Lecture hall of the future?

The digital transformation of university education

Photo by Microsoft Using a “HoloLens”, a kind of virtual reality goggles, the viewer can select muscles and bones.

By Vincent Bongers and Anoushka Kloosterman

How digital is education at Leiden? So far, it’s the early adopters who seem to be experimenting with blended learning. “You shouldn’t dive head first into new hypes.”

“When I first thought of it, people told me it was impossible – too futuristic. But that just makes me want to try harder. I want to show them that it is possible.”

Beerend Hierck, an anatomy and embryology lecturer, has been experimenting with augmented reality at Leiden University Medical Centre. Using a “HoloLens”, a kind of virtual reality goggles that allow you to see the real world at the same time, his app projects a 3-D model of a human leg into the centre of the room. The viewer can walk around it and crawl underneath it. You can select muscles and bones and make the ankle move by pressing your finger and thumb together in the air.

Hierck is working closely with Thomas Hurkxkens, a film director who works for The Hague Centre for Innovation, an institution that develops new teaching technology. “We experiment with virtual and augmented reality”, he explains. “But we also work with chatbots and so on.”

They haven’t finished developing the bones app yet. They have plans to make the holographic foot move with the goggle-wearer’s foot using motion tracking. Eventually, several students, all wearing goggles, should be able to see the same hologram so that they can work together. “We might add gaming elements.”

And it’s not just physicians who are busy with new technology for teaching. Far from it: at Leiden University, lecturers and staff are very involved in blended learning, i.e. combining various methods and technologies to improve lectures.

The early adopters among the lecturers post vlogs or ask students to record presentations in a studio. “Don’t think that Leiden has stood still for twenty years and is now trying to innovate”, says Marja Verstelle, who coordinates the university’s education and ICT programme.

“It’s an ongoing process, but developments are moving faster and faster. Everyone thinks that it’s all about what you put online but actually it’s about better use of time. We want to more in-depth education in the time that students and lecturers share.” 

So far, blended learning has been left to a group of tech-savvy lecturers, according to Verstelle. “We’re looking for enterprising university people who love technology. Not everyone is like that, or wants to be.”

Kim Beerden, a history lecturer, often uses Pitch2Peer, a platform in Blackboard, to upload assignments. “There’s a studio at Reuvensplaats where students hold their presentations for me and a camera man. We put those shorts on Blackboard and the students give each other feedback on their presentations.”

In her opinion, all ICT tools are an extra. “They could never replace normal lectures. Education is about meeting in a group each week and discussing things. As a lecturer, you want to get your students excited and stimulate them, but nothing should never come at the expense of those hours. If the university wants those extras, they should give something in return to compensate for the workload. There should be some money available.”

“You really need to like doing it, or else it won’t work”, Bram Ieven, a philosopher and literature theorist, says. He is trying to build a “bridge between lectures and tutorials” by means of web lectures. “At first, I recorded shorts in the studio. I bought a camera, which cost two hundred Euros, and record and edit it myself.”

“The university doesn’t oblige lecturers to do it, but we do encourage them”, say Vice Rector Hester Bijl. “Here in the back seat, we say: we want this. We’re talking to faculties about their strategies, we’ve got a budget and we’re bringing in experts so there’ll be some progress within a couple of years. At the moment, I wouldn’t make it mandatory and I wonder whether that’s necessary. We don’t even have the capacity to introduce it so soon. We need to remain critical about what’s needed and what’s not.”

However, according to ICT coordinator Verstelle, the policy applies to an entire programme in some cases. “Previously, we encouraged individual lecturers to blend their subjects. Three years ago, we decided to encourage entire programmes to do it. We asked Law, Psychology and International Studies to give it a try. We need to create more unity but without requiring everyone to learn to work with every bit of new technology. On the other hand, it doesn’t work if everyone uses voting pads. It doesn’t work if they are only used occasionally as a device to keep people awake.”

“We’re only doing things that we think might have a large impact and could actually change the teaching system. It can be done – but we don’t know whether it will be done. That’s how we felt about moocs (massive open online courses) – get in on it, just give it a try. It’s more sensible than waiting to see how other universities deal with it and getting left behind.”

It’s quite a lot of work for teachers who do all that on top of their normal jobs, according to Tax-Law Professor Sjoerd Douma, who recently received an award for his mooc “Rethinking International Tax Law”. Students who followed that course on the Coursera platform gave it a score of 9.8. “It got off to a particularly slow start in 2015. I had to learn how to use the autocue and so on. It took two hours to record a five-minute short. I’d start early in the morning and work all day. I was shattered by bedtime. Making a mooc really is an investment in time. It took us six months– and that’s still pretty damned fast.”

Nynke Bos, an educational sciences researcher at ICLON, thinks that the mooc hype has had its day. “Millions were invested and now it’s run its course. It’s not going to attract more students to Leiden. It’s more for people like me who have jobs but want to follow a course on eighteenth-century art or something. Expectations were sky-high, but moocs did not start a revolution in teaching.”

Verstelle says that Leiden is now working on a number of spocs (small private online course): “It has the appeal of the on-demand Netflix set-up. We’re trying to arrange them so that you can follow a course online at one of Leiden’s League of European Research Universities partners and get credits for it. It’s a lot of work – we’ll probably go live in January – but this digital kit means we can offer more customisation. That’s where things are heading.”

“I spent ten years at the University of Amsterdam as a policy officer and I saw my share of hypes”, says Bos, who was awarded her doctorate for her study of new forms of teaching. “They spent money on all sorts of innovative technologies as if it was going out of fashion, but hardly anyone checked whether something actually worked. That’s how I came up with the idea of researching it. After all, certainty through statistics: it’s the only way to find out what works.” Her advice is: “You shouldn’t dive head first into new hypes. All universities do it and Leiden is no different. Blended learning and other methods are means to an end, not vice versa. You don’t always need to plug something in.”

“We think there are two important elements”, says Hurkxkens, the film director. “Of course, it’s technology that raises discussions on teaching and innovation but actually it’s a case of technology and new narrative methods.”
Like story-telling: linking a problem to a recognisable image or story. “Students learn better if you incorporate facts in a story.” So they thought up the Marco van Basten case, about the famous Dutch football player. “He was kicked in the anckles very often, but he didn’t want to give up”, explains Hierck, the anatomy lecturer. Repeated injections relieved the pain in his joints but after a while, his ankle was so badly damaged he was forced to stop playing. The upper ankle joint was fixed with screws so he can’t stretch or lift his foot but he can still walk.” We ask the students: How does that work?

Hierck: “It’s more than just fun. Students react very enthusiastically and don’t want to take off the goggles. But we need to see what the effect is, namely whether they learn more quickly and can remember it for longer periods. So we need an educational study. There won’t be be three hundred students wearing these goggles at a lecture any time soon.”

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