Since the end of February, life has changed for everyone in Europe. With the effects of the COVID 19 outbreak reaching the Netherlands early in March, we immediately began to see changes in the way classes were being run at Erasmus University. For the Language & Training Centre, this started slowly with just advice from the EUR authorities to stay at home if we had flu or cold symptoms, to wash our hands frequently and also to avoid shaking hands with anyone.
However, events gained momentum as the number of COVID patients increased, and by the middle of March all face-to-face teaching was cancelled. As of Monday, March the 16th, there was no more live teaching at the EUR.
This situation created something of an upheaval for all the teachers working for LTC. Given that language involves speaking and listening as well as reading and writing, how were we going to be able to continue our courses without being able to see our students? Everyone now had to work from home, and for some of the teachers this meant changing track in the middle of a course.
Twenty years ago, such a problem would have been insoluble, but thanks to today’s phenomenal array of technology and the magnificent adaptability of the teachers themselves, the transition was made from face-to-face to online teaching with barely a hiccough.
But what is the technology that has made all this possible?
Canvas, Zoom and Teams
Erasmus University has of course been using some online facilities for many years. Firstly, there was Blackboard, where lecturers would post notes, slides and information about classes, as well as using it for assignment submissions. Then came Canvas, which is a more secure environment, but which has much the same facilities as Blackboard with some added features. These include a chat program and a video option too. In the first weeks of the COVID crisis, Canvas discussion boards became an important means of interacting with students online.
However, further adaptations followed swiftly with the introduction of MS Teams and EUR Zoom accounts, both of which have live video possibilities – rather like a glorified Skype for business and education. These programs have widened the options for the LTC teachers tremendously. While not as versatile as teaching in a classroom where interaction is more spontaneous and where teachers can circulate easily among the students, both Zoom and Teams allow for face-to-face discussion in groups as well as individually. The flexibility of being able to hold a plenary class with students sitting in their rooms at home, then to separate them into pairs or small groups for interactive work during the same session, is a hugely exciting development.
Advanced features ideal for teachers
Added to plenary possibilities are the other features of screen sharing for giving presentations, virtual whiteboards for writing examples and explanations and a chat window for questions. In fact, the range of possibilities has made the transition to providing ‘distance education’ much more stimulating and far less daunting than it might otherwise have been.
Tenacious trainers and teachers
But what about the LTC staff? Both of these programs were completely new to the language teachers and many of them had previously used only the essentials of computer technology in their teaching. Well, we are happy to report that with the guidance and help of some the more technically expert LTC staff, the teachers have eased into the new process incredibly well and we at LTC are very proud of the way they have adapted.
What this means for the students is that during this period of lockdown, courses have been completed successfully and new courses are beginning as usual. As soon as face-to-face teaching is permitted again, LTC will revert to the traditional practice of delivering language, business communication and academic writing courses in the classroom; in the meantime, though, we are both happy and satisfied that we’ve been able to continue providing our courses without too much disruption.
Lessons for the long term
This global crisis has taught us that people in all walks of life are creative and versatile, and at Erasmus University in particular, our staff and teachers have shown tremendous willingness to make the best of a very difficult situation. It has also shown us that when the situation returns to normal, we will have many more technological features we can use to enhance our courses, which is the upside of what has been a challenging time for everyone.
As the English expression goes, ‘every cloud has a silver lining,’ and we are very much aware that this silver lining will be of benefit to us for years to come.