Tales from my home office

By Patrick Bijsmans

It’s been just over a week since Maastricht University decided to move all teaching online. I’ve been lucky because my teaching from last week onwards was going to be centred around individual meetings anyway, so it’s been relatively easy to adapt. Lots of respect to everyone who has already moved teaching to online platforms in the midst of an ongoing period; we can learn so much from your experience!

I’ve been working from home for a week now. I usually work at home two days a week to focus on my research. And I have a comfortable home office with a view of the garden (which I can also use when the weather allows) and an adjustable desk (allowing me to do some work while standing).

Still, this week has been very different from my usual days working from home. For one, all my meetings have gone through Skype or Zoom, without any problems, including my online student ‘drop-in’ hour. All students I spoke to (nearly 20 in two days time) had a working connection, which in most cases included video. I asked all of my students to carefully prepare; my Research Master students, in particular, did a great job doing so. All my students also were a bit apprehensive about this new challenge – one of the reasons why we drafted tips for students. But all of them were healthy too, as were their parents, which is most important.

Communication with colleagues went through email, Skype or Zoom. This is challenging for some colleagues; some have kids running through the house, and all kinds of other stuff to be taking into account. As far as email is concerned, I’m getting less emails! And most people who do email, sent shorter messages. Perhaps we can learn from this that meeting face-to-face (in real life or in cyberspace) is more efficient than endless email conversations?

All of this has been rather tiring, though, and I’ve been absolutely knackered at the end of a series of online meetings; something John also mentioned in his recent post on providing individual feedback via Skype. This – and the simple fact that all of this takes time getting used to – has gone at the expense of research, but I hope to catch up this week. But I sense a lot of sympathy and understanding towards each other. And we can use technology to still do things together, like watching an online movie to support your local independent cinema or listening to the same Spotify playlist, like my friend Afke and I were doing on Thursday.

In addition to trying to keep up with normal work, I’ve also been introducing myself to online teaching, because let’s face it: for most of us this is something we have never done before. Yes, I’ve had Skype meetings before. I’ve also once designed a short, narrated PowerPoint lecture. But this is different. We cannot just record a lecture or do a group meeting like we would normally do. And did you ever consider the difference between asynchronous and synchronous activities? I certainly did not.

Emilie’s blog on using videos in teaching was a great starting point, my friends from the Active Learning in Political Science Blog have published lots of insightful posts, and I have enjoyed following the first webinars offered by the Dutch Open University. While I’m still far from knowing exactly how to shape online teaching and learning, here are a few takeaways that I will keep in mind during the next couple of weeks and months.

  1. Online teaching requires more organisation, but there’s a danger that we also resort to overly steering students’ learning. For instance, telling students what to do exactly, instead of stimulating them to actively engage with the material.
  2. We have to accept that we cannot cover as much content as we would normally do. For instance, best to keep lecture length to 20-30 minutes to make sure students stay tuned.
  3. We should start from the fact that we have existing material that we can use. I already mentioned narrated PowerPoint slides as an option, so you can use existing material – but see point 2!
  4. Online teaching requires active teachers who show empathy. For instance, listen to what your students are going through, stimulate and support group work, and pay particular attention to students who already struggle with organising self-study under normal circumstances.

Challenging, I know, but I’ve decided to seize the opportunity to try developing some novel teaching material. And, really, my only obstacle right now is that I’m sometimes unable to grind coffee beans because my partner is in an online meeting at the kitchen table. So, I’ll manage. No, we’ll manage together; we can do this!

About the author

Patrick Bijsmans is assistant professor in European Studies and one of the editors of the FASoS Teaching & Learning Blog. He teaches European Studies at BA and MA level and is faculty coordinator of the teaching staff professionalisation programme Continuing Professional Development. While his research interests include teaching and learning, he has never really read a lot about online teaching and learning. Until now.