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A rapid transition to online education: ‘We had faith that it would work out’

‘The range of possibilities for interactive and online teaching at the university has grown rapidly during the coronavirus crisis,’ says Michelle Olmstead, Director of the Centre for Innovation – and the Centre has seen some pretty rapid growth of its own.

The Centre for Innovation (CfI) was created relatively recently to help explore and expand opportunities for online learning, and it also functions as a testing centre for new education systems and tools. The Centre, based in The Hague, was recently brought under the umbrella of the Student and Education Affairs expertise centre and now employs 32 people. 

Centre for Innovation
Centre Director Michelle Olmstead foresaw the partial lockdown.

Lightning speed

The decision to suspend all face-to-face teaching, all the way back in March, triggered a hectic time for the CfI. In partnership with others at the university, the Centre bought and rolled out Kaltura Live Room virtual classroom software at lightning speed. Microsoft’s ‘Teams’ program, which the university has been using for meetings at all levels since the start of the crisis, was still in its pilot phase but was immediately released for wider use.

Centre for Innovation
Kaltura Live Room was purchased and made available to teachers in just one week.

Robert van ’t Sant was actively involved in the introduction of Kaltura Live Room

‘I worked on the purchase, installation and support of Kaltura Live Room for online education. At first we had nothing at all. As the project leader, in the week before the university closed I was asked to provide a tool that would allow teachers to give online interactive lectures. Within two days we had selected Kaltura Live Room and we were finalising the contract, and a few days later 2,900 teachers had access to the system, the initial version of the support site was live and we were working hard to put in place the management structure and the procedures for technical and teacher support. It can get pretty tough implementing Brightspace, which is what I usually work on, but that initial period of the crisis was something else. It was the speed of the decision-making process, the action and the fact that literally everyone was working together that made it so special.’

What extra tasks has the Centre for Innovation taken on?

  • Setting up and maintaining the Remote Teaching Website
  • Remote Teaching support through the helpdesk, in collaboration with ICLON, ISSC and the UBL
  • Frequent webinars on remote teaching
  • Supporting the development of MS Teams – guidelines and tips
  • Advising on data privacy for responsible data use and ethical considerations
  • Technical and teaching support for remote learning 
  • General online learning support for students

‘I’ve got a wife and a son and daughter. My daughter is at university, living in a student house, so I haven’t seen much of her over the past month, although we did have a virtual get-together in the Houseparty app. My son is 18 and doesn’t need his dad to help him with online learning. It’s nice to have my own workspace, with a view of the garden, but sometimes I do feel as if I’ve spent the whole day cooped up in there.’

Centre for Innovation
'Now we’re slowly emerging from crisis mode.’

Josje Spierings was given responsibility for setting up long-term support

‘COVID-19 has caused a massive change for teachers and students. People are working with tools that almost no one has experience with, and that brings up a lot of questions that have to be answered fast. My job was to coordinate the establishment of a long-term support process. There is now a dedicated theme tile in the helpdesk for questions about remote teaching, where colleagues from the CfI and ICLON are on hand to answer questions. And of course we’re working with the ISSC and the UBL management team on this.

‘100% online education is something new, and it can also be awkward and stressful, for both teachers and students. It’s important to have clear, unambiguous information so you avoid extra stress. That’s why coordination within the university is so crucial, and that takes place in virtual meetings. I have noticed a gradual shift from crisis mode to a new reality, where we’re thinking about how we as teachers can provide even better support with the design of online teaching, and what opportunities remote teaching holds for Leiden University.

‘I live with my boyfriend. We’re fortunate in that our house is big enough for each of us to have our own workspace. Working from home is going well, but I am looking forward to getting back into the office so I can see my colleagues and just have a cup of coffee with them. This situation has made me realise that seeing colleagues in person is a big part of my enjoyment at work.’ 

Centre for Innovation
‘My job was to coordinate the establishment of a long-term support process.’

Cameron Hope’s role largely involved coordination

‘In the first three weeks, my colleague Karen van Muiden, our director Michelle Olmstead and I arranged the daily update meetings with the faculty coordinators to identify obstacles and to share results. Then we coordinated the search for or creation of solutions, working with all kinds of different people like data protection officers, product owners, information managers, pedagogical experts and policy officers. When everything is going so fast, it’s essential to be able to offer consistent, up-to-date information. That’s why coordination is so important. I’m really grateful to my colleagues, who know a lot about online teaching resources, for answering all my questions and making recommendations on a whole range of things, from online community management to how to make an eye-catching video.

‘We’ve achieved a lot, but I’ve also seen that what makes teaching so special is the face-to-face contact, and some meetings go better when you can look someone in the eye.

‘In our team we’re trying to maintain healthy working habits, like doing yoga classes together, having a coffee break and organising virtual get-togethers on Friday afternoons. I’m lucky enough to have a good working environment at home. I’ve got fresh air and enough light. It also helps that I don’t have any children to look after! For me personally, working from home is really productive and it gives me a lot of flexibility, but it’s not much good for generating serendipity in meetings.’

Centre for Innovation
Niels van de Ven thuis in zijn kantoor: de ouderlijke slaapkamer...

Niels van der Ven probeerde met zijn team de website 'teachingsupport' snel online te krijgen

‘Ik heb met mijn team hard gewerkt om de website ‘teachingsupport’ zo snel mogelijk online te krijgen. Dit is een website waar de docenten van de universiteit terecht kunnen met al hun vragen over remote teaching. Het was een grote uitdaging om dat binnen zo’n kort tijdbestek voor elkaar te krijgen. De content voor deze website bestaat uit materiaal dat we zelf schrijven of afkomstig is van de faculteiten, het ICLON, het ISSC en de UBL.'

'De collega’s van al die eenheden streven hetzelfde doel na en dan doet het er niet tot welke club je hoort. Het geeft erg veel energie om te zien hoe iedereen zich verantwoordelijk voelt, zich inzet en elkaar helpt, en dat er door deze crisis bruggen worden gebouwd tussen al deze onderdelen van de universiteit. Ik vind het fijn dat het CfI hieraan zijn steentje kan bijdragen.'

'Ik woon samen met mijn vrouw Esther en onze twee kinderen Noa (6) en Kay (5). Ik kan al mijn werkzaamheden thuis doen, al was er wel een kleine verbouwing voor nodig: de benedenverdieping is omgetoverd tot school, de slaapkamer is gebombardeerd tot mijn kantoor, terwijl de zolder is getransformeerd tot speelkamer. Deze nieuwe situatie heeft wel wat aanpassingsvermogen van alle huisgenoten gevraagd, maar ik ben er trots op hoe we dit als gezinnetje managen!'

Text: Corine Hendriks
Picture banner: Polona Zimmerman (Pexels)
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