COVID19 and online education in the MA European Studies

By Andreea Nastase, Petar Petrov, Maarten Vink and Hylke Dijkstra

Following the universitys decision to suspend in-class education, we decided to move our MA European Studies courses online per Monday 16 March. We want to share our experiences, as novices in online education, with moving three parallel elective courses with about 60 students to an online environment.

Setting up online education

While we fully understand the decision of other (larger) programmes to suspend teaching, we felt that immediately moving to online teaching would be beneficial. We also wondered “how difficult can it be?”. On social media, lots of colleagues were talking about Zoom and other tools facilitating tutorial-style teaching. 

So, over the weekend, Andreea, Petar and Hylke tested Zoom, software that none of us had previously used. The first experiences were good. It was very easy to download and install. The “host” sets up a meeting and sends an invitation link to everyone. It is also straightforward to share screens and therefore a PowerPoint presentation. The host can also record the lecture, but individual students cannot. The system also seemed considerably more stable than, for instance, Skype. We bought a subscription for our coordinators (at 14 euros/month), but Maastricht University will soon have an institutional subscription.

So how did we experience online education?

EU Foreign and Security Policy (Petar Petrov)

Petar experienced that preparation is key: it is crucial for the teacher to set up a “host” meeting on Zoom, take care of crucial management and coordination options (e.g. setting audio/mute and video preferences), and send invitations to students sufficiently early.

Communication prior to the meetings was also important. Blackboard proved indispensable to write announcements and invite all the students to the meetings, as well as share the basic rules of conduct we all agreed on (see below) and set the agenda for tutorials. For example, it was important, prior to the Zoom class, to tell students that we will start at normal times. Also, that at the end of the tutorial students would have their usual 10-15 minutes round to ask questions about their final course paper.

The first meeting was a pilot of sorts as it allowed Petar to ask the students for feedback about their experience. Based on the feedback he wrote down the following House rules of online teaching.

All of Petar’s Zoom meetings went smoothly and were very close to normal in-class meetings. There was no need to change any of the fundamental elements of giving lectures and implementing a PBL learning format: pre- and post-discussion, taking notes, holding a debate and moderating a discussion.

Europeanisation and Domestic Change (Andreea Nastase)

Andreea used Zoom on Thursday for a lecture and a tutorial. Her aim was to try to reproduce online as much as possible the types of activities and interaction that would have normally occurred in-person. Overall, her experience was positive and promising.

The lecture was delivered by Anna Herranz-Surralles. Nearly the entire group of students attended. Anna was able to share her screen with everyone, so they could all follow the presentation, as well as her video stream on the right-hand side of the interface. Although “question time” was scheduled after each main block of the lecture, what proved more useful was Zooms chat function, which a few students used to ask questions at different points throughout the lecture.

The same number of students participated in the afternoon tutorial. To ease technology anxieties, Andreea chaired the tutorial herself, based on the discussion questions students had prepared in advance. Zoom’s “gallery view” option was a good simulation of a group setting, as it showed all participant video streams in the same window.

Students did participate in a reasonable, but less engaged emulation of usual class discussions (side note: awkward silences seem to be even more awkward online!). Some of this was due to the switch to online, but the general major disruption of the past days also contributed. As we all settle into new realities of social distancing, the possibilities offered by apps such as Zoom can be explored and employed more fully.

Europe and International Migration (Maarten Vink)

Maarten tried a slightly different approach in his tutorial group. Through the online format, he tried to mimic the in-class format the course had been using so far, where meetings always start with a pre-discussion of selected texts in small groups, before continuing with a plenary discussion.

For this week’s assignment, students were divided in three groups of 4-5 students that each discussed one of the pre-assigned texts. Students in these smaller groups connected with each other over Skype during the scheduled class hour. They discussed the text and reflected critically on the main argument of the texts. Next, students submitted their summary of the discussion to Maarten, who posted the three summaries on Blackboard at the end of the afternoon with some comments for each group to reflect on. Students remarked that connecting and discussing over Skype worked well (with one exception of a student who did not manage) and indicated that discussing in small groups was fine, but in larger groups most likely less productive.

Next week, instead of paper presentations in class, students will discuss each others work with Maarten over trilateral 30-minute Skype sessions, with two students at a time. They will have to send their paper in advance. Maarten will also add comments and answer questions.

Try and experiment

There is, of course, lots of advice on how to organise online teaching. Important for us, however, was to get that first experience. And our experience has been largely positive, as can be seen from the pros and cons below.

What is more, students were very engaged and really wanted to make this work. We have to try to keep up this momentum. Online education obviously does not replace the real experience, but in our relatively small programme where students know each other well, it may just work until the end of term.

Andreea Nastase, Petar Petrov and Maarten Vink are course coordinators in the MA European Studies. Hylke Dijkstra is the Programme Director. They are new to online teaching and learning, just like most of us.