Tricky switch

“I found the switch [to online teaching] in March quite tricky. Initially I thought: this will only be for a few weeks, but I ended up teaching all my classes online for the rest of the year. That was less hard in a course where I already knew the students than in a later course involving new students. You can tell that students are less inclined to ask questions, or they turn off their cameras. It’s different for the students themselves, too. When you’re attending an in-person seminar, you can check whether your answer is correct with the person sitting next to you. You can’t do that during an online seminar.

Students in their final year experience a great deal of pressure

Coronawetenschap Femke Hilverda – Levien Willemse
Femke Hilverda, assistant professor of social psychology and risk communication at the Erasmus School of Health Policy & Management. Image credit: Levien Willemse

“I noticed that I had to be more proactive myself about getting my students involved. Eventually, I began to work with breakout rooms, as well, so as to allow my students to work in small groups. But it took me a while to realise that that was what was needed, and to make the necessary changes to the way in which my classes were designed.

“It’s also become harder to tell what students are doing, so you have to actively ask questions yourself. In the previous academic year, I decided to give my Master’s students one-on-one supervision once the lockdown began because group teaching proved less successful. It took me more time, but it ended up being more effective. I also had to help many students redesign their research projects, as they were unable to conduct their field research as originally planned. And yes, that sometimes involved talking to students who were crying on the phone, and you don’t hang up on them when that happens. Students in their final year, in particular, experience a great deal of pressure. This is hard for lecturers, because suddenly, we’re expected to wear a different hat. I had to become more of a coach, even though my official job is to help them out with the intellectual aspects. I try to be as understanding as possible, but they have to take steps themselves if they are genuinely experiencing problems.

“I also ‘lost’ one student last year. Her research project wasn’t going very well, and at one point, when we began to have to do all our teaching online, I was no longer able to contact her. I sent her several messages and consulted my supervisor, but I had to give up in the end.

“It’s nice to be able to vent every once in a while. We have a virtual lunch or tea break every week, and we can join if we want. That’s nice. And ever since the crisis began, my department has had a chat group where we can share things. Work-related things, but personal matters, as well.

I’ve found the right way to work now

“I personally found working from home hard during that first period. First and foremost because our neighbours embarked on a four-month home renovation. We came to an arrangement, though, whereby they would not do any demolition work while I was teaching a lecture. Sometimes I’d work in the attic, which was slightly less noisy, but the wi-fi didn’t work particularly well there. And my laptop broke at the start of the lockdown. I got it repaired just in time for my first online lecture.

“Now that several months have passed, I’ve found a good way to work. I now have a designated workspace, a proper office chair and a headset, so that I can keep on working as usual during the renovation. And I haven’t been on campus since March, because I don’t really want to travel from Gouda, so I’m spending a lot of time on the phone, Teams and Zoom. But I hardly ever get to talk to colleagues with whom I don’t collaborate much. I do miss that.”