“Who here regards online education in a positive light?” asks Sam de Fockert, member of the Board at the Dutch National Student Association (ISO) after taking to the stage in Erasmus Paviljoen’s auditorium. He is presenting the results of a survey along with a colleague during the ‘Academic Education during the Covid-19 Pandemic’ symposium. Some audience members put up their hands in response. “And who sees it as negative?” More hands raised. “Looks like mostly the students.”

Negative experiences of online education

The students in the room are not the only ones to have had negative experiences with online lectures. This becomes clear right from the first of the symposium’s presentations, which sees three researchers from the Erasmus School of Health Policy & Management talk about their comprehensive survey on students’ experiences over the course of the pandemic. A greater number of students suffered burnouts during the lockdowns in particular, and they were dissatisfied with the online education, say the researchers. And this led to a deterioration in grades and students falling behind with their studies.

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Several studies on student experiences during the pandemic were presented at the symposium, including one by interest group De Geneeskundestudent and the thesis of medical science student Ruben Wissing (Radboud University Medical Center).

One thing made abundantly clear by the symposium is that most students want to have in-person teaching and so this is what should be provided to the fullest extent possible should there ever be a lockdown again. Above all, students miss the social interaction that online lectures lack, which is why they would prefer to be on campus.

Hopelessness

This strikes a chord with Rowen de Jong (25), sixth-year medical student at Erasmus MC and Board member at De Geneeskundestudent. She presented De Geneeskundestudent’s study together with fellow student and colleague Pim van den Boon. “More than anything, I didn’t get as much enjoyment out of online lectures”, she explained during the interlude. “We weren’t able to exchange experiences anywhere near as much, which I really missed.”

But she got lucky, as every few weeks during the pandemic her lectures were swapped with clinical training in the hospital. “I could always look forward to clinical training, when I’d get a chance to see other people.” Unsurprisingly, the fact that her mental health and her grades did not suffer during the pandemic is something that she credits to the in-person interaction during the clinical training.

Fellow student and Chairman at De Geneeskundestudent Pim (24) got good grades during lockdown too. But he was far from happy about the whole affair. “The hopelessness of the situation made me more anxious about the future”, he says. “I saw my friends less, and I missed being able to take for granted that I could just come in to the faculty.”

Interactive online lectures

During the symposium, several of the researchers take the view that this does not mean that online lessons will have to be scrapped entirely. “They can be a good addition”, says ISO Board member Sam during the presentation. Potentially handy for people who live far away, for instance. “But in-person teaching needs to be the priority. And if you choose to do things online, it should be with a view to improving the education.”

Most of the researchers state that online education will need to be made more interactive in order to encourage social interaction. One way of doing this would be to make more use of breakout rooms in Zoom, which enable small groups of students to collaborate and chat.

Medical student Rowen is sceptical about breakout rooms. “My experience has been that everyone started to roll their eyes as soon as a lecturer broached the subject of using breakout rooms for an assignment”, she says. “But it might help if a lecturer puts students in a breakout room purely to chat.”

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Studying in bed

All of Rowen’s and fellow student Pim’s education is now back to being delivered on-campus. Pim was ‘delighted’ when the campus reopened. “That said, I did notice that I’d become spoiled due to having been able to follow lectures in bed for so long. So the transition back to university was quite a shock to the system”, he says.

Rowen, too, had to get used to face-to-face teaching again. “My commute is pretty hefty – a total of three hours a day. So that was one way in which online teaching was a major benefit for me.”

And yet the medical students are hoping that all their lessons will continue to be delivered on-campus. Rowen: “If a unit is being delivered online, I’ve got the option of not following it or doing something else in the meantime. That feels good, but it’s not good from the perspective of my studies.”

The ‘Academic Education during the Covid-19 Pandemic’ symposium forms part of the EUR’s Student Well-being Week held last week. The week saw extra attention being devoted to students’ well-being and various activities and events being organised.

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