[Column] Welcome back to the classroom?

Columnist Bob van Vliet is not so keen on returning to physical lectures and feels guilty about it. “For big groups I can do my thing better online.”

(Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

When it was announced earlier this month that in September no more than 75 students could be in a room together, I was a bit relieved, to be honest. The closer we got to that press conference, the more I felt reluctant to get up in front of a room with 700 first years’ again. I realised that I would much rather do it online. I actually really enjoyed that last year. But I did feel guilty about this. You don’t want to impose unnecessary distance education on your students, do you?

The current solution to that limit of 75 students to a room is to schedule a different group of students every week and to have the rest watch online. I was never keen on this idea of ‘hybrid’ lectures. Things that work well online do not always work well in the classroom, and the things that work well in a physical context often translate poorly to the screen.

‘Am I the only one who does not value looking students in the eye?’

For my online lectures, I rely on a very particular arrangement of my desk, for instance, with the webcam, overhead, screen, and laptop all in exactly the right place. I adapted the exercises I do, because polls go faster and students say more and respond more quickly in a chat than in a lecture hall. In the end, I even put together my own online platform as I was not satisfied with the standard options.

All of this goes down the drain if I have to move to a lecture hall.

Hybrid lectures cannot be optimized for either of the two forms. Students run the risk of getting the worst of both worlds. And so I would rather keep things completely online. Certainly when the division is so disproportionate, with 90% behind a screen anyway.

But even if the Cabinet had announced that everyone could be together in a lecture hall again, I would still have had doubts. And I felt guilty about this as well. Am I the only one who does not value looking students in the eye? Am I so caught up in my new hobby that I don’t want to be in the same room as my students anymore?

‘I will be teaching more than 700 first years’’

Only on the day of the press conference itself did I realise what was bothering me. Physical teaching can be wonderful, but above a certain number of students it might actually be better to do it online.

What is the tipping point? Certainly above a hundred. But probably below a thousand, no? It will differ between teachers, subjects, and courses. But I suspect that at the moment, this point lies somewhere between 100 and 300 for me. And like I said: I will be teaching more than 700 first years’.

For my header photo on Twitter, I long since have a panorama photo of me on stage during a lecture for a huge group of students. I used to think it looked really cool. Now I think: for such a big group I can do my thing better online. Also: our programmes are growing too large.

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl.

Bob van Vliet / Columnist

Columnist Bob van Vliet

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