Online education in times of Corona: Ralph Meulenbroeks   

All teachers from schools and higher education institutions are currently working hard to organize distance learning. Ralph Meulenbroeks, assistant professor at UU, talks about his experiences with online education. 

“The digital revolution has its blessings in education. This became apparent when we (partially) went into lock down and all education in the Netherlands all of a sudden had to be organized remotely. Ten years ago that would not have been possible, but now it is. In one week I learned more about the pros and cons of working online than in the year before this. 


I am a great believer in blended work and it is the foundation of every course I teach or coordinate. It is perfectly possible to purely transfer knowledge with YouTube videos (now almost 2 million views on my physics channel). Everyone uses it and it works. In a narrow sense, because it is only about sending. Sure, you can add viewing questions, you can monitor whether people watch or not, but it still is just sending. In meetings you have the possibility of very fast interaction, asking questions back and forth, forming groups, working together, processing, exchanging, non-verbal communication, etc. In short: in the meetings you take the didactics further. For me that is blended learning and many variants of it are possible.   

Somebody from the education inspectorate told me in an online meeting recently that the main challenge would be to motivate pupils and students. Research that I did together with master's student Lieke Marijnen shows that maintaining the (intrinsic) motivation of a blended course is very clearly based on the physical meetings, precisely because of what I mentioned above. So when you have carefully set up a blended course, with most of the “sending aspects” online and the meetings set up in such a way that everyone really needs to be present, going online completely is a big challenge.   

There are now many ways to set up video conferencing with your pupils or students. Teams, Zoom, Hangout, Skype, Whatsapp, etc. It can all work and almost everyone is now doing it. But what did I run into?

  1. The inherent slowness of working with groups online: microphone on and off, camera on and off (to save bandwidth for smooth tool operation), determine who's talking. It all takes so much time when it has become an inseparable part.
  2. Creating ever-changing groups for teaching methods such as DDU (Thinking-Sharing-Exchanging) is time-consuming. This is why during the course "Talent development" with my colleague I started working with fixed groups, who were able to consult quickly via Teams or Whatsapp. Working in the same group all the time has disadvantages, but at least this worked quickly. 
  3. Giving a lecture on the basis of a PPT works fine. But as many of my colleagues and student teachers said: How do you know that something is happening on the other side? That's really unsure. You can use tools like Mentimeter or Socrative, you can keep the chat in Teams, but it is not a substitute for interaction in a room. It is too slow and it filters too much. It still feels strange to talk to a computer screen without knowing if someone is watching and listening. 
  4. One-on-one interaction, for example when guiding individual students, works great in Teams. One is sharing the desktop and the other is watching, or you work together in a document. It is effective and a great alternative for a meeting. But here, too, I occasionally miss the opportunity to outline the big picture together in front of a whiteboard. Sometimes I feel really inconvenienced. Improvising, which is an incredibly important skill for any teacher, is so much harder online. 
  5. Finally, an important point about fully online “life”: many students, pupils and colleagues inform me how difficult it is to properly and effectively organize your day when it comes to working from home. There are so many distractions and working online makes those distractions accessible too: no one notices when I walk away in a Teams meeting to make a cup of tea. Or as my nephew put it: “My teacher is in the top left corner, the rest of the screen is for the game." 

It will be clear that I consider education in a completely online form as an emergency. I firmly believe in bringing people together for learning and processing. I am a strong believer in putting "sending" and reading work online, and then implement this in a meeting in ways that require physical presence. To use interactive teaching methods. But if another way is required, I would like to give the following tips:

  1. Whichever tool you use: keep an eye on the bandwidth. Everyone works online and the programs are slow. So turn your microphones and cameras off unless someone wants to contribute something. As a teacher you take the lead and you indicate who provides input at any given moment. 
  2. Work with fixed groups or switch these at most between classes or lessons. This saves a lot of time. 
  3. Work with shorter “plenary” contact moments and use the time available for one-on-one interaction, especially with a younger target group. 
  4. Try to work in teams: when you take a class with a colleague, one can take care of the main interaction while the other communicates with the students or students via chat and communicates general issues to his colleague. When your plenary moments are shorter, such teamwork may be possible.
  5. Thoroughly prepare everything. Try out with your colleague if your plan works. Improvising online is much, much more difficult than when you are physically together. 

This imposed online life poses many challenges. The best perspective for myself is that it may teach us what the essence of working together is. Which aspects of education can be done online, and which cannot? That is a question we may be able to answer after the Corona crisis. "

Read also Online education in times of Corona: Anne van Veen

Translation: Mark Uwland, Freudenthal Institute