Up to 900 students attend mega lectures at TU Delft at the same time. It's always been a logistical feat to accommodate them all, but how are they doing in times of corona?
Prof. Just Herder sees a lot less students this year. (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Up to 900 students attend mega lectures at TU Delft at the same time. It's always been a logistical feat to accommodate them all, but how are they doing in times of corona?

Liever Nederlands

Anyone who has ever taken a bachelor's degree at TU Delft knows them: mega courses such as Statics or Technology 1 with hundreds of participants. There was a good chance that you were not sitting with the professor in the lecture hall, but were watching a live stream in the room next door instead. Or that you were sitting on a flight of stairs because all the chairs were taken, or that you could doze away in a soft cinema chair.

For this year’s freshmen, everything is different now that lectures are mostly online. Students ask questions via a live chat which is moderated by the staff. “Fortunately, we can still receive small groups of 30 students,” explains Professor Just Herder. Herder gives Statics at the 3mE Faculty to no less than 900 students. They can register if they want to physically attend a lecture, the rest can watch live on Collegerama. “At least the lecture hall is not empty that way,” says Herder. “I also have volunteers for the demonstration experiments.”

It just turned out that students were not queuing up for the 30 places available: only 22 registered for 4 September, five of whom actually turned up. In the meantime, 20 students have found their way to the lecture hall. What is it like for lecturers to teach now? Delta spoke to three of them.

Going to campus once a week
Laboratory courses and design projects will still take place on campus. Dr Aurèle Adam, responsible for the Mechanics, Waves & Optics course at the Faculty of Applied Sciences, explains his approach. “We have divided the students over the working days so that each student has one day on which he or she can come to the Faculty. This allows us to maintain sufficient distance between the students. We ask them to work in small groups where they get to know each other.”

The Collegerama servers went down on the very first day of the academic year

Because of their other subjects, students only come in the afternoon. The sessions last until 20:00. Each group of 15 students has its own ‘teacher mentor’, a researcher from the Faculty, who supervises them. The lecturer mentor helps them with the physics, eats with them and tries to give the students the feeling that they are part of the Faculty.

3mE is also trying to offer students on-campus education. Not only are the tutorial groups smaller, the form is also different. “Instead of walking back and forth between the tables - which is difficult to do at a distance of 1.5 metres - the sessions are more plenary and interactive, which is positive in smaller groups,” says Herder.

New difficulties
However, the longer working days and the extra organisation have increased the workload for teachers. “We have no choice,” says Eric van den Ham, lecturer in Technology 1 at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment. “It helps that we already started online courses last year. However, there are many things that can go wrong online, and you have to learn how to deal with them.” As if to illustrate Van den Ham’s point, the Collegerama servers went down on the very first day of the academic year. Herder came out with Zoom, but that took some effort. “A Zoom meeting can handle 300 people. To continue the lecture on Zoom after the Collegerama disruption, we had to aim the webcams of three laptops at me and create three simultaneous meetings.”

Teachers get assistance in the form of more teaching assistants and junior lecturers - a new position. “I hope we can keep this structure,” says Herder, “because if staff would have to stay at home because of health problems, we would have a problem.”

But extra staff doesn’t take away all the extra pressure. According to Aurèle Adam, the workload certainly increased, even in summer when teachers were preparing their subjects. “TU Delft always says that assistant professors should delegate tasks to PhD students and teaching assistants, but in the end, it’s my job, I’m the one that is responsible. I want to do the important things myself.”

Lost without lectures?
And then there is the lack of physical contact. “I really miss standing in front of a lecture hall full of students,” says Van den Ham. “For new students, everything is new and unclear. They are often insecure and wonder if they will make it, and wonder what exactly they need to do and learn. It used to be easy to answer questions between lectures. Now they have to look at the Brightspace forum. You can see that the students miss the interaction.”

Students are more active during the lectures

Yet online education is not just gloom and loneliness. Herder sees that students are more active during the lectures. “The few students who are physically there ask more questions. Apparently, the threshold to raise your hand is lower in small groups. Similarly, we see students answering each other’s questions and responding to each other in the chat channel. I didn’t expect that. This type of interaction is apparently only possible in an online environment.”

Quality of education
Herder, Adam and Van den Ham do not share the fear that the quality of education will decline because of online lectures. “It is a pity that we cannot do a quick quiz or poll during a lecture because of the 30 second delay in the live stream. But on the whole not that much has changed.”

“Many students have always viewed the lecture online anyway,” Herder adds. “There are drawbacks to teaching online, but there are also tools to compensate for them such as including sample exercises.”

Adam sees another advantage. “The lectures have largely the same format. I can see exactly how many students attend the online lectures and who watches loyally.”

There’s a good reason, they believe, that none of them has had any complaints. According to Adam, students understand the situation. “They are patient and willing to adapt."