 3.4 MB."

From now on, Van der Plaats supervises promotions every Friday. Since the university closed due to the corona crisis, the work of Van der Plaats and his colleagues of the AV-Team consists mainly of keeping UU online. "The rest is on the backburner, such as the maintenance of the lecture halls. We are now mainly setting up and structuring Microsoft Teams for ourselves, installing extra cameras in a large number of seminar rooms and then testing them".

I sometimes miss having to put an arm around someone

The members of the AV-Team work at home a lot, just like most UU employees. Van der Plaats has a one-year-old son of, and Cats a daughter of two. "My girlfriend and I work alternately at home with our daughter, occasionally she stays with my mother. Luckily, her boss is flexible and she can work quite well at home, but because the childcare is closed, we can work less than usual. Sometimes it is difficult to divide that attention while working from home, but lately we have both found a good balance. When I can't concentrate I just grab my things and work in another room. Still, I prefer to go to the university where I can see everyone, then I would see my colleagues and communicating is easier".

Department head Elzelien van Buuren works at home all week long with her children aged nine, seven, and two. "Initially, I found it difficult to combine, but now my wife and I have made a schedule when we work and when we are mothers to our children. But I do miss the energy I get from my colleagues and sometimes I miss putting an arm around someone".

Elzelien van Buuren

Cameraman and editor Henny Ram works at home as much as possible as well. Nowadays, his work mainly consists of editing online lectures. In addition, he puts together knowledge clips in consultation with teachers. "At home, I am less distracted by others and can concentrate better, but I miss talking to colleagues during coffee breaks. Now, we all meet twice a week via StarLeaf. This allows me to communicate better: more to the point. At work, I often make a whole story out of it."

Henny Ram

Although colleagues miss each other, working at home also provides funny moments. "Some teachers had never worked with a camera before, so one time I only saw a forehead during a recording. That's better now, it's nice to see how they move forward", says Ram.

"During a meeting via Teams, I once had a background of stars," says Van Buuren. "My son of nine had activated this, but he helped to remove that background as well."

Before the corona crisis, others only saw us when there was a malfunction

Because of the corona crisis, the rest of the university sees how important the AV and Media Production Team is, according to its members. "The entire university has four hundred lecture halls and two thousand classes a day. Before the corona crisis, others only saw us if there was a malfunction, which happened at a maximum of ten lectures a day," says Cober.

Cats also sees that the AV and Media Production team is more visible. "That's what we were looking for, but that's now changed in no time. Now, people see our added value. Other employees offer us their help and that brings us closer together".

If it is up to the AV-Team, not only promotions, but also lectures are held online more often after the corona crisis. Such as lectures with guest lecturers from abroad, says department head Van Buuren. "But that's up to the teachers themselves. Recording a lecture takes up a lot of time and they often don't have that; now they have no other choice. Without the corona crisis, we wouldn't have done this on such a large scale."