Ideas on Europe

COVID lessons for European Higher Education - Ideas on Europe

COVID lessons for European Higher Education - Ideas on Europe
For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European
Studies, we welcome Patrick Bijsmans from Maastricht University, in the Netherlands.

We have spoken a lot about research over this season, but higher education is of course also about teaching and learning !

It is ! And all over Europe, the pandemic has of course changed our practice considerably.

Let me tell you an anecdote to start with :

Last week I was on my way from my office to a classroom, walking with a coffee in my hand through a faculty garden full of staff and students enjoying the great weather. It was then that I realised how much I had missed this; the informal, almost relaxed campus atmosphere that I last saw in the spring of 2019. The fresh green leaves in the garden, people chatting over a coffee, as if the pandemic had never happened… But as soon as I entered the classroom, I was informed that two students would be joining online – both at home with Covid

So you’re not back to normal yet !

Actually, the real question is : even if the pandemic is coming to an end, can we really go back to normal when it comes to teaching and learning in higher education ?

I’m involved in several teaching and learning networks and chat with colleagues about these topics regularly. Plus I’m one of the founders of the FASoS Teaching & Learning Blog.

And one of the observations that has recently been popping up again and again in these exchanges is that class attendance is much lower than before the pandemic. Two of my best students told me that they struggle to come to class, feeling demotivated because quite a few of their classmates only show up sporadically, if at all. They suggested that students need to be reintroduced into academia; that they need to re-learn the importance of attending class and discussing readings with their peers.

Given that the informal interaction, conversations, and so one, is as valuable as what happens in the classrooms, this challenge is even more important. And if there is one thing that we’ve learned from two years of moving between online and hybrid teaching and learning spaces, it is that being online can lead to and reinforce feelings of isolation.

Did you draw any positive lessons during the pandemic from using online and hybrid teaching and learning spaces ?

Yes, for some students, interacting in synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning spaces is less scary than asking a question in a classroom or lecture hall.

So, how can we learn from this for face-to-face teaching and learning? Many of the colleagues I talk with believe that online audience response tools such as Wooclap and collaboration platforms such as Padlet certainly could play a role here – and many of us already used them in pre-pandemic times.
But we have also experienced that they can be used in the wrong way. We need to ask ourselves why we want to use what tool, and design a plan. Also, explain its added value to our students. And not forget that sometimes we can just ask students to raise their hands in the old-fashioned way instead of having them answer a question online.

There has also been a lot of talk about “synchronous” and “asynchronous” learning. Can you explain ?

In short, “synchronous” means learners and instructors together at the same time, while “asynchronous” refers to learning at distance at one’s own speed and rhythm. Videos and podcasts, for instance, offer flexibility to students and teachers. For staff, they offer easy-to-make reactions to what is going on in the course. For students, they offer an opportunity to learn at their own pace and in their own time. This is certainly important for students with caring duties, jobs, etc., who have found such formats useful to have better control over their studies.

These challenges and opportunities, have they been the same all across Europe or are there major differences ?

We’re having an ongoing discussion, and some have coped better than others, often because of other constraints. In other words, despite the uplifting talk about new opportunities for teaching and learning in higher education, the pandemic also confronted us with limitations. For instance, the best screens and tools for hybrid learning are of little use when combined with suboptimal cameras and microphones.

And in a world in which academics are constantly confronted with budget cuts, while at the same time under pressure to deliver excellent teaching and publications, overwork is the norm and time for reflection and development is rare. So, if we want our teaching and learning to benefit from the lessons of these past two years, it is important that we think things through now.

Many thanks, for sharing your network’s insight on this increasingly relevant issue.

“Ideas on Europe” will be back next week, and we will welcome Baris Celik from the University
of Surrey, in the UK.