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Good practices

The distance learning of assistant professor David Baneke

Foto David BanekeIn this article, David Baneke, assistant professor at UU, talks about distance learning in corona times. How does he tackle it, how are things going, and what do he and his students think about it?

“The course Science and the Dilemmas of Modernity of the master History and Philosophy of Science started in period 4, so I had time to prepare for online education. The course normally consists of a few lectures, a final paper, and above all a lot of discussion between students about literature that they read at home. How would I handle it?

The few lectures were no problem. I am not concerned with specific knowledge that students really need to know. Above all, I want to introduce the theme that we’ll talk about later, and get them thinking about possible topics for their final paper. The lectures can therefore be done online – preferably live, so that there is room for questions (normally there are quite a lot; noticeably less online).

The final paper is of course no problem either. I have had good experiences with peer feedback, and in Teams that is possible in groups of three or four. The biggest obstacle for historical papers is that not all sources are available digitally, so students need to take that into account when choosing their topic. Fortunately, I ensure that they investigate in advance whether their idea is feasible.

But those discussions? Can these be done online? As far as I am concerned, they are the heart of the course. Skipping the discussions means I should design a completely new course. I decided to take a chance. Fortunately, the group was quite small this year.

The course started five weeks ago now. The preliminary conclusion: It is possible, but not without extra effort.

It has been said before: online discussions are slower and require more moderation. This sometimes feels unnatural, but it is possible. More importantly, the difference between articulate and silent students is magnified. In a lecture hall, there are always a few students who actively participate, while the rest mainly listens. But in a lecture hall you can see whether the rest are actively listening or if their minds are wandering. And it is possible to persuade someone who is silently shaking their head to speak their mind. In my experience that often leads to the most useful comments.

In Teams, where you only see people who speak, that mechanism disappears. Those who are silent literally disappear from the picture – and figuratively too, if you are not careful.

To help quiet students, a day before the discussions take place I have students hand in short ‘reading notes‘ about the texts they read, with a short summary of the key point and a question they have about the text. I use these not only to ensure that they actually read the texts, but also to allow quieter students to speak: “In your reading notes you made a interesting remark, could you explain it here?” That is less confrontational than bluntly giving them a turn, because this way you give them the confidence that they have something meaningful to say. This is even more useful in online discussions than usual.

So that’s my tip: For a good discussion, as a moderator you need resources to actively involve students. It helps if you already know in advance who has something to report.

Second tip: Encourage students to log in earlier, and to not log out during the break. Only now we notice how important ‘small talk‘ is, before and after the lectures. Not only for social cohesion, but also because many of the most important questions are put forth then. We will unfortunately never be able to recreate that online, but I have often discussed useful things with students in those minutes before the actual start.

So it is all possible, but not without a price. As an emergency solution, online education is excellent. It can also be useful as a supplement to regular education. But it is not a complete replacement. So I hope that in the new year we can occasionally meet students in person.”

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

Read also Online education in times of Corona: Ralph Meulenbroeks

Translation: Mark Uwland, Freudenthal Institute