It seems ages ago, all of us at school jokingly waving our hands in order to avoid shaking each other’s hand. The press conference in which the Prime Minister asked us to abandon that tradition, would turn out to be iconic because he ended the conference by firmly shaking the hands of the RIVM’s director.
That was less than one month ago. The crisis was yet to unfold and swept over us in waves. Initially we communicated about hygiene measures at school and coordinated with our cleaners to be extra alert about soap dispensers and towel rolls. We were worried about the situation abroad and started to be stricter with our travel policy, at first in line with national travel advice, and in some instances in advance of that advice. On a Saturday evening we decided to have all students return from abroad; some decided to stay where they were.
The Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences showed unprecedented resilience. We switched to online education and were surprised and proud at how quickly our lecturers managed to do so and of the strength of our advisors and IT staff. Staff from the Facilities and Information Technology
department, such as caretakers and reception staff, continued to work on location and enabled us to keep a few buildings open so that staff and students who depend on our buildings and facilities could make use of them. A third wave meant organising online assessments.
Innovative form, conservative norm
The most exciting phase, in terms of education, was and still is the conversion to online assessment. How surprisingly fast the conversion to online education went, the conversion to online assessment was and still is a bigger feat of strength. Not only due to the major technical challenges, but also because of the inherent limitations in the field of technology. There is more to assessment than 'merely' choosing another form of communication and interaction, it is also a matter of being able to guarantee legitimacy and validity, considering aspects of privacy and possible susceptibility to fraud. All this within the framework of maintaining our high standards in terms of level and quality of our education.
Taking controlled risks
Assessment is important, but in the end, it is all about learning, therefore we have decided to not
adopt 100% risk-avoiding conduct, but with respect to assessments, to take controlled risks. The control is three-fold: if the risks are too great, find alternatives, do not take risks in case of essential assessments (essential knowledge for the practice of the profession that is assessed for the last time deserves a different approach than assessing knowledge throughout the study programme) and when we do take risks, documenting it well, so that we can account for our decision afterwards and correct it if necessary. We do so by means of a consciously chosen complex governance structure: our education tends to our education, the Exam Boards guarantee the assessment of our education. Not always easy, not always without tension, but it is a necessary tension that always guarantees the value of the diploma.
That’s how we do things
Thomas Kuhn, philosopher of science, has taught us the concept of ‘paradigm’. His definition of
paradigm, which was developed to understand the dynamics of science and then loosely translated to our daily reality, amounts to a collection of fixed assumptions that are determinative for our views and for the way we approach problems, the way in which we do things. We see and do things in a certain way, which provides certainty and predictability.
The new normal
The importance of this predictability is demonstrated by the fact that we are continually trying to seize any new situation that we have reached in this crisis by attaching the label 'the new normal' to it. In Kuhn's terms, the old normal is shaking on its foundations, we are in a revolutionary phase, on our way to a different paradigm, but we are looking for something to hold onto by interpreting every apparent stability in this transition as 'the new normal'. I haven't researched it, but I bet the words 'the new normal' have been used by politicians at least as often as the terms 'get some fresh air' and the uplifting 'keep going'.
It will never be as it was
I experienced the time of the oil crisis in the seventies. Having cycled (despite the ban) on an empty highway on a ‘carless Sunday’, I listened to Joop den Uyl, who was not really popular in our house because of the fact that he had closed the mines, that ‘times will never be the same as before’. Will the current crisis give us a different normal than the normal we were used to just over one month ago?
“It is possible”
Forced by circumstances, we all learn to adapt our routines in an extremely short period of time. While Microsoft Teams was an almost dormant application, we are all using it now, including the new meeting etiquette that goes with it. For many of us, online education was a vague, distant perspective, but it has become the new normal. And it can be done. I myself am the first to acknowledge that I've been too conservative in the possibilities that modern media offers us. I, too, have been too stuck in the old paradigm and want to take advantage of this period to think deeply about the new normal that we are moving towards.
The duck or the rabbit?
The new ideal will not be the 'old normal'. Whether the new normal is the new ideal remains to be seen. But if we ever have the chance to go back to the 'old normal', we must choose to find out exactly what the current way of working is teaching us and what it cannot offer. My first impression is that the functional side of education is sometimes better off with this form of education, but that we're still searching a bit for the interpretation of the pedagogical aspect of education. Is that where the opportunity lie for the future, sowing the seeds for a new balance? More effective transfer of knowledge with modern equipment, strengthened ties and more in-depth pedagogy when we will once again meet in our buildings?
Distance education: one and a half metres
We have a period of downscaling behind us. That is relatively easy, because the focus is on avoiding risk. We are heading for a period of upscaling. It will be more difficult as we will be taking risk. Therefore, before we adopt distance learning as a structural aspect of our education, we will undergo a phase that includes education at a distance: one and a half metres being the basic designing principle. We must prepare ourselves for not being within a circle of one and a half metres to another for a long period. The scenarios developed by Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences are based on the assumption that this may last throughout the next academic year.
If you think about that, you immediately come across a list of events that can no longer take place in the usual way: many of our classical introductory activities, the start of the academic year, classical lectures, crowds of students in the corridor walking from classroom a to classroom b, packed classrooms, crowded canteens, confined cafeterias, education requiring physical contact, offices full of lecturers, busy laboratories, et cetera.
Find the new
Of course, we can do something about it. But if you think about it for a while, you will find out that all certainties that we had in the old normal, must be called into question: the lay-out of our classrooms, the staffing at workplaces, logistical streams. If you visualise that, you will out of necessity arrive at the manner of scheduling (in order to control logistics), the annual schedule
(making more use of all weeks of the year?) and activities that must be spread out more (the evening, the weekend?). Or will we conclude that a part of online education, the part that is working well and that we will embed in our new didactics and pedagogics, is here to stay. And we must consider what this means for our buildings, our equipment.
Keep the old
The old paradigm finds itself being challenged in a revolutionary way. And part of it will return in a next phase. Lecturers and staff miss contact with students and colleagues; students miss their school. We are going to restore that dimension, which is valuable and indispensable. But the old paradigm will be challenged in an unprecedented way, which no one could ever have predicted might happen, namely that everything will come up for discussion if we are forced to stop coming within each other's reach. What educational concepts have not been able to make happen for a century and a half, will be achieved by the ‘metre-and-a-half rule’.
We must be able to find the alternative for the lecturer sitting next to the student for a moment to show him or her how something works, that integration and differentiation, to draw up the balance, prepare the injection, design the algorithm, the advertising campaign, the bridge, the new line of fashion, the bio-diesel, group intervention, modern didactics, the…
Brainstorm with us
There are many questions, and we will come up with the answers. If anything has become apparent,
it is that we are versatile. That is impressive, that is moving. Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences has been communicating for years to want to lean on the thinking power and resilience of the people within the organisation. The trueness of that choice is being underlined in the most positive way at these times. That same thinking power and resilience is what we will need to enter our next phase. Currently a team of colleagues is actively thinking about that very phase. All colleagues and students are invited to do the same for themselves and for the entire organisation. You have kept the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences going for the past weeks, and you will do the same for the new reality of the coming years.
Ron Bormans is chairman of the Executive Board of Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences.