The first lockdown last spring left me mentally exhausted. Apart from trying to juggle childcare and work at the same time, and not being able to leave the house due to a long-lingering cold with no access to testing to rule out Covid-19, online teaching also left me drained of energy. This time around, upon finishing my online course, I felt energised and satisfied with how it went. This time I had connected with the students, and they had connected as a group as well. So what was different?
The previous time, all the students had switched off their webcams and limited themselves to communication via the chatbox. I felt like I was talking to a black box. I regularly asked if they understood what I said, or simply if they were still there. I had this creepy feeling that I may be crazy, talking while nobody was listening anymore. After some reassuring ‘yes’ answers in the chatbox, I would continue.
This time, I wanted a classroom where students felt comfortable engaging, where students would happily login to with the prospect of seeing and socialising with their classmates, just like in a physical classroom. I figured that to achieve this, we needed to get to know each other. So I dedicated the first 10 minutes of class time to ‘silly’ questions. What is the strangest thing you have ever eaten? If you could only go to one country on holiday, which country would it be? If you could meet any one living or dead famous person, who would it be?
‘Enough webcams were turned on for some vital non-verbal feedback’
But of course, the privacy issues related to webcams had to be tackled explicitly first. So I announced that this part of the class would not be recorded, and asked whether we could make a gentleman’s agreement ‘that no one would record or screen capture any part of the class’. I also clarified that they were not obliged to put on their webcams, but that I would appreciate it, certainly for the first social part of class, and that I hoped we could simply trust each other on this. I also explained that I would edit out any student webcam in the recording of the lecture before making it available to them.
I really enjoyed the first ‘private’ part of the class. And luckily during the actual lecture, webcams were still partly turned on. Enough for me to have a small window with a handful of student webcams that gave me some vital non-verbal feedback on where they were at. And very importantly I had an engaged class. Many questions were asked verbally. Many of my multiple-choice polling questions were followed up by students giving their reasoning, and by class discussions.
This was really enjoyable and rewarding. And the connection and interaction we built should make it, just like after classes in a physical classroom, easier to start spontaneous conversations in the hallway when we can finally meet in the TU Delft buildings again. These conversations, which can be social or science-related, but can also be vital informal mentoring conversations for the students, are an important part of the intangible aspects, along with the formal education, that make up a proper university education that we as a society should want to give our young people. So here’s to being able to teach and meet again on-campus in 2021!
Monique van der Veen is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Applied Sciences, department of Chemical Engineering. You can read about the work of her research team here and follow her on Twitter at @MAvanderVeen