Chatting with your students – even if it’s just small talk? It’s a lot harder online, concluded researchers (and lecturers) Femke Hilverda, Manja Vollmann and Renee Scheepers over the course of the past year. Hilverda: “It takes a lot more time to inquire after students’ welfare during an online seminar than face to face. In a classroom, you can have a brief chat with your students when they enter, or they talk among themselves before the hour starts. Online, everyone keeps their mouth shut until we get going.”

Even though according to their research, these interactions are quite important. In their on-going study, the three academics look into online education, to which end they have polled students at every university in the Netherlands. The results of the first poll held last December, which was filled in by 1,600 students, show that interaction with lecturers is particularly important when it comes to students’ satisfaction with online education. Interaction with fellow students played a smaller – but also significant – role.

Online education gets a 5.5

On average, the respondents gave online education 5.5 on a 10-point scale, with Erasmus University’s average being no exception. In the poll held by Erasmus Magazine in December 2020, EUR students gave the education at their university an average mark of 6.2. In June of that year this still stood at 5.2, according to a previous EM poll. The main explanation for this improved grading was that lecturers didn’t have to improvise as much as before.

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The ESHPM study is still running. The second poll was processed in late March, and the researchers plan to send out the third questionnaire at the end of this academic year. They have chosen to consistently send their questions to the same students, in order to gain clearer insight into specific developments over time. In addition, the three intend to enter into dialogue with lecturers, students and student representatives about online education.

The study is intended to yield concrete recommendations for lecturers and educational institutions. “Degree programmes can take new measures in response to our findings,” says Vollmann. How? “Give lecturers extra time for personal guidance and support, for example, since this takes longer when you’re teaching online. In other words: don’t just allot the standard hours for preparing and giving lectures and seminars, but give them an hour extra per week so they can ‘hang around after class’ to handle students’ substantive or personal questions.”

Online: inversely proportional to satisfaction

Online education won’t be replacing face-to-face education any time soon – at least not if students’ appreciation counts for anything. Another thing that becomes clear from the results of the first poll is that education on campus is still valued more highly than online. And the more online education students receive, the less satisfied they feel. Vollmann: “This effect is even stronger among students who have a strong need for social interaction.”

But the researchers have also identified opportunities to alleviate the situation. “This negative effect lessens when students have access to good equipment, adopt a positive attitude vis-à-vis online education and have faith in their ability to study online.”

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It’s important, in other words, to ensure that students trust their skill in navigating the online programme. According to the researchers, clearly explaining to students how everything works could give them more confidence – and consequently make them feel more content with online solutions. Scheepers: “With online education, you’re drawing a lot more on students’ capacity to study independently. Normally speaking, as a student you benefit from the company of your fellow students to an extent – when you study together, for example. This has become harder now, and you need to be more disciplined to properly acquaint yourself with the subject. Courses may help in this regard.”

Break-out rooms

In the follow-up polls, the researchers want to specify in further detail which forms of interaction the students specifically appreciate. Hilverda: “Do they like break-out rooms, for instance, or the option of raising their hand to ask a question? We’ve listed as many tools as possible, so that we can offer the best possible recommendations based on students’ answers.”

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