Corona science: ‘Studies on how people experience online teaching will also be relevant after the pandemic’

Dr. Femke Hilverda
Levien Willemse, EM

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, nearly all academic classes in the Netherlands are currently taught online. Femke Hilverda, an assistant professor of social psychology and risk communication at the Erasmus School of Health Policy & Management, is conducting a study on how students feel about this.

Together with her colleagues Manja Vollmann, Renée Scheepers and Anna Nieboer, Hilverda collects information at all universities in the Netherlands on the courses being taught, students’ experiences with those courses, their academic performance and the impact of psychological traits and other factors on their experience and performance.

Why is this study relevant now?

“Due to the coronavirus crisis, nearly all classes are currently taught online. Students did not choose to have it that way, but it can’t be helped at the moment. In other words, this project was caused by the pandemic, but we think the results will continue to be important afterwards, as well. After all, universities are increasingly interested in the opportunities afforded by digital technology and online teaching, so we have to know whether this is in line with students’ wishes and which factors cause certain methods to be better suited to some groups than to others.”

How does one conduct a study during a pandemic?

“This academic year we will be sending three online surveys to students attending all universities in the Netherlands, with the help of the Intercity Students’ Organisation (ISO), the National Student Union (LSVb), and the National Chamber of Societies. The first survey will be sent in November, the second in February and the last one at the end of the academic year. Since the outbreak began in March, the way we teach classes has changed several times. At the moment, most of our classes are taught online, with the odd class taught on campus, but this may change if the coronavirus causes unexpected situations to happen or if the restrictions are relaxed. By mapping out the entire year, we will be able to track our progress and assess the effects of any changes that are implemented.”

What is the hypothesis behind your study?

“We think that the way courses are being taught will result in certain experiences, and that students’ psychological traits and background may affect these. In other words, there are multiple factors that determine students’ performance in relation to these experiences. We will look at experiences such as stress, interacting with each other and with the lecturers, and eventually at students’ performance, and we expect certain correlations to follow from this. For example, some students are strongly focused on academic performance, and you might expect these students not really to mind the fact that classes are taught online, while students who strongly need social interactions will be less satisfied. With respect to their home situation, it might be true that you need a proper workspace where you can study in peace, meaning that students living in student flats may have a somewhat harder time of it than students who live with their parents.”

What’s motivating you to conduct a study on the impact of COVID-19?

“As researchers and lecturers, we thought it would be interesting to set up this study. I’m a social psychologist myself, and my doctoral thesis was about risk communication, so what I think is most interesting is that we will also be able to incorporate students’ views on the coronavirus. If students believe that COVID-19 presents a very serious risk and health hazard, their level of anxiety may be such that their academic performance will suffer, but it may have the opposite effect as well, with such students actually performing better with online teaching because they are glad they can stay at home.”

What has changed in your work due to the pandemic?

“Let me see… I haven’t been on campus since March, even though I used to go there four times a week. My work environment has changed, but so has my interaction with my colleagues and students – even my interaction with the colleagues with whom I’m working on this project. We have all our discussions on Zoom now. That’s kind of weird.

“At one point, my boyfriend and I were both at home because he had lost his job, and my neighbours were renovating their home. That wasn’t great. By now he’s found a new job and the neighbours have completed their renovation, so as far as that’s concerned, things have improved. If you have an OK place to work, you’ll get used to it. But it’s very different – particularly the way you communicate with your colleagues. You can’t drop in to ask a quick question, and you hardly ever get to talk to those colleagues with whom you don’t collaborate very often.

“I struggled with that in my classes, as well. For instance, you’ll have more than twenty students in your seminars, and it’s hard to gauge whether a student wishes to say anything or not. In-person seminars have a much better group dynamic, and it’s much easier to tell which students need a little more attention. That’s why this study on students’ experiences with online teaching will be so relevant for the period following the coronavirus crisis, as well.”

This article was written by Ferayed Hok and published on November 23, 2020 on the Erasmus Magazine website.

Assistant professor

Dr. Femke Hilverda