It isn’t easy to come up with a precise definition of blended education. Standard practice at this university is that of a modern lecture hall with lots of cameras and screens, where some of the students are present and the others watch online. Meanwhile, a lecturer tries to keep the technology working, the content understandable and the students awake, without having a nervous breakdown.

But that’s not the type of blended education that Stabel dreams of. “That doesn’t benefit our students, nor our lecturers.” According to Stabel, the future of blended education is much richer, with many more options. “With blended education, you need to make sure that you don’t keep thinking up the same solution. For me, it’s about making the best educational choices from the various technical options. So, a video clip if that works best, a physical session or an online discussion, whatever the educational goals require,” Stabel explains his dream.

“Good blended education is like the perfect cocktail, with all the ingredients in balance. Now, it’s more often a vodka-Red Bull.” Difficult to imagine, but Stabel is not a great fan of this mix.

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.

Can you repeat the question?

Furthermore, the technology must be flawless. “An annoying noise in the room can be distracting. Sometimes, students listening via a video link can’t hear the question and are not always visible themselves.” In the new blended lecture halls in the Theil building, that’s been a problem: students in the hall don’t always have a microphone when they ask a question.

Good technology also means that the lecturer must be able to get it all working. Which can be hard, but Stabel saw an interesting solution during a trip to a German university. “There was a QR code stuck to a computer panel. The lecturers could scan it and then got instructions on using the equipment on their phone. But even then, technical support is required.”

No time from Hugo and Mark

Illustratie IkRotterdam hybride cocktail2
Image credit: ikRotterdam

How does he want to achieve his blended dream at Erasmus University? That’s a long-term project. Firstly, choosing purely ‘physical’ education is currently often an illusion, because some students cannot or are unwilling to come to Rotterdam. Secondly, during the pandemic there has been very little time to optimise the education for the blended era. And thirdly, due to the global chip crisis, it has become almost impossible to get the right equipment.

The knee-jerk Dutch coronavirus policy hasn’t helped either. Stabel: “As a lecturer, you need to design first, not immediately embark on blended education. But often, you don’t get that time from Hugo and Mark.” Case in point: after last week’s press conference, lecturers suddenly had to adapt their lectures, with only a weekend to do it. And then standard practice still applies: half in the hall, half at home.

“That setting is a huge challenge for lecturers,” says Stabel. “You need totally different skills. Non-verbal signals come across very differently or not at all on a screen. And that gets in the way of several basic principles of what learning is: focus, involvement. I don’t think that lecturers will be happy with this, unless they are very good, both educationally as technically,” says Stabel.

However, he does think that the current blended lectures have some value, also after the pandemic. So that students can decide whether they come to campus or not, for example. “Then someone who’s abroad can still take part.”

Dissecting a frog

Stabel (himself more a beer drinker) has yet to find the perfect cocktail. “I’ve seen some inspiring examples, though. Take Arizona State University, for example, a global pioneer in this field. There they even provided ‘wet lab’ education, like dissecting a frog, online.” At EUR, there are also interesting examples. “At many courses, for example, the use of short instruction videos for students to watch before a lecture, has become very common.” Another example is an honours lecture about sustainability communication. “In this case, Dutch and Chinese students came together via a video. That’s very interesting, because in China they think very differently about such a subject. Without this technology, that would not have been possible.”

Will blended education continue after the pandemic? “I think it would be a terrible shame if we completely turned back the clock. We’ve learned a great deal from this time.”

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