Universiteit Leiden

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‘I miss the books and papers from my office’

Our lecturers had just a week to convert their lessons into online formats. It was an enormous challenge because by no means everyone at Leiden University was involved in online teaching. Professor of Korea Studies Remco Breuker has found that doing everything on line takes a lot more time. 'I've also seen that students really empathise and want to help.'

This article is part of a series in which lecturers talk about how they have made the switch to online teaching. 

Remco Breuker is professor of Korea Studies. This semester he is teaching  Modern Korean History to first-year students, the thesis seminar for third-year bachelor's students , the master's course in Human Rights Discourses on North Korea, the Honours Class on 'The Case of North Korea' and three lectures in the Empires of Asia series.   

Remco Breuker in pre-corona times: during the Alternative Opening of the academic year in September 2019.
Remco Breuker in pre-corona times: during the Alternative Opening of the academic year in September 2019.

‘Lectures, tutorials, assessments and supervising students: I've had to convert just about all possible forms of teaching to online formats. I've adapted the assessments: instead of making presentations, students now have to give joint feedback on one another's papers. I've turned lectures into shorter video lectures and podcasts. The lecture that I used to give with a former North Korean colleague, is still a challenge because I normally translate his contribution live. That doesn't seem to work so well via internet.  Apart from that, there's a lot of looking for stuff, talking about things with students and listening to their suggestions. What I've noticed is that students have a lot of empathy for me as their lecturer and are more than willing to help me.'  

Safeguarding technical quality

‘I already have experience with online lectures, making podcasts, for example. But it takes a lot more time than preparing a normal lecture. The other thing is that at home you don't have everything you need around you: a chair that's comfortable to sit on for half the day, or good equipment. It would have been really good to be able to get packages from the University or borrow equipment like microphones and webcams, to make sure that the technical quality of the online lectures is up to scratch.’

Contact is a key part of teaching

‘I think this situation will have a negative impact on the quality of our education. Contact is a key part of teaching and it can't be replaced by a screen. It might be possible if we really do have virtual reality teaching, but we're not there yet. I think it's difficult, but nonetheless important, to talk about the situation honestly with students. In my opinion, there also has to be a broad discussion in academic education about whether this semester should count, or whether we should urge the minister to help guarantee an extra semester for students.’ 

Remco’s tips for fellow lecturers

‘I would advise my colleagues to be open with students about difficult issues, and to simply admit it if something doesn't work out. Another tip: do as much sport as you can. And accept that this is not that romantic period you might have imagined when you can work at your leisure in your comfortable home office, dashing off three books because the University as a physical workplace is closed. This is a time when you can give students the chance to think about other things than lectures and their studies: we have no idea of the challenges facing individual students right now. Working at home takes more effort than being at the University, and the same is true for students. And most important of all: stay in touch with your colleagues, particularly those you don't need to work with at the moment. Keep the contacts going.' 

Books from my office

‘Everyone is doing their best to make all the things we need available, like the UB that is finding all kinds of ways to give students and staff access to non-digital materials. That's really great. But, for my teaching and definitely for my research I'm very dependent on my own books and sources that are in my office in the University. I'm designing the outline of lecture series and courses but after that I'm using my intuition, which is OK when you know your own material well.' 

Quiet is hard to come by

‘The other thing is that it's difficult giving or recording lectures when you're at home with your family. My wife also has her work to do, and the children are doing their lessons from school, which means there's never time to sit quietly and record a video, at any rate apart from at night, but even then the lighting is poor and your students get to see a pale, tired face - and I'm talking from experience here! I've also learned that it's even more important at the moment to be physically active. I try to exercise for two hours every day, but that's sometimes hard to fit into the day's programme. I'm spending a lot more time these days on teaching, being in meetings, arranging things: working online simply takes a lot more time.' 

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