No one knows still what the new normal entails. The last few months, with the vaccine, we have been trying different scenarios to see how our society will work when the virus is finally under control. While some of my colleagues and students, and myself, have been immensely relieved by the possibility of coming back to teach and be taught at our campus, I also know that other colleagues and many students believe that the classroom itself is a bit passé, and maybe after trying long-distance education out of necessity, we should now be thinking of a university that runs – as we have in the last year and a half –by streaming studios directly into whichever space our students wish to receive the information.
Offline, online or hybrid? The future of education is very uncertain due to the corona crisis. Will everything change, or will everything return to normal? In this theme week, EM looks from all sides at what corona education has meant for students and teachers, how it can be improved and what we need to get rid of as soon as possible.
The perks of a choice are not lost to me. I still remember some of my students tuning in at the 9:00 am classes from the comfort of their beds, or myself teaching with a nice sweater and some make up while wearing pyjama pants and warm socks.
But it is not only about our comfort: I can also imagine how online teaching looks to the university in terms of numbers; an institution that keeps on growing with less and less financial resources. And meanwhile, many lecturers saw their bills go up in the lockdown months (electricity, warming, technology, lighting, the need for a better internet connection, a decent work chair). I imagine that the same utilities can be saved on at the campus. Even more: no more scheduling problems, and classes can be streamed at any time from any place, allowing students to organise their schedules for part-time jobs and unique circadian rhythms.
The core of education
All things considered though, I will always defend the importance of coming back to the classroom: it is, I believe, the core of the education that we (at least I) would still like to offer. I work at a school where we take pride in small-scale education. We believe that it is essential to have a mix of small tutorials along with some long lectures to be able to give the students the attention they deserve. More than that, many of the employability or soft skills that students are so keen to learn to be more successful in their future job search are learned in the classroom. And it is because of what the classroom means and represents.
The most important thing that happens at the university is not the lecture itself – but what happens around the lecture. The moment that we go into a classroom and we start going through information, questions, reactions, doubts and complaints arise. The corporality of the classroom allows us to almost breathe in what is happening around us. This is most important when developing and training our critical skills: the classroom should be the place where we confront ideas and theories and challenge ourselves to listen to others. The classroom leaves no choice but to turn off the camera or just stop the discussion; enduring through it will make us not only resilient but will also give us tools to create stronger and clearer arguments.
The dialogues that happen in the classroom are especially relevant because that is also where knowledge is created. If there is something that we have learned or confirmed during this pandemic, it is that information is available to everyone at any time, without geographical limits. We, the teaching staff, have mastered our roles as curators of materials that are accessible for everyone and can improve how students understand a topic. Of course, we can also create our own videos and classes: but honestly, apart from some unique communicators that have editing skills or heavy help from our technology teams, many videos to discuss some topics are already there.
So, then, why do we need the lecture, the seminar? To unravel those materials, to discuss them and critically evaluate them together. To create more knowledge while critically processing what we read together, listening and weighing in the views of others. It’s clear that we can discuss online and that wonderful ideas can be developed on a chat or a blog, but doing it in the same spaces allows us to be further exposed face to face to ideas that are not so close to ours; and by disagreeing, we also learn.
Of course, if classes are online, we can do unique things that would not be financially possible in another context. Many of my colleagues and myself took advantage of the online classes by inviting guests that gave lectures from all over the world. Students, on the other hand, could join classes while still at their family houses, either in Amsterdam, Brabant, Vietnam, or Chile. For a moment, we were all there in that Zoom… but we can’t kid ourselves by thinking that it is the same experience. For anyone that has been living or studying in a foreign country, the learning process of being immersed in another culture is not lost. And this can´t happen only through screens.
I have one last but central point in this defence of the traditional classroom: for weeks now, the concerns about the well-being of students have made the headlines in the Netherlands. We now know with data that more students than ever are depressed or feeling disconnected. Can the classroom avoid this? No, surely not always. But it does give us a chance to connect. There is something in the classroom that is closer to a home than to a temple: it might be the space where we connect, the place where we need to be on time, the place where we are listened to. And this doesn’t have to do only with the ability of the lecturer, but with the possibility of finding ourselves in a community.
Many things will of course continue to change in the years to come. I welcome all the possibilities that come with new technology, the great things that we can do for interaction with the new platforms. And yet, I still recognise the need for having that space of togetherness where education happens far from only learning, where we learn how to impact our community by recognising our community. The university as an institution will evolve thanks to Covid, and my hope is that the evolution is not dragging us away from the space of the community but teaching us the importance of learning and growing, together.