HigherEd in the anderhalvemetersamenleving era

On Wednesday the Dutch government announced a further softening of the corona-prevention measures. From secondary schools to cinemas, gym centers, cannabis cafes, and sex clubs, there is not a more or less clear roadmap for their calendar towards reopening and trying to recover part of their pre-corona activities. This said of course most the safety measures remain in place, and will do so for the foreseeable future, at least until a vaccine or an appropriate treatment for the virus is found and widely distributed. Perhaps the most important of this measurements, which affects the most how we can and we cannot resume some activities, is the obligation to keep a safety distance of one and a half meters between people to prevent the propagation of the virus. Clearly, such measure changes quite dramatically how we can do things, and thus it makes sense to call the current situation the “one-meter-and-a-half meters society”, or in the delightful way the Dutch have to cluster long arrays into single words, the anderhalvemetersamenleving era.

Now, what about universities? Unfortunately, in the government’s plans there is little to none guidance about what will happen with the Dutch higher education system in the next months, so it is anyone’s guess. Right now, universities are essentially empty for a couple months now, with all on-site educational activities and most if not all of research work put on hold. Fortunately, despite the claims from some politicians, higher education has adapted itself very efficiently to the ongoing circumstances and moves swiftly to online lectures, tutorials, and examinations. While not ideal, and certainly with hiccups here and there, my evaluation would be that higher ed has successfully adjusted to the challenging situated and kept offering high-quality education to their students. Likewise, while on-site experiments are off the table now, research goes on since a fair amount of scientific work can be done remotely (think data analysis, literature studies, paper writing and so on). Juggling research and online education with in many cases homeschooling small children or caring for relatives has been a tour de force for many of us, but all in all the show has gone on with relatively few disturbances.

University buildings resemble ghost towns in the corona-times. Here the New University Building of the VU Amsterdam.

The main question now is how long this situation is going to last, and how higher education is going to look like in the next months and years. The VSNU, the association of Dutch Universities, has published its main strategy for the next months: On campus, if we can, Online, because we can (nice and catchy slogan, by the way). What does it mean? Well, the idea is that for the next months (to be more precise, until an effective vaccine or cure against the virus is found and distributed) there is no way one can go back to packed lecture rooms or crowded university areas. Even if campuses were large enough to accommodate all students in suitable lectures rooms where a safe distance can be kept, which is far from being the case, the strain on public transport and other services might be excessive. So for the being we forced to adopt a blended learning strategy, which is some fancy jargon to denote the simple idea that some things will be done online (think of lectures with large groups) and others will be done on campus (small group tutorials or seminars, lab work and practica, fieldwork, and so on). Several universities and faculties have already announced that until February 2021 most educational activities will be online, and I foresee that this trend will be generalised in the next weeks. Actually, this also means that until a vaccine is found there will be no major changes and so this blended/online strategy might become the new normal of the higher education system (not only in The Netherlands of course, but also in most other countries).

can we go back to the `normal’ higher education while maintaining all required safety measures? this is the million dollar questions for universities in the Netherlands and other countries.

One advantage as compared to the current situation is that now we have some more time to adapt our courses and examination methods to the new anderhalvemetersamenleving times. We are gaining experience with many (perhaps too many) online videoconference and Learning Management System softwares, for example, and discovering various useful features that facilitate online learning, from tutorial support with breakout rooms to online quizzes and tests. Teaching online brings many challenges but also a great deal of opportunities. If you want to take a look at an example of an online lecture, check here and here for a guest lecture on Feynman diagrams in particle physics that I gave some weeks ago at the UvA/VU bachelor program of physics and astronomy. It was a fun experience and I found that one can keep a rather dynamical interaction with the students: for example they can submit questions via the chat and then I would answer and discuss them on the spot. This was fun and I also had the feeling that students felt a bit more confident in sending written questions via the chat as compared to what they would have done in a real lecture.

using the chat feature of videoconferencing systems is a useful resource to interact with the students, specially for those that might be more reluctant to ask the questions in person.

So these are definitely interesting times for higher education, which might change it to its core in a way that can have long-lasting consequences beyond the ongoing corona emergency. Rethinking higher ed in the anderhalvemetersamenleving times is much more than just recycling a traditional course into an online format: is trying to make sure students experience the university life, the friendships and the adventure of growing and learning together as adult; looking for people that might be left out or that do not have the resources to follow effectively an online education; keeping the sense of belonging of the university community; and offering a clear perspective for the future. There is a lot of work on our plate but also a unique opportunity to change and improve higher ed for good. The `normal’ higher ed might never come back, so it could be up to us to define what is the `new normal’!

As someone who regularly enjoys the massively crowded dutch trains, it is difficult to imagine society rolling back at full steam while keeping the one-meter-and-a-half distances 😉

Incidentally, these challenging times might also be a good time to lobby for a healthy and renovated higher education system that contributes to the national and international wellbeing and prosperity for a generation. When one study after the other confirm that investing in higher education, research, and innovation is one of the most cost-effective ways that exist to ensure a good economic return, crisis like the present one could also be used for political reasons for a long-term crippling of the higher ed ecosystem. Despite having world-leading universities and research institutions for a relatively modest cost, again and again there are calls to further axe the system, even when multi-billion bailouts and support loans are being offered to many companies. A working document from a group of civil servants of the education ministry suggested a bunch of measures to reduce the cost for the government of higher education, from eliminating the subsidies to master programs (ending up with a UK-like system where a master program can cost up to eur20k or more) to reduce the number of international students, as if foreign students came here to just profit from the local generosity, when it is actually the opposite: the country badly needs highly skilled professionals to boost its knowledge-based economy. So we need to be on the lookout for attacks against higher education and research and proclaim proudly that our contribution to the financial, intellectual, and moral well-being of the country is essential even (or even better, specially) during the ongoing crisis.

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