No, education will never be the same as it was before corona. That is what all the deans of education are thinking. Online education is here to stay, they feel. Not everyone foresees a full return to the campus. But what will education look like then? There are still plenty of discussions about this. What do the faculties expect for the future? What are they running up against?

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.

1. The mass lecture hall is disappearing

Lectures will increasingly be replaced by recorded lectures or knowledge clips. The pandemic has in fact only accelerated this process. Prior to this, efforts were already being made to promote online education, says Brigitte Hoogendoorn, programme director at the Erasmus School of Economics. If the information from a large lecture in the form of recorded lectures or knowledge clips is already online, then there is more scope for questions, discussion and for delving deeper into the material during the lecture on campus.

‘As far as I’m concerned, it’s about looking for education that matches the talents of the lecturer’

Liesbeth Noordegraaf-Eelens, dean of education at the Erasmus School of Philosophy

The knowledge clips are perhaps the most important upshot of a year and a half of corona education. At the Erasmus School of Law (ESL), among others, they are proud of the ‘really cool’ and ‘beautiful’ online knowledge clips developed over the past 18 months. According to Harriët Schelhaas, dean of education of the bachelor studies at the ESL: “It was difficult in the beginning, really tough for teachers, but we worked very hard to develop online education. Even the lecturers who perhaps would not have started teaching online so readily have gotten on board. The advantage that corona brought is that we have learned a lot about online education.

Offline education is not always needed and online education offers opportunities, Michel Landers contends, dean of education at the Rotterdam School of Management. Large lectures are not always the best way to teach students, he feels. Passive listening is something that students can also do at home. He sees more advantages: “Online education can lead to a more inclusive university.” For example, students who have difficulty travelling to campus can still attend lectures. “I think that fewer lectures are given, but the ones that are given are worth coming to campus for”, says Liesbeth Noordegraaf-Eelens, dean of education at the Erasmus School of Philosophy. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s about looking for education that matches the talents of the lecturer. If we are going to look for made-to-measure solutions for students, then perhaps we should also look for made-to-measure solutions for teachers.”

With online education, you can invite guest lecturers from all over the world, says Karin Arts, dean of education at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). She too sees opportunities as well as challenges. Interaction is perhaps the most challenging aspect of online education. Various lecturers at the institute are working on new online courses with the support of education experts, says Arts. Master’s students can choose to follow such a course starting this upcoming academic year. “In their otherwise hopefully predominantly offline programme”, Arts hastens to add. “This way, students and lecturers who want to will be able to consciously opt for a mix of offline and online courses in the future.”

2. Students want to be online and flexible

Students do not want to go back to the education that they had before the pandemic. This is the conclusion reached by Bram Steijn, dean of education at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. “Especially during the lectures, we see that – to the disappointment of the lecturers – a lot of students seem to like following lectures online. It depends a bit on the time of day (9 o’clock in the morning is not popular), stage and subject, but you regularly see that a lot of students opt for online.” This has nothing to do with the quality,” says Steijn. “Because you also see that happening with lecturers who score high in evaluations year in and year out.” The other deans recognise this too: lecture halls are not as full when the lectures can also be followed online.

‘Especially during the lectures, we see that – to the disappointment of the lecturers – a lot of students seem to like following lectures online’

Bram Steijn, dean of education at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences

More freedom of choice is something that you can easily facilitate for students, believes Jane Murray Cramm, dean of education at the Erasmus School of Health Policy & Management. But it is not a good idea for everyone. It might be a godsend for part-time students who work in addition to their studies or for those pursuing two master’s programmes. “Then you have to think about how you can create a sense of group identity. That is difficult to do online, but it may be possible with one or a few face-to-face get-togethers each month.”

Among those where online education does not work are bachelor students who have just finished high school. “They could use a big stick”, says Cramm. “Going to the campus and following offline education often proves to be that big stick. They also tend to seek out more social contacts in addition to their studies. Offline education is more suitable for that.”

Medical students are also keen on online education. “If I were a student, I know what I’d want”, admits pro-dean Maarten Frens. “Before corona, there were always two lecture halls in use at the same time. In one, a lecturer gave a live lecture, in the other one the lecture was broadcast live.” That video room has been replaced by a live stream that can be followed anywhere. Students have to register in advance, but according to Frens there are never more students than will fit in the hall. Workgroups were already held in person, even during the earlier lockdowns.

3. ‘We don't want to become an online university'

Deans do not view the hybrid education of the corona era as the hybrid education of the future. They see the future as a mix of online and offline education. At gatherings, students are either all online or all in the lecture hall, rather than half and half. “In-person education remains very important. It forms the basis while online education is the supplement for full-time students”, Maarten Verbrugh believes, dean of education of the master’s at the ESL.

Illustratie oline onderwijs themaweek – Elzeline Kooy
Image credit: Elzeline Kooy

But where lies the balance between online and offline education? The deans find this tricky. “A study is much more than just taking courses”, says Verbrugh. “A diploma has a specific value, and it’s not for nothing that we have structured our studies in this way with offline education. We also want students to develop socially. Coming to the campus is important for that reason, even if you don’t feel like it on Monday mornings. We do not want a cafeteria model for the initial stages of education where students individually decide what they do and do not want.”

Coming to campus is not always a must. “We have all grown accustomed to it all, although arranging halls has not become any easier”, Verbrugh notes. “The timetables are made six months in advance, also because they are quite a puzzle in themselves.” He and Schelhaas also see the potential for online get-togethers. Informal meetings can be held online as well as some of the thesis consultations and Q&A sessions before exams. “We will keep the latter”, says Schelhaas. “Because the threshold was so low, we saw that more questions were being asked.”

The Public Administration programme committee has asked dean Steijn to continue recording and posting large lectures online after corona. “But I have my doubts about that.” He does see advantages: students do not have to travel, for example, or look for accommodation. At the same time, he also sees the disadvantages: you have less contact with your students online, for example. “So that calls for further contemplation. After all, we definitely do not want to become an online university.”