Neuroscience on the web

Online lectures pilot at University College Utrecht

The use of teaching innovation tools at the Utrecht University substantially increased over the past academic year, as indicated by figures from last month's Utrecht University teaching innovation programme, Educate-it. The number of recorded lectures, for example, rose to over 2,000. However, not all reactions to the digital lectures are positive. Recent research by Harvard and Stanford researchers shows that students who follow their lectures online, often score ten percent less, on average, and drop out more often. We discussed digital lectures with Dr Matthijs Vink, one of his students and Educate-it, who were all involved in the recent online lectures pilot at University College Utrecht.

Inspired by the YOUth research project

Vink surprised his students at the start of September 2017 by announcing that they would be following their ‘advanced cognitive neuroscience’ lectures online from then on. This idea came into being through Vink's work for the YOUth research project. Just like he does for YOUth, Vink advocates open and transparent subsidised research, where knowledge is collected and used for the benefit of society. Vink dreams of a big Utrecht University library full of lectures and knowledge clips that everyone can easily access. His lectures can also be found on YouTube, although the academic matter still needs to be converted into videos suitable for a larger audience.

Matthijs Vink
Dr. Matthijs Vink. Photo: Martijn Koevoets

Meaningful discussions

The outside world, however, is not the only one to benefit from digitisation. Vink also sees big advantages for students and lecturers at Utrecht University: "What I enjoy most about teaching is discussing the matter in depth with students. Chatting and philosophising with each other, that's what a real academy is all about. However, these discussions are not really suitable to serve as the basis for an exam. Currently, I put all my lectures online so that students can view these in their own time. The online channel works quite well as a means of transferring that knowledge to the students. After that, the students come into the lecture room with a greater understanding of the subject, which results in far more meaningful discussions. We currently engage in 'meet expert sessions' where students can put questions to experts. There are also optional working groups where we examine MRI and PET scanners on site for those who want to learn more. This is great, because online classes by themselves are not sufficient.

Increasingly individualised

I think that education is becoming increasingly individualised. University students are considered, on average, to be the top students of the Netherlands, but that group is hardly uniform. Some students wish to enter a plus programme, while others require more support. As a teacher, it is my opinion that digital teaching methods create greater flexibility; when you offer the lectures online, there will be more time available for the guidance of individual students or small groups.

"When you offer the lectures online, there will be more time available for the guidance of individual students or small groups."

Modern learning

Furthermore, students have indicated that this allows them to study the subject matter more intensively. I was delighted to find out that some even put the video on pause to look up terms on Wikipedia that they are not familiar with. That's perfectly fine as far as I'm concerned, as long as you stay focused on the subject matter, which is what modern learning is all about. Copying something from a textbook is no longer necessary, which is probably a dated learning method anyway.

Guest speakers

This also takes less time. If students have questions, they can indicate so at a particular moment in the video, after which I receive an email. When I answer the question, it will be visible to all. However, those that understood it in the first place will not have to waste any more time on it. It is also rather convenient for me, because I was able to record these lectures in the summer when I didn't have many other things to do. Another advantage is that my online lectures can also be used in other courses, and that I can invite guest speakers to record a lecture. These videos could then be used in following periods, without the need to invite the speaker to the lecture room again.

Closest to the action

I consider it a good thing that researchers teach. After all, they are closest to the action, so to speak, as well as to the latest technologies and developments. Of course, it is a pity if teaching takes up so much time that it adversely affects the quality of the research, especially if there is a more efficient method available, such as this one."

Worse results?

Student studeert met laptop op zitkussens in de Universiteitsbibliotheek in De Uithof.

Lazy students

But what about students who learn online achieving lower grades? There are a few things to be said about the research done by Harvard and Stanford. Those students were given the choice of online lectures or lectures on campus. This might have led to mostly lazy or less motivated students going for the online option.

Poorer results

Educate-it claims to not have noticed any poorer results due to studying online. Utrecht University and UMC Utrecht have been offering academic online education via Elevate Health since 2011, including a complete Master's programme. This has been very successful, according to Mirjam van de Kraats of Educate-it. The test results and student satisfaction are the same or sometimes even higher than for same-content campus education, and the drop-out rate is actually relatively low.

A more intense interest in the subject

Vink asked Educate-it for assistance as well. The entire online course was developed in collaboration. Van de Kraats: "First of all, it was about the digital didactics that online education demands. This involves a complete redesign of education, where social interaction is key. Teachers can choose from a wide range of online working methods, of which video is only one" The videos that are used are mainly short clips, intended to activate the students rather than merely encouraging them to have a look. The latter seems to work well for Vink, who sees his students taking a more intense interest in the subject at hand. This is good, because 'online or blended learning in itself is not a goal for Utrecht University', states Educate-it, 'it is a possible means to strengthen education.'

Dynamics of Youth

Dynamics of Youth is one of Utrecht University's four strategic themes. Within Dynamics of Youth, researchers from different disciplines integrate their expertise to answer crucial questions for future generations. How can we help our children develop into balanced individuals, that are able to function successfully in a rapidly changing environment? As one of Utrecht University's four strategic themes, Dynamics of Youth combines excellent child research from all seven faculties.