General, Lecturers, pedagogy

The Covid-19 crisis: views of a lecturer

We talked to Dr. Oliver Lindemann, Assistant Professor for Research Methods and Techniques at the Department of Psychology, Education & Child Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam in The Netherlands

(c) Oliver Lindemann

Tell me a little about your University and the current situation

Erasmus University grew out of the “Netherlands School of Commerce”, which was founded in 1913 and has always been one of the world’s top-ranked Business Schools. In 1966 a Medical Faculty was added and the “full” university under its current name was established in 1973. To this day, the university focusses on Medical, Cultural and Social Sciences and the Business School (RSM) remains a big influence on the university’s overall reputation. In recent years, the Rotterdam School of Social Science and Behaviour has enrolled more students than the Business School. Psychology is the strongest subject within this school by some distance. The percentage of foreign students is high. They come mainly from Germany and the Asian countries.  

Which courses do you teach?

I teach research methods and statistics for Social Sciences across the school. Most of my students are Psychology students but some study other disciplines, mainly Pedagogy. I teach both post- and undergraduate students and supervise a small group of PhD students.
Because my courses are compulsory, typically 400-500 students attend my lectures. In the past year, we’ve even had lectures of more than 1,000 students. Levels of knowledge and interest in my subject are diverse and as the cohorts are also large it is difficult to teach in a way that caters for everyone. Consequently, I record my lectures and ask as many students as possible to watch them online and only attend in person if they must. It’s mainly “talk and chalk”, so it makes little difference to the quality whether I tape a lecture or conduct it as a “live show”.
The students also attend tutorials in groups of about 20 students. There they discuss and practise the methods learned in the lecture.  Since the lockdown this has become much more difficult, because tutors have to support students on a one-to-one basis and provide feedback.  

How has the current situation impacted your teaching and which measures have you taken?

The Erasmus University moved to online teaching and learning when the lockdown began in March. There will be no face-to-face teaching before the summer; all lecturers have been advised to prepare online autumn lectures, too.
I have weekly virtual 1-to-1 catch-ups with the 7 or so BA and MA students whom I am currently supervising; others can book short Zoom calls with me via my website. The students need more frequent contact now because they can’t see me on campus or exchange informal opinions about their work with each other. I also offer online workshops for graduate students and the open science community Rotterdam. We discuss methodological issues of psychology or I introduce new statistical approaches. Usually, these webinars attract 20 – 40 participants.
Our university uses Microsoft Teams and Zoom for online teaching. It is working well, though in webinars you have to set very strict rules. All participants are asked to wear headphones where possible and they are being put on mute; they can ask questions through the chat function. If more than 20 people attend an online session, I try to appoint one “assistant” (a student on the course or someone I ask to join specially) to keep an eye on the chat and  summarise the questions for me, so I can focus on the lecture itself.  Mostly it works out well.

What are the biggest challenges for yourself and the students?

The students’ biggest challenge is non-academic: they face real financial problems. Nearly all of them work to cover their daily expenses, and most typical student jobs no longer exist. Some of my overseas students have had to return to their home countries because they couldn’t make ends meet.
The other big problem is the lack of a peer group. It is a key principle here at the Erasmus University Rotterdam to encourage independent learning by small groups. Some students are very good at scheduling learning groups via Zoom to stay in touch with their peers, but others really struggle. We may not be able to motivate them enough to continue.
Teaching doesn’t present as great a challenge as research to me. I an experimental psychologist and I usually conduct empirical research on participants in labs, which is currently impossible. Students trying to complete their theses suffer similarly; a certain amount of research can be conducted via (online) questionnaires, but the validity of this kind of research is limited.

What about access to learning and teaching materials? How supportive has the Library been?

The library was closed for several weeks but has recently re-opened. It now admits a limited number of patrons. It has always had an electronic-preferred policy, so we always have access to digital resources; currently there are some additional electronic resources, but only for a limited time. It’s my understanding that publishers have helped with this. The library has made extra funding available for additional digital resources we may require for teaching
The library’s digital learning team has been very supportive throughout the crisis, for instance, in getting Zoom licences rolled out in a very short time. They are now busy trying to develop solutions for online exams. Moreover, the university has a Media Lab – quite a professional operation with proper recording studio facilities – but the staff there were overworked even before the crisis, so there is now little chance of getting a window of opportunity there. 
The students suffered when the library was closed.  Rents in Rotterdam are horrendous, so students tend to live in tiny rooms that can barely contain a bed, a wardrobe and a bike, and they often don’t have broadband at home. Therefore, they rely on working space and Wi-Fi in the library. 

Has the use of materials changed?

I have not changed the textbooks and other materials I use for teaching yet. However, it has become even more important only to use material that is available online. For the lecture I am preparing for the autumn – the Philosophy of Science – there are some print titles on the reading list. If I can’t find digital versions I shall replace them with alternatives. It gives me an opportunity to update my reading lists!
I have noticed that it’s become necessary to prepare more detailed exercise notes for tutorials. I normally just distribute some exercises (and solutions) and any questions are being discussed with the tutors; now I have to include step-by-step guides and provide more explanation to ensure the students understand what they need to do. That is very time-consuming for all lectures.
Many publishers offer good learning platforms to support their textbooks. These are really helping my teaching now. The main obstacle is the diversity of the platforms themselves. Each one has different navigability, DRM etc. It would be really helpful if they could be more standardised.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I guess this crisis will have a long-term impact on remote working, especially for non-academic staff, who until now were used to regular office hours. I hope it will become more normal for them to work from home, as academics have done for many years.
I have the feeling that psychological research is currently focusing more on reviews and meta-analysis. Some of my colleagues are finally completing that textbook they have always meant to write.
Overall, the greatest drawback for students is the breakdown of peer-learning. Even the best lecturer in the world cannot replace the experience of learning with and from your peers.

Tell us a little about yourself

I graduated in Psychology from the University of Trier (Germany) and after completing my PhD at the University of Groningen, I worked in the field of numeric cognition at the Radboud Universities Nijmegen and the University of Potsdam before starting my current position in Rotterdam three years ago. I am married and in my spare time I enjoy listening to classical and jazz music. I love cooking (and eating!) and am a keen supporter of the German football club Borussia Dortmund.

[Written by Annika Bennett, Gold Leaf]

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