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Working visit by Minister Van Engelshoven focuses on digitisation of education

How does online learning strengthen the quality of higher education and what are the barriers to implementing this more broadly? Minister of Education Ingrid van Engelshoven talked about this issue with pioneering lecturers and students from Leiden University, Erasmus University and Delft University of Technology during a visit to Campus The Hague.

Vice-Rector Hester Bijl with Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven. Wijnhaven is familiar territory for the Minister. As alderman for The Hague, she opened this new building in 2017 together with Rector Carel Stolker.

The visit by the minister on 29 January was prompted by the forthcoming debate in the Dutch Lower House on digitisation in education (see text frame).  'I want to hear how digitisation works in practice,' she said in the Wijnhaven Building in The Hague. ‘The general image is that it's not progressing very fast. Is that really the case?' Vice-Rector Hester Bijl stressed that digital resources enrich education, but also bring some new dilemmas. This was borne out by comments by lecturers and students. 

Virtual lower leg

Anatomy lecturer Beerend Hierck at LUMC demonstrated an unusual app: using a device called a HoloLens students and lecturers can walk around a floating virtual lower leg that lets them see different layers of the limb.  Hierck: ‘Students of medicine are often taught in 2D from textbooks, but 3D is a much better preparation for the practical world. They can even make the virtual leg move, which is a much safer way of practising their skills.’ Van Engelshoven tried the HoloLens herself and was enthusiastic to hear that doctors can also use this app when talking with patients. 

Beerend Hierck developed the HoloLens app together with the Centre for Innovation.

Lifelong learning

Farshida Zafar, a lecturer at Erasmus University, explained about the blended master's in Law that she developed. This new master's offers a mixture  of online and offline lectures, and students learn to plead a case in a 'virtual reality moot court'. The minister  felt the master's could also be useful for other groups: people from professional practice who want to further their training, for example. 'This Cabinet believes firmly in lifelong learning so these kinds of online possibilities are essential.' Van Engelshoven also talked  from her own experience: she herself studied Law in Leiden part-time, attending lectures on three evenings a week.  

Pros and cons of online studies

Zafar also pointed out the pros and cons of these kinds of partly online programmes. Not all lecturers are happy to have their lectures filmed and some need to improve their digital skills. Leiden student Marlou Grobben addressed the question of how far digital education should go. 'On the one hand online education is fantastic for students: deciding for yourself when you are going to take lectures and being able to follow programmes at other universities much more easily, are attractive prospects.' But, she also warned, having such an enormously broad choice of online courses makes it difficult to choose, which can be stressful. And how do students make sure their package of courses remains coherent? 

Left, student Marlou Grobben. As student-assessor at the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs she developed a Small Private Online Course for students in programme committees. Van Engelshoven thought the SPOC could also be interesting for representative bodies.

Social contacts still important

An online lecture is a lot more impersonal, Grobben added. 'Many students come to the University for the social contacts.' Van Engelhoven stressed the social importance of education and advised students against studying only online. 'Students need to learn communication skills, regardless of what subjects they are studying.' 

International online lecture

Digitisation also means further internationalisation, as Fieke Miedema demonstrated. She is a student at TU Delft and is helping to develop an online lecture that will be offered by her university together with a Spanish and Australian university. Students from the three countries are learning to work together online, which has shown up some cultural differences. Because of the time difference, it was an enormous challenge to plan exams at exactly the same time. But in the end it was worth the effort. ‘Online lectures lower the barrier to taking courses at international universities: you don't even have to leave the house!'  

Confidence in international partners

This type of international education indeed brings some new challenges, according to Marja Verstelle from Leiden University. But, she went on, it can work well if there is a good working relationship among the internatioinal partners and if everyone has confidence in the international accreditation systems. Verstelle also called for attention to be paid to funding for digital education. Popular online lectures with a lot of international students demand a lot of extra time from a lecturer. 

To the right of the minister, Jakob van der Waarden (Ministry of Education, head of Policy) and anatomy lecturer Beerend Hierck.

Sustainable investments

Annoesjka Cabo, who developed an online maths platform for TU Delft, commented that the costs of innovative study materials cannot be passed on in full to students. New negotiations are needed with publishers so that text books can be offered as far as possible via open source. Thijs Gillebart, co-fofunder of a start-up in didactics software, asked how universities van invest sustainably in digital education. He called for 'free' downloadable teaching material that can be partly offset by a slight increase in tuition fees. The minister recognised that major new steps have to be taken and indicated that she would like to pay a further visit to exchange ideas on this topic.

Banner photo: Thomas Hurkckens from the Centre for Innovation demonstrates the use of the Hololens app to the minister. (Photo: Nicole Romijn)


Acceleration agenda

The Association of Universities in the Netherlands, the Association of Universities of Applied Sciences and SURF set up the Acceleration Agenda in 2017. This agenda defines the key issues for speeding up innovation in education: improving the interface with the job market, making education more flexible and improving the use of technology in education. IT is playing an increasing part in daily life, and education needs to work fast to anticipate this development.

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