COVID-19 and online education: redeveloping a course

The COVID-19 year 2020 has been an extraordinary year in many regards. Online education: how to achieve what you would normally achieve during field work and excursions? Teun Vogel, docent at Wageningen University & Research, shares his experience.

It is April 2020 when we realize that the course Design in Land and Water Management has to be redeveloped from scratch since COVID-19 prevents us from going in the field. Usually, we would go to Zuid-Limburg together with the students, occupying 70-80 beds on two locations. For a period of 2 weeks, the students would bike through the area, do measurements, do group work, meet the stakeholders and learn how to read the landscape. Almost 100% of this course design appeared not to be Corona-proof, so it was our duty to come up with a complete new course.

Online.

My first year as a course coordinator.

How?!

Looking back at it, I am grateful for the positivism of students and staff in the weeks that followed. A reflection on what we did helped me to identify some relevant elements of the full process. Some decisions we made might be informative for you in the procedure of redeveloping a course. I have earmarked a few in this article.

PART 1: Course preparation for COVID-19 and online education

  1. Start with a quick brainstorm with some key staff members. Don’t involve all from the beginning as this might cause ineffectiveness. You need both dreamers as well as deciders. In this meeting, try to make clear what you do and don’t expect from the participants. Anything irrelevant might cause diverging chats and change your brainstorm into a brain fart as it can cause noise and distract you from the real goal of your brainstorm. In addition, try to map what are the conditions at hand: what is still possible? What is not possible? What would be a course set up which offers you most opportunities (e.g. in terms of learning outcomes) but are still within the limits of the COVID-19 and online education restrictions?
  2. After the first brainstorm, make a course design one-pager and a quick plan of action. Once underway, keep everyone involved, e.g. by having weekly (and later, during the course, daily) staff meetings. Make sure the staff meetings are short and effective, but try to keep an eye on the personal well-being of the staff group. This online education is new, and might not be the most ideal situation for most of us.
  3. Dig deeper than your first thoughts. The first 2 options for our course seemed to be nice already, but did not match all my personal preferences for the course (“The students should be outside as much as possible”).
  4. Consider to create a small student panel which you involve in the full process of redesigning the course. Weekly meetings with this group (4-6 students) can be a perfect way of testing out your ideas, refining the plans, but can also be a way to learn how to explain your course. Write down the questions they have and make sure to have answered these in your introduction lecture.
  5. Take into account: not all students stay in their own rooms. Many will have chosen to stay at their parents (or likewise) home. This might cause troubles for them to travel to Wageningen (or wherever your University is located)

PART 2: CONTENT OF THE COURSE

  1. Even though most ‘innovative teaching methods’ tell you to use short clips instead of lectures, I am not sure whether I fully agree. Proper explanations do require time from you, and energy from the student, it is that simple. Following a course should require some efforts from the student. However, sitting behind the computer all day might indeed kill students’ enthusiasm and eagerness. Hence, my idea would be to reduce the amount and length of lectures, and if a lecture is really needed: plan intermediate breaks in which you let the students stretch their legs, grab some water and go to the toilet. In addition, consider giving multiple workshops instead of lectures and give the students the freedom to choose what they want to learn.
  2. Make use of the recording option in Brightspace. This will allow the students to review the lecture or workshop later, and allows you to simply start on time so you don’t have to be bothered about students being late.
  3. Think about how you want your students to present their results. You don’t want to force the students to sit behind their PC for another day watching boring presentations by their peers.
  4. If you choose to do online presentations by the students, please note that online presenting is completely different than off-line. Consider giving an extra training or workshop on this. Additionally: you might need to think about following such a training yourself too! 🙂
  5. Moving a bit deeper theoretically, I think COVID-19 and online education has offered us some chances to upgrade our education to a higher cognitive level: let students review their results and translate these into practice, for example in a story for their parents, or using Peek.

PART 3: During the course

  1. Keep the students involved. Depending on various factors, some might need assistance along the way. Daily announcements can help in this, explaining what will be the goal of the day, and appear to indeed keep students on track. Secondly, it might be good to let the student make a work plan at the start of the course. Lastly, we highly recommend daily meetings. In our course, we had daily meetings between a coach and the teams. A short meeting with a non changing agenda, giving the students a feeling of rhythm in the course: Get them out of bed and give them a purpose for the day. Might sound useless, but almost all of the students indicated this short meeting was effective and helped them through the day.
  2. Be actively involved, be present for the students. I tried to be online all day and replied to e-mails as soon as possible. Show them you are there.
  3. While you might be restricted in joining them, think about who could be the new you. Others can do this job – and maybe even better: Grandma, or the neighbor?
  4. Make sure to meet the rest of the staff both online as well as offline. Informal meetings tend to feel a bit awkward if held online, so make sure to meet each other outside or while drinking a beer.
  5. Think about what to do with students that tend to slow down a group process. This is important in any course, but appears to be extremely important in an online course. Make sure that team members have regular meetings and join them as much as possible. Students that go slower or refuse to work on their project can hamper the work of the rest of the group. For students within a group, this can be difficult to bring to the table in their meetings.
  6. Keep communication short, clear and central. Always use the same communication channel so students know where to find what. My preference: Brightspace.
  7. Lastly, take into account that the students might not get to know each other as good as in a regular year due to COVID-19 and online education. Group work can help to get students together, but students might be happier to do individual work as they don’t want to be online even more, and don’t know their fellow students very well. Our solution: Developing a magazine, collecting all the stories from the students:
BIL.MAG Extract from Teun Vogel

The BIL.MAG is a magazine full of inspiring tours through the landscape of students covering stories on drought, water quality, biodiversity and land degradation. Food for thought and a good reason to get outside in the next weeks. Apart from being a nice collection of stories for parents, staff members and experts in the field, it also forms a class book of the first year students.

CONCLUSION – COVID-19 and online education

For me, I hope that we will be back to normal as soon as possible. This ‘new education’ works. O yes it works, but is not ideal and it requires a lot of energy. I think face-to-face contact with students is key in achieving most courses’ learning outcomes, and gives me the opportunity to do what I am really passionate about: making students passionate, and showing them around in the landscapes around us. But in the meantime, let us grab the chance to innovate where needed.

And to be honest: I think an online course can be as good as an off-line course. The student evaluation of this years course was positive, but I think the next elements are key whether or not your course will succeed. In case all are present, your course or excursion might become as good as it used to be (or even better):

  1. Time
  2. Energy
  3. Creativity
  4. Positivism from staff (innovation requires open minds)
  5. Tools (as for example proper communication platforms, Brightspace, or the app Peek)

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