Universiteit Leiden

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Students meet each other from a distance

For a lot of students, the covid crisis means that a sense of community is hard to find during their studies. Lettie Dorst, university lecturer of translation studies and English linguistics, explains how she tries to create a 'community of learners’.

‘I am used to giving students a lot of freedom. Usually I let them work on a general assignment, independently in groups. But that doesn't work with online education: for the break-out rooms you have to give very detailed instructions, otherwise you won’t see any results.

In my opinion, this is due to working with cameras and microphones. Many students are insecure due to the lack of non-verbal communication. When can you take the floor? What if you start talking at the same time? And you also have to unmute yourself in time. There are even students who don't say anything at all. Sometimes they are afraid to turn their microphone on, for example because of noise in their surroundings. Sometimes they don't even have a microphone or camera. I can tell from the squares that they are logged in, but I have no idea what they think.’

Do these limitations also have social consequences?

‘There are students who are okay with the fact that screens are now our tool, but there are also students who really suffer as a result of this. We underestimate how much community building takes place at physical lectures. Especially for new students who don't know each other at all. Instead of chatter before the start of the lecture, there is a kind of deafening silence online.

That's why I often spend the first few minutes on some chit-chat: "Hey, is that your cat?” Someone holds up a cat and all of a sudden you hear: "Oh, how cute! Look!” You notice that students like those little social moments. During hybrid lectures I turn around my laptop for a second, so that the people in the room can wave at the people at home.’

Do you have any other tips

‘I have tried asynchronous tools, such as Pitch2Peer. Students pitched their song translations and others could listen to them, like them and comment. I think they liked that, but here you also see that only some of the students record a pitch.

What works better, are the online discussion boards. For all my courses I open a discussion board in advance, where students can tell us something about themselves. All of them do this, often including very personal things. Even during lectures they sometimes refer back to this. The students have also embraced this tool for discussions. They respond to each other and you can see that they have actually read each other's posts. This shows their need for discussion, because those boards were never a success before the covid crisis.'

What do the students like most?

‘In the chat they really loosen up. Some colleagues complain that these chats are all over the place. I think it's not so bad: they seldom stray far and you immediately notice when they think something is interesting. They respond to each other at lightning speed. I have accepted the fact that I am not always able to follow the chat. You can appoint a student as moderator, but that person is then usually afraid to interrupt you while you're talking. The students are also enthusiastic about the project assignments in which they work together in groups via Teams. This way, they can have discussions without having to look for moments during which they are all on campus. So for group assignments this could very well be a permanent addition!

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