Current MA student, Surabhi Srivastava and Deputy Rector for Education Affairs, Professor Karin Arts, share their experiences of learning and teaching during a pandemic.
What went well, what lessons have been learned and what will ‘normal’ look like in the future?
Karin (K): The first very broad question that comes up is how do we reflect on the past year, a year of education during the COVID-19 pandemic? I think it would be interesting if you could share something about your personal perspective or maybe a broader student perspective.
Surabhi (S): Personally, but I think also more broadly in our MA batch, online education was quite a challenge at first: just the idea of having to spend so much time in front of your screen and not having the space to interact physically with other students and professors. That was a hard environment to get used to. But as many of us adapted to virtual worlds in the past year - whether it was being in touch with our families, ordering things online, just about everything taking place online - I think education became one of those things that we just had to get used to, and pretty quickly. And even though it was challenging at first, eventually I really enjoyed the learning process and being able to engage with people online from around the world. Despite being on a 2d screen, it was worth it for me because I still took away a lot, just as I would have with physical education.
Speaking about from a place of privilege
And I really appreciated the fact that professors and faculty also made an attempt to get used to that environment and to do the best they could in the given circumstances. They used creative ways to engage with students and to help us engage with each other. They also tried to keep engaged in terms of the topics and issues that we discussed which were relevant to the pandemic at that time. It really felt like this is what I was meant to be doing at this time. I couldn't think of anything else that I would rather do.
But that is my personal experience. I can imagine that it is not the same for everyone. I speak about my experience from a place of privilege, with access to internet, without the need to also have a part- or full-time job or to work at home. I could simply concentrate on my studies. I realize that's not everyone’s experience. There were people in very restricted settings who didn't have access to internet. They didn't have access to the time or privilege to be able to be present online, even for classes. And given the fact that it was a pandemic, people were also dealing with taking care of their families, trying to get used to the lockdown routines.
I think it has been a challenge for people to get used to the idea of online education. I spent a lot of time, at least in Term 1, at home in India. I was surrounded by my family and that made it a lot easier. But I can also understand that for ISS students who were in the Netherlands and under lockdown without a social network and confined to their room with just a screen to stare at, it could have been a mentally exhausting experience.
So, I think it has been a mix of different experiences and emotions throughout the journey of online education. People have tried to make the best of things in limiting circumstances. Paradoxically, I also think that people are now so used to online that it is almost difficult to get back to in-person education. We got used to the convenience of online; the fact that you could be in your pyjamas during an online class at eight in the morning, or that you could turn off your screen and no one could see you although you were still there. Or the fact that you could follow sessions at your own time and pace because there were recordings available of Zoom sessions. We’ve discovered that there are other ways in which to follow education and make it convenient for ourselves. That's an interesting shift.
'... the lockdown forced faculty to question things that they hadn’t had to ask themselves for a long time.'
But I am also interested to learn from the perspective of faculty: what were the challenges that you had to face with online education?
K: Well, most staff, both academic and support, also went through a rollercoaster of emotions and anxieties in relation to the pandemic and the risk the pandemic brought to them and their loved ones. But also, in terms of what the pandemic and the very sudden shift to complete online education meant for them as professionals. The batch of MA students before yours and all staff were pretty much taken by surprise on Friday, 13 March 2020 when the universities in the Netherlands shut down completely. Almost overnight, we had to shift to online education. And I remember quite vividly the night before; we were having a meeting in the attic with Mark Lammers, our institute director, and Bianca Jadoenath, ISS student journey leader, to discuss with representatives of ISS Student Association SCHOLAS, the possibility of a complete lockdown and the implications that might have. Little did we know then what would unfold over the next weeks, months, year…….
Fortunately for us, the lockdown happened when we were close to a term break so there was at least some time to prepare before going online. But as you can imagine, the lockdown forced quite a few of the faculty to question things that they hadn’t had to ask themselves for a long time. For example, they may have felt compelled to critically reflect on their normal teaching practices and figure out whether these would still work in an online setting. Being recorded and seeing yourself on screen all the time, which is something that many students also have issues with, played out for staff too. So, this is not only about the amount of screen time, but also about whether you want to have your camera on. I think we would prefer it if people kept their cameras on in education settings, but then you see yourself and all these other faces in a quite intense way all the time. That had a deep impact on many.
By the time your batch arrived in September 2020, the situation was slightly different. We were then about to experience the second wave of COVID-19 and already had substantial experience in delivering courses online which we were forced to keep up until the end of April. In early May this year, on the first day that in-person teaching was allowed again at universities in the Netherlands, at nine o'clock in the morning, we immediately resumed in-person teaching. Since some restrictions remained in place, some teaching activities had to continue online. This again brought new challenges because hybrid teaching is perhaps even more difficult than doing everything either completely online or completely in-person.
'Students have discovered that they can be more comfortable while also enjoying the learning process.'
And right now (September 2021) we have come through the third wave of COVID-19 and we are in a new situation again. We are fortunate that many of our new MA students could travel to the Netherlands on time. I certainly had not expected this, but by early September nearly all 146 new MA students had arrived! We will therefore only need a relatively short period of time in which we will have to offer hybrid education.
For faculty too there was a steep learning curve. Some teaching staff reached out for professional support, which we were fortunate to get internally at ISS and through Erasmus University Rotterdam. And all in all, if I look at the student evaluations and the various other forms of feedback that I received from students, then I am happy that, throughout the Corona period, most of the evaluations are quite positive.
S: I think it's also interesting what you mentioned about the consequences of working on Zoom, both when teaching but also as a student. I think we can expect academic research, post-pandemic, about what it does to you mentally and psychologically. I am not sure whether it has positive or negative impact. I think it can be either, depending on the person behind the screen. But I can understand that, for instance, making presentations is so much easier on Zoom than standing in front of a room full of ‘real’ people. Students have discovered that they can be more comfortable while also enjoying the learning process. It is interesting to hear that the faculty had similar experiences and that there was a steep learning curve for everyone involved.
'are there things that could have been done differently?'
K: And of course, some of us are more introvert and might actually flourish under conditions of being able to learn or teach online. Others may find it really difficult to remain concentrated and to get into things as deeply as they can when physically present in a classroom precisely because there may be so many distracting factors when trying to learn or teach online.
Maybe it’s also interesting to discuss a little bit whether things could have been done differently? Looking back here at, in your case, a year, and in my case a year and a half, of experience, are there things that could have been done differently? It's always easy to talk in hindsight but I can definitely name a few things. But maybe you want to start?
S: Sure. I think that when we started our education online, a lot of us did not recognize the toll it would take in the first few months when you are still trying to get used to things. I wonder now whether spacing out some of the courses, particularly in Term 1 when we were still just trying to get used to the whole online environment, could have helped and given us some breathing space to get acclimatized to the whole experience of online education. I also wonder whether having more check-ins from time to time, especially in terms of emotional and mental health, asking how people were coping with online education, could have helped; for example, maybe a Zoom session on tricks and coping mechanisms to help deal with online education.
And I think there have been diverse experiences in terms of online education but because of the disconnect that students in our batch felt because of not being physically together, not all these experiences have been heard. A lot of us have heard only the dominant experience. That’s not to say that is not true, of course it is valid, but there have been other experiences as well, with, as you said, people feeling more at ease and actually flourishing with online education. I think sharing more of those diverse experiences could have made it easier for all of us to understand what we were going through.
‘One positive outcome of this period is that we now have a much better eye for our well-being and for personal circumstances.’
K: On the practical side of things, thinking about what we could have addressed differently, during the first COVID-19 period, maybe the first half year or so, ISS focused very much on the continuity of our education programme. We very much focused on keeping all the courses running, putting the minimum in place for that to happen, working hard to get all the technology that we needed to do things and so on. And because of that, we maybe didn't take enough time to also think about the emotional and, to a lesser extent, pedagogical side of our education programme. I would say that for both students and staff, well-being aspects could have received more attention. For me, if there's one thing that I value as a positive outcome of this difficult period, it is that we have a much better eye now for our mutual well-being and for our personal circumstances. For example, as you sketched before, we noted that some students had to study from home in difficult circumstances. And when the schools were closed in the Netherlands, staff with young children had to do home-schooling. Things like that became much more obvious and it became more self-evident to discuss them than before. I think that is a positive thing and I hope that we will manage to keep that up, also now that we are gradually going back to ‘normal’ again. Because of course, we are not just the person we are in class or at work.
S: Yes, I totally agree. When I think for our batch, particularly when our term started in September 2020, after almost a year of the pandemic many of us were already dealing with Zoom overload and the fatigue that Zoom and online interaction causes. For us to then dive into heavy coursework online, which was of course necessary to keep the programme as much as possible on schedule, was a bit challenging. For instance, Term 2 became easier because we were taking fewer courses and we knew how to manage things. That's why I mentioned well-being and the breathing space that was needed at that point when a lot of people may have felt overwhelmed.
I also really acknowledge the point you made that studying from home, or whatever physical place you are located at during your online education, may not be the safest or healthiest space for you. So if we offer online education, we should really ask what help we can offer people in terms of making sure that students have a healthy, safe space from which they can access online education. I don't know how to do that; it could be very challenging, but perhaps something we should start thinking and talking about.
K: While this is a big thing that is difficult to tackle, there may also be some rather simple means that help. The students clearly articulated their need for a break at the end of Term 2. We did not have that before, but ultimately found a way to create a short break. And the good news is that we have kept that in the schedule since! Another example of a small thing that can make a difference comes from my personal experience as a teacher. This refers to simply hanging out during the break or at the end of lecture: not immediately closing the Zoom or the Teams meeting but just staying around for whoever wants to have a chat about whatever comes up. So not necessarily things related to the course or to the subjects covered but also about things that may be related to something entirely different. There were always a couple of students who were interested in that. Small things like that can help, at least a little.
If we return to the question of what we could have done better, I think we could have been better prepared logistically from the start, for instance in terms of making arrangements for people in different time zones. In September 2020 we did not have that organized well enough. Again, it's always easy to see things in hindsight, but we could have prepared for that better earlier on. The same goes for the issue of screen time. It might have been possible earlier on to make better arrangements for those students who wanted, for example, to revert to hard copies of readings. That would have been a way of minimizing screen time. So that is another very simple example of something that could have been helpful.
S: I’ve been reading more about this as people are sharing their experiences of just sitting at their computer and what this does to your body physically. So maybe another very practical measure would have been to provide people who are in student housing with equipment; for instance, something to keep your laptop at a specific angle so that it doesn't strain your back or neck. Perhaps even something that simple could have enhanced the experience of online learning. That's something I've been thinking about because posture has such an impact during online learning because you're sitting for, I don't know, five, six hours at your computer. I think it's really our body that is taking the toll in so many ways.
K: And I would say for staff it is very important to deliberately create or preserve slack time in the day. That's what I realize now that I'm gradually coming back to the office again - how much slack time there is in a normal office day. Now I travel to the office, I take a short walk to somebody else's office for a meeting, I go to the coffee machine and so on. I did not do these things when I was working from home. Especially in the first half year of the pandemic, almost all my office days were back-to-back online meetings for eight hours a day or more, and that's just totally unhealthy. Later on, I started to look after myself better and, for example, took time to go for a walk or do some exercises in between work.
S: I agree. Just sitting for one long stretch is not ideal.
Opportunities for education at large or for ISS specifically as a result of COVID-19
K: Another question that has come up for quite a few people is whether there are also opportunities for education at large or for ISS specifically as a result of COVID-19.
S: I think COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to rethink online education itself. For instance, I think there's still this hierarchy of understanding of in-person education versus online education. Maybe we need to rethink these binaries. Why do we undervalue online education, for instance? Maybe online education will play an important role in the future, even beyond the pandemic. The pandemic has brought to the foreground a reframing and revaluing of how we think about online education. Other opportunities were offered by YouTube, for instance, even before the pandemic by providing people around the world access to online lectures from across universities. But now we have learned that we can connect with professors from around the world without having to spend resources on logistics, transport and so on. And as we think of getting more sustainable in terms of the climate, maybe investing in airfare or other forms of carbon emissions will not be viable. We should think about how we can connect with someone who is continents away and still enable a good learning experience. I experienced that in my lectures here at ISS. We had professors joining us from India and other parts of the world. I think many faculty members made that conscious choice to bring in the experiences of these professors from different parts of the world, despite not being at ISS in person. This was easier online because they only had to log on to Zoom and we were there. And people were happy to make concessions in terms of time zones as well. That has really provided a great avenue for us to bring in more expertise, right onto our screens, which would have been difficult with just in-person education.
K: Yes, it has also become so much easier to bring guest lecturers into our courses than was the case before. And by the way, this doesn't play out only in teaching, but also for some research purposes such as conferences or seminars. One of the big advantages of online, of course, is that you can, in a rather simple way, reach out to a much broader audience and you can open up certain academic activities to an audience that would otherwise maybe never have had access to it. For PhD defences, we have also learned that it is possible to do them either completely online or hybrid. For the time being, we may even stick to hybrid defences, because they create so many more opportunities for people to take part.
In relation to education, I think at ISS, compared to some other institutes for higher education and some other faculties at the Erasmus University Rotterdam or elsewhere, we might have had a bit of an advantage in terms of being a modestly-sized graduate school. We tend to have, certainly in Terms 2 and 3, relatively small classes. These may be easier to handle and provide a setting in which it is easier to improvize with online education. With a group of 20 or 25 students you can have a good interactive discussion online in which everybody who wants to can take part. At least that is how I have experienced it in my teaching this year. But certainly, because of the experiences that we built up in the last one and a half years, many colleagues are now thinking about how to use the new ways of teaching and learning to strengthen or improve how we deliver on the mission and objectives of ISS. Online or hybrid in various modalities might indeed be a way, also on the longer term, of enabling us to reach out to a broader audience that may not be able to come to ISS. And we are thinking, for example, about whether there are possibilities, in close collaboration and hopefully also on the initiative of higher education institutes in the South, to jointly set up new educational activities. That becomes much easier if you can do part of it online.
‘I think the future is hybrid. We now have the power of choice and that really empowers people.’
S: As you say, I don't think it will be either-or. That has been the challenge of the pandemic. Initially it was just online and now we are moving back to ‘normal’ where everything is in-person. But I don't think that is how it will be. I think the future is hybrid. We now have the power of choice. Now, for instance, we can choose whether to give our research paper presentations online or in-person. And just having that choice really empowers people. Even in the research data collection phase, I worked with people who wanted to do it online, even when they could have done it in-person. When people have choices, they make the ones that are most convenient to them. And I think that is what students and faculty will have in the future, even beyond the pandemic.
K: Definitely, I think we have all learned and experienced that there are sometimes rather unexpected advantages to doing things online. For example, a big advantage of having a recorded lecture is that you can watch it again, right? Similarly, as a researcher or an MA student doing research for your master thesis, if you record your interview, you can listen to it again. If you record your focus group discussion, not only an audio recording but also a video recording, you can observe the participants again afterwards. And you can then look more closely at body language, something which may be more difficult to do during a live in-person meeting. So, as I think you also suggested, for different pedagogical or research objectives, either online or in-person may be suitable. And in the future, I think both will continue to be used. And , if done rightly, the combinations will lead to higher value or a better quality and a more impactful outcome for all involved.
S: Indeed, as long as we enable the environment for people to access online education, then I don't see any hesitation from people in having that choice available to them.
K: Of course, in online education, we have a major challenge of the internet connection, as we learned the hard way. Quite a few of our MA students who were studying from home in the first term last year were affected. Internet connectivity and access to electricity became a big issue for some students. And that, of course, was really frustrating because it is such a structural issue that there was very little ISS could do concretely to help students.
'the fact that you are able to connect with people virtually ... in the midst of a pandemic ... is a sign of privilege.'
S: And that is where the collaborations with local institutions that you mentioned can come into play. Students can still get a world class education, when they have an infrastructure locally available to be able to access it.
I would say that for me personally, like for most people, it has been a steep learning curve. But I think if I had to choose between this experience versus no education at all, I would opt for online education again. It still allowed me to get the best of what I came here for in terms of learning and education, but also allowed me to meet people from around the world. Connecting to people around the world during a pandemic, I still cannot get to grips with that: the fact that you are able to connect with people virtually around the world in the midst of a pandemic; it is a sign of privilege. And I really take that very seriously and cherish that experience.
K: That is a nice way to end to this conversation, so let’s leave it at that!