A quiet side street in the centre of The Hague, a building wedged between a skateboarding shop and a Thai restaurant. The blinded door swings open. A boy with tangled, dark hair and a black hoodie stands in the doorway. Behind him, under two clean strips of designer light, a handful of boys in dark clothing loom, each sitting or standing behind a screen. They look curiously; obviously a visit was not expected.

“Otherwise, come to the development agency I work with a lot,” Farshida Zafar had said. Of course, we could also have met in her room on the campus to discuss Erasmus University’s digital direction. But if we really want to think differently about education, we would do well to forget the university laws for a moment. And that’s why we are here, a place from which academic education could learn a lot, she believes. A game studio. Waving cheerily, she appears – grey Nikes, black jeans – at the back of the industrial space, larking a little with the programmers. “Let’s sit right here,” she says. “Coffee?”

Farshida Zafar is an online education and innovation project leader at the Erasmus School of Law. She led the university-wide vision process for online education within the EUR, and developed numerous new tools, such as a VR court for law students. She has received the Techionista Award and the SURF Education Award for her contribution to educational innovations.

The boss


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“They look like two completely different worlds,” says Zafar, easing herself into a Chesterfield sofa alongside Superbuff founder Kevin Toet. The university is serious and traditional, the game world is creative and focused on entertainment. “But you don’t have try too hard at all to see an academic course as a game.”

Try to think the way she does. There are rules, laid down in education and examination regulations. There are several levels, the courses or years you have to complete one by one. With a little imagination there’s even a boss you have to conquer: the thesis and its accompanying defence.

She draws this comparison because she believes that the game as it’s played at university no longer fully (she says it, very consciously, carefully) meets the needs of our time. To stay with the game metaphor: it’s time for an update.

In recent years, Zafar has been involved in all manner of projects that gave rise to this. With blended learning, she helped revise the part-time law programme (the once ailing evening course is now a thriving Friday afternoon study). She built an app (Android/iOS) with which students can compete against each other to test their knowledge of a subject, and she set up an online streaming service for legal literature. The most recent example is the virtual reality training court she developed together with Superbuff. But as far as she is concerned, it’s not just a matter of individual projects like this.

Cheat rules

“The game world is a billion-dollar industry,” says Kevin Toet. “In some areas it’s already bigger than Hollywood. A huge amount of experience has been gained in terms of UX design. You can use that in education.”

UX design (UX stands for User Experience) means designing a service or experience that allows the user to find his way around independently and without any problems. In the case of serious gaming, this means that everything occurs in a playful manner, even discovering the rules of the game. At Zafar’s request, Toet will launch a VR safety training course later that afternoon, which he developed for Shell. You find out how the controllers work by performing a few simple commands: in this case, pick up a flashlight and a helmet in the room where you start as a player. It feels like the game has already started, even though the way everything works still has to be explained.

“We sometimes tend to want to put students in a mould,” says Zafar. “Yet ultimately they will indeed look for the easiest or most efficient route themselves. I sometimes hear teachers complaining that students attend lectures so little, or don’t read the books. But it’s no longer appropriate to use a one-size-fits-all model. What’s wrong with finding other ways to get to that knowledge: a video, an extract, a summary?”

“That’s completely acceptable in a game,” says Toet. “You choose for yourself there.”

Zafar: “There are even cheat rules. Built-in shortcuts that, if you know how to find or activate them, unlock secret access to extra points or to a next level.”

Toet: “If you ask me, there’s no better definition of creativity.”

Bit of a nerd

Image credit: Geertje van Achterberg

Zafar is a whirlwind of energy. One of those people who, in just five minutes, can make you enthusiastic about an IT innovation you had never heard of. “I always think: we’re simply going to do it and we’ll see what happens. You have to dare. I’m really a bit of a nerd. I think education is the most beautiful thing there is. I can combine that with my passion for technology.”

As a child in an Afghan refugee family, she discovered the importance of rapid adaptability. To master the language, to get to know new people, to understand the culture. “But also: how can I plan my life differently from what my parents intended for me? I realised that you don’t have to be content with the status quo.”

In a university environment, the status quo is that research is the main focus of attention. It takes precedence over just about everything, she says. “The beauty of an academy is that it teaches you to look at the world differently, but unfortunately this isn’t always reflected in our daily work.” The Erasmus School of Law, her operating base, is an ideal place in that respect. “On the one hand it’s a faculty with very traditional values, yet at the same time administrators like Susan Stoter and Ruben Houweling give oddballs like me the space to keep innovating and growing.”

Something with Snapchat

Her ambitions are high, sometimes perhaps even a little too high. If you’re involved in ICT innovations in a university (not the paragon of progressiveness in this area), you quickly risk ending up too far ahead of the troops. In recent years, Zafar has shown herself wonderfully able to convince colleagues – from other faculties as well. She chooses her battles. And the difference is that she’s emphatically not someone who blows with all the technological winds. For example, countless scenarios are conceivable where ICT is not actually the solution. When it comes to stimulating cooperation, for example (she suggests a Zombie Escape Room in passing).

What universities often do now, she says, is adopt a hip innovation without wondering what the didactic added value is for education. Then something has to be done with Snapchat, with augmented reality or with a MOOC. “In my view, good innovations are primarily for the benefit of the students studying at this university. They should receive the best education. A MOOC, app or VR experience isn’t much use to you if it’s not embedded in the existing curriculum.”

If it were up to her, Erasmus University would invest seriously in a digital learning environment. And not a Blackboard where a question is asked occasionally or an article is shared, something she calls ‘push and pull’. No, the time has gone where you could regard technology as a simple tool. This digital learning environment has to connect in a user-friendly way (that UX design again) with the countless different learning styles of students. One student may learn better when knowledge is transferred gradually via videos, while another needs detailed documents. An intuitive learning management system is everywhere, anytime, and gives every student (of course fully responsively on any device) the ability to navigate through the study in his or her own way.

No more timetables

Image credit: Geertje van Achterberg

Exactly, a kind of game. As an example, Zafar mentions École 42, the widely acclaimed but also unconventional French programmer programme, where timetables, teachers and textbooks no longer exist as we know them, but where the progress of students can be monitored continuously with a kind of blockchain-like system.

“We have wonderful lists of twenty-first-century skills that students should master in order to find a place on the labour market,” says Zafar. “Creativity, communication skills, collaboration and digital literacy are invariably very high on those lists. But in the meantime, many of our training courses are still mainly text-based. In the future, a judge or lawyer must also understand algorithms. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be able to programme, but they do have to understand what’s happening.”

At the moment Zafar spends one day a week in the Superbuff offices. Working on current projects, but also so as to spar with the programmers and designers there. At the end of this year, she hopes to use the Community for Learning and Innovation to create a similar space in the Polak building basement in Woudestein. There will be a recording studio and a creative space where students and teachers can work together on concrete educational innovations.