One weekly course on-campus for each student?

Face-to-face learning has started again with caution

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One weekly course on-campus for each student?

During the run up to the new academic year, rector Frank Baaijens said that the university will do its utmost best to offer all students a minimum of one course a week on the campus. Because after four months, both students and lecturers felt the urgent need to also start with face-to-face education again. Has the university succeeded? Cursor asked that question to the program directors.

On Friday the 2th of October, students will gather on the Museumplein in Amsterdam to protest - even though the organizer call upon students from outside Amsterdam to join the demonstration online. They want more physical education on campus. 

Cursor asked the program directors if the task to provide every student with at least one educational activity on campus has been carried out succesfully. We also asked the study associations if they are satisfied with the present situation and if they were able to play a role here.

Jacob Voorthuis, program director at Built Environment, says that first-year Bachelor’s students are welcome at his department on the campus weekly. “They follow the BAU Studio program here, as well as part of the course Architecture and the City. The projects for second-year students are organized partly on-campus as well, and third-year students have weekly team meetings here. On-campus Master’s projects, seminars and graduation studios are supervised and/or online, and colloquia and presentations are held on-campus in any case.”

A customized solution will be offered to students who are currently in self-quarantine, or who are stuck abroad due to travel restrictions, Voorthuis says. In addition, some graduate students will be supervised online, but their colloquia will be held on-campus. The seat capacity of lecture halls can sometimes put a limit on group size, Voorthuis says, “which is why a shift to online education had to be made in certain cases, such as in the case of the Steel Structures and Applied Mechanics course for example, a third-year Bachelor’s course that our Pre-Master students follow as well.” He hasn’t heard any complaints so far about the way in which education is currently offered. “Our study association CHEOPS tries to pick up as many signals as possible, and our academic advisors are ready to offer help where possible.”

Irritable

Henk Swagten, program director at Applied Physics, replies rather irritably to Cursor’s questions at first. “It implies that much is supposedly wrong with the education we offer in Q1,” he says via email. After he is informed about the purpose behind the questions – to survey the current situation university-wide – he informs us that his department has managed to accommodate students “for at least one half-day on the campus, particularly first-year students, more precisely those who deal with hands on components.”

Swagten says that a large team of lecturers and auxiliary staff members have been working since early June to accomplish this. “We will gain experience during the coming days and weeks, and we will talk to students about the current hybrid education. I await their responses with much interest.”

Peter Janssens, program director at Chemical Engineering and Chemistry, says that students at his department – “both new students and the existing ones” – are happy that they all have a Q1 activity on the campus. “First-year Bachelors start with a practical class of three half-days a week. There are three shifts of 32 students each, amounting to 96 students in total. That means that the practical rooms in Helix are occupied for almost four and a half days a week.” Janssens says that the third-year Bachelor’s students follow their practical class Process Technology on-campus, and that it concerns eighty students. “They follow that class in shifts as well, which means that each student will be on-campus for two half-days a week. The Pre-Master’s group consists of sixty students and they too have been divided into three groups of twenty students; each group will follow four hours of education on-campus.”

First-year Master’s students follow the core course of the track Chemical and Process Technology on-campus, as well as the core course of the track Molecular Systems & Materials Chemistry, Janssens says. “In addition, students are always welcome to work on their Bachelor Final Project here, or on their Master graduation project.”

Simultaneously

“We’ve combined two courses for our first-year students in such a way that they can now come to the campus for a four-hour block with instruction once a week,” says Hans Sterk, program director of the Bachelor Applied Mathematics. “Each block is attended by half of the students, which is why we provide a simultaneous online instruction via Canvas for the other half. This instruction, naturally, is also intended for students who can’t come to the campus.” Turnout during online instructions is still low, according to Sterk. “We are trying to figure out the cause of this, and whether we can boost turnout.”

A second-year mandatory major course comes with an on-campus arrangement, Sterk says. A lecturer of a mandatory course is currently gauging whether third-year students feel the need for on-campus education, Sterk says, “and in the case of two elective courses within the major there are limited opportunities for physical attendance. We are trying to figure out what works within the limitations of the restrictions we have to deal with, and where we can possibly still make adjustments.” Sterk says that the conception within his department is that “as of yet, students aren’t that keen to come to the campus under the current circumstances.”

We are under the impression that as of yet, students aren’t that keen to come to the campus under the current circumstances

Hans Sterk
Program director of the bachelor Applied Mathematics
Keeping distance

Erik de Vink, Sterk’s colleague for the Computer Science Bachelor, says that he ran into problems at his program concerning face-to-face education related to programming. “It’s practically impossible to maintain distance during programming on-campus, because it’s very difficult to read a laptop screen from a one-and-a-half-meter distance, whereas that’s quite doable online. The threshold for asking questions, however, poses a problem online. Students find it much easier to ask questions during a traditional classroom instruction.”

De Vink says that he is happy with what his program can offer on-campus at this point. “Getting things going on-campus and at the same time keeping the entire online circus in the air with all its technical bells and whistles does however draw heavily on the lecturers. An example from my own daily practice: I was tinkering with OBS (Open Broadcaster Software, ed.) for three hours this week before I finally got the image from a document scanner in MS Teams.”

Lectures streamed in real-time

Mark van den Brand, program director for the Master at Mathematics and Computer Science and Data Science, starts out by emphasizing that all online lectures for the first-year programming course at Data Science are by no means pre-recorded earlier lectures. “These lectures are streamed in real-time from Teams, we record the lectures so that students can watch them at their leisure at a later stage. Participation in the first two lectures was excellent, but turnout was lower than during on-campus lectures.” Instructions are problematic, he says, “but instructions for first-year students take place on-campus; four groups follow these instructions in Eindhoven and two in Tilburg. Not all students come to campus however, which is why we also provide parallel online instructions.” Students who have to take a resit, as well as senior students, can only follow online instructions, divided into three groups because of the large number of students, Van den Brand says.

According to Van den Brand, no logical candidate for on-campus education within the Computer Science Master could be found, because students can choose from several different courses as early as during Q1. “There was one course, but over three hundred students immediately applied for it, which made it impossible to organize on-campus activities.” He does express some doubts about the effectiveness of limited education on the campus. “Why would a student travel to TU/e for two hours of education a week?”

Capacity limitation

According to Sjoerd Hulshof, program director at Electrical Engineering and Automotive, offering a complete (Bachelor’s) course on-campus is virtually impossible due to the capacity limitations. “The idea is that we offer lectures online when possible, precisely for that reason. What we did try to do, however, is have our students come to campus physically at least once a week, with a primary focus on new Bachelor’s students.”

Hulshof says that this group had been invited in ‘week 0’ already to freshen up their math knowledge. “In practice, this meant that I had booked two halls in the Luna building, which allowed me to accommodate a maximum of sixty students out of a total of over two hundred. We asked them who would like to come to campus. Not every student wanted that, but over fifty of them did. We served the other students via a live video connection. That gave me an audience of a hundred and fifty students for three mornings.”

During that week, Hulshof also encouraged students to regularly meet on the campus, or outside if need be. “I advised them to also meet with their mentor every week, on the campus or somewhere else. Of the first-year courses, Calculus currently has one tutor-hour a week on the campus, and students of the Circuits course are in our labs once a week. In principle, everything is online at Computation, but we have four lecture halls in Flux where students can go to if they need help with programming. Lecturer Kees Goossens set up a convenient ticketing system for that, so that we never have too many students inside at the same moment. We had to cancel the labs for the course Spectrum of Automotive this year with a heavy heart because of the RIVM guidelines. Lecturers now offer on-campus Q&A sessions instead.”

All in all, Hulshof believes that his programs managed to find an optimal balance for their education, while taking into account all current restrictions. “But I would also like to talk to more students before I can fully assess the daily reality.”

I advised our students to meet with their mentor every week, on the campus or somewhere else

Sjoerd Hulshof
Program director at Electrical Engineering
Huge puzzle

René van Donkelaar, program director at Biomedical Engineering, says that each year group has at least one on-campus activity at his department, “or has that opportunity, because by no means all senior students come to the campus,” he says. “First-year students, however, have two OGO meetings a week on the campus, and since these are mandatory, turnout is excellent.” Van Donkelaar says that it remains unclear to him why some students still decide to follow online education only, even though they have the opportunity to come to the campus. “The travel time/on-campus time ratio might have something to do with that. We do our best to try and stimulate students to come to the campus anyway.”

Individual meetings were held and evaluations were made with all lecturers who provide education in Q1 and Q2, Van Donkelaar says. “We jointly chose the most important and useful activities from courses we wanted to offer on the campus. That was a huge puzzle, but with the use of some creativity, we managed to find a solution for students from each year. If we wanted to offer first-year students the OGO meeting on-campus, we had no choice but to offer the second course fully online. This meant that students had to be divided into groups with different available timeslots. The lecturer who teaches this particular course now has an inconvenient schedule, but that’s something we gladly accept. Incidentally, several on-campus practical classes were changed or replaced by alternative assignments, because we have a very restricted lab capacity.”

A few percent

Program director Hans Kuerten of Mechanical Engineering says that his department was basically successful in offering part of its education on-campus for all students, but that in the case of one course, the lecturers later decided not to make use of that option after all. That is why he can’t say exactly how many students follow online education exclusively during Q1. Kuerten: “It concerns some of the first-year Master’s students, and they all follow a different program. I estimate that it only concerns a few percent of students in that group.”

Since it was decided on a central level to provide all lectures online, the only option many courses have for organizing something on-campus is via supervised self-study, Kuerten says. “Students make assignments for a course under supervision of lecturers and student assistants. We notice that quite a number of students don’t come to campus just for such a supervised self-study. They don’t feel like it, because of the travel time.”

All first-year Bachelor’s students have a meeting on the campus practically every week. “Constructing and testing are important subjects in our program, and this can basically be done on-campus only. These are essential parts for guaranteeing our program’s learning goal. Our study association Simon Stevin also organizes events, both on- and off-campus, in order to encourage contacts with and between this group of students. There is a great deal of interest in this.”

Tom van Woensel is program director at Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences, and he says that he and the scientific staff have been busy determining since June which courses are suitable for on-campus education. “Lectures clearly aren’t an option, but we’ve also searched for alternatives such as group meetings and Q&A sessions. We also checked in advance whether students are willing to travel to the campus for a course.”

IE&IS offers a total of 62 courses in Q1, “and approximately 40 of these have an on-campus activity,” Van Woensel says. “We work in shifts, during which different groups follow the same course successively three times, for example. Lecturers are looking for the right mix for their course: what will take place online, what do you offer on-campus? Students in the Master’s phase have various options and can choose between many elective courses. But here too we look at what we can offer on the campus. We consider that to be of great importance for our Pre-Masters.”

And if the choice is made for online education, it needs to be produced effectively, according to Van Woensel. “That is why we’ve purchased 25 webcams and an equal number of microphones to ensure the best possible quality. There aren’t any left.” Van Woensel says that the option of organizing more on-campus activities is being considered even during Q1. “Because we’ve noticed that there were still some difficult questions left unanswered when we started with these planning processes in June. So, we are still making adjustments. We try to get the best out of it, with all the restrictions due to corona.”

Van Woensel cites an example of a case when online education pleasantly surprised him before the summer holidays. “In June, we concluded a USE course that had been taken by some thousand students. To our surprise, we received the best evaluation we ever had. Clearly, online education does work.”

What do the study associations think?

Cursor also asked the study associations for their view of the matter, and whether they are satisfied. Three associations responded.

According to Koen de Nooij, education secretary at GEWIS (study association of the department of Mathematics and Computer Science), the online-traditional education ratio varies significantly at his department. “As far as the Bachelor’s programs at our department are concerned, that goal of providing a minimum of one on-campus activity is achieved. That’s not the case for certain Master’s, but it isn’t very realistic either because of the large freedom of choice. Generally speaking, our students are satisfied with the quality of education of the online courses, but they regret not having more classes on the campus.” De Nooij is satisfied with how GEWIS was involved. “I assume that our input was put to use, since we don’t see any major problems.”

Sophie de Hont, member of STOOR (students education organization of the department of Applied Physics), says that students at her department are satisfied with the traditional-online education ratio, generally speaking. “Many students have the opportunity to come to the university for a course, and we see that as a welcome slice of good fortune, because we were initially informed that theoretical courses would continue to be taught online.” Contact between her organization and the department is good. “We were in close contact with the program director throughout the entire corona period. We are presented with new plans, so that we can take a look at it from the perspective of the student.”

Max Bossink, education commissioner at Protagoras (study association of Biomedical Engineering), also sees that his department strives to have everyone come to the campus at least once a week. “However, this proves to be difficult in practice, particularly for senior Bachelor’s and Master’s students. This is because of the elective courses. All our fist-year students come to the campus twice a week now for their OGO-project, which they experience as a very positive thing.” Bossink is reasonably satisfied with the traditional-online education ratio. “It has to be said though, that not many people make use of face-to-face education, such as supervised self-study for example. That’s probably because some students feel they have to travel too long distances for a mere one or two hours of traditional classroom education.”

What's happening elsewhere in the Netherlands?

Radboud University Nijmegen estimates that 15 to 20 percent of its curriculum is currently presented on campus. In Maastricht, it’s 25 percent, while the University of Amsterdam reports that 20 to 30 percent of its classes are taking place in person. TU/e and Twente University both indicate that they’re at 40 percent of their normal capacity. Overall universities and universities of applied sciences say that they accommodate around 20 to 30 percent of their students inside their buildings. First year students get priority.

Mainwhile students are putting petitions online demanding tuition fee discounts. "We are studying at the most expensive streaming facility in the Netherlands", a dissatisfied student of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences said. In his opinion the current state of the educational system isn't worth the tuition fee. That's why he started a petition, that had collected 11.240 signatures on Monday. And his petition isn't the only one and also not the most successfull either.

The national student organisations ISO and LSVb also feel that universities are not providing enough face-to-face education. “How is it possible that one university is operating at 40 percent capacity while others are at 20 percent?,” LSVb chairman Lyle Muns wonders. “There may be differences between buildings and facilities, of course, but one percentage is double the other. That’s very conspicuous.” Both organisations believe that universities could be doing more to arrange classes at external locations. (HOP)

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