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Gea Hakker: ‘We aim to be the gold standard of language learning’

The Academic Language Centre (ATC) is one of the cornerstones of Leiden University. Director Gea Hakker explains how this organisation is providing quality (online) language courses and meeting new demands.

Many know the ATC for its high-quality language courses for staff, students and the public. Whether you are looking to learn Dutch, improve your academic English or learn a new language altogether, it is all on offer at the ATC. ‘We teach many different languages; Korean, Arabic and Swedish to name just a few. That is quite unique,’ says Hakker. Besides regular language courses, the ATC also provides in-house training and custom language services to external clients such as government institutions and private companies. 

Since becoming director in 2013, Hakker has seen many changes at the ATC. ‘It has always been my ambition to see the ATC become the gold standard of language learning. We are always adapting and trying to see how best to provide valuable services to all our students and clients. This has meant that we have also stepped up our teaching of other types of courses as well.’

Teaching Academic Skills

Hakker is talking about the course Academic Skills, which is mandatory for all students at Leiden University. Students are taught a broad set of skills, ranging from academic writing to close-reading and understanding texts, which will help them in any future profession. ‘We don’t only provide language courses, but we also provide Academic Skills courses for programmes such as International Studies, Urban Studies and the University College,’ says Hakker.  

This has placed quite a demand on the ATC. ‘Everybody wants their first-years to be taught this course in the first semester,’ Hakker laughs. ‘Last year we scheduled 40 parallel courses in the first semester, which is no mean feat!’

Blended learning

To meet increased demand and to make sure students are provided with excellent teaching, Hakker came up with a plan to create about 20 short video modules on Academic skills. These 5 – 6 min. videos, like Reading well and Why we cite, can be used in different study programmes. Each module includes teacher guidelines, so that it can be easily integrated as part of individual lessons. As Hakker points out: ‘Students are more motivated to learn mandatory courses like Academic Skills within the context of their chosen subjects.’ 

The video modules are currently being developed in English. But Hakker expects the modules to also be available in Dutch after the summer months. ‘I’m excited to see the first completed video module in the coming days. And with the help of the Expertisecentrum Akademische Vaardigheden, which has recently become part of the ATC, we can now also provide these modules in Dutch, which is a great development,’ says Hakker.

Beyond the pandemic

Obviously, the ATC has not been immune to the effects of the pandemic. Following the government guidelines, all courses, including language courses, are being taught online. Hakker vividly remembers how, at the beginning of the pandemic, she and her staff spent a weekend frantically informing students of the new measures and at the same time getting to grips with online teaching: ‘We were midway into our courses and only had the weekend to respond!’ 

A year on, and the ATC prides itself for having adapted to the new circumstances. ‘I’m so proud of all our dedicated staff. Judging by the feedback, they have managed to provide excellent teaching, even in these difficult circumstances,’ says Hakker.

When asked what her dreams are for the future of the ATC, Hakker answers: ‘Ideally, it would be to have a real Virtual Classroom. This would allow our on-campus lessons to be opened up to so many more potential students.’ But in the meantime, Hakker and her colleagues will continue to do what they do best: provide excellent teaching, whatever the circumstances.

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