IHE Delft has been developing and offering online courses since the 2000s and recently, the Institute has been investing in several eLearning modalities. At IHE Delft, eLearning is defined as teaching and learning facilitated through the use of digital technologies. This definition emphasises the teaching and learning processes, seeing digital technologies as the tools used to enhance and facilitate these processes.
The main eLearning modalities offered by IHE Delft are: blended modules (eCampus facilitated face-to-face modules), (accredited) online courses, graduate professional diploma programmes (GPDPs), OpenCourseWare (OCW), (massive) open online courses ((M)OOCs), preparatory courses, and webinars. Our eCampus platform uses Moodle, an open source learning platform.
Effective teaching and learning
The eLearning Support Team consists of Education Bureau (EB) and IT staff members and has the mission to support and inspire academic staff to produce and deliver high-quality online education to water professionals from all over the world. During the Corona crisis, this team is focussing on assisting lecturers on distance teaching and aims for a smooth and effective teaching/learning process.
Their work goes beyond distance teaching to encompass strategic thinking and planning. About six weeks ago, the eLearning Support Team received the first request from a lecturer who wanted to start with distance teaching because of the Coronavirus. This was before the Dutch Government decided to close all universities. The eLearning Support Team provided assistance and the lecturer was satisfied with the use of Big Blue Button for his distance teaching.
This was an eye-opener for the team which started to discuss how distance teaching could be rolled out to all lecturers in anticipation of the spread of the virus and the closure of the Institute. First, the eCampus FAQ on eLearning tools was updated with instructions on how to use Big Blue Button for distance teaching. Then, a webinar series on the use of Big Blue Button was organised for lecturers.
In parallel, a helpdesk (by email or Skype for Business call) has been made available to assist lecturers in selecting suitable tools on eCampus to facilitate the teaching/learning process, including communication with students.
The EB representatives in the eLearning Support Team, Raquel dos Santos de Quaij and Jipke Koster, emphasise the importance of looking beyond the Corona crisis and identifying opportunities for growth. For instance, they noticed an increasing demand for the use of other eCampus tools and a growing interest in developing (open) online courses. They also highlight the importance of learning from this challenging moment to improve the IHE Delft eLearning modalities in the (near) future. Therefore, the team created spaces for exchange of experiences, communication and assessment of distance teaching on eCampus.
One example is the discussion forum about distance teaching where lecturers and EB/IT staff are very active in exchanging experiences and helping each other to explore alternatives solutions, when necessary. Another example is the evaluation distance teaching questionnaire, for lecturers to formally assess the distance teaching process used in their modules, providing insights for adjustments. The eLearning Support Team is adapting, together with the lecturers, to respond to the demand, and despite the challenges faced now and then, the positive attitude of all IHE Delft staff members is helping us to get through this phase while benefitting students at the same time.
eLearning Knowledge Platform for Partners
DUPC is a programme funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DGIS), which funds many education, research and knowledge sharing activities that IHE Delft jointly undertakes with its partners. These activities are focussed on tackling water challenges in lower middle income countries, creating synergies and encouraging further collaboration between partners and activities.
Distance collaboration and distance teaching have always been important for IHE Delft, given the worldwide distribution of projects, partners and beneficiaries. The current Corona crisis emphasises the importance of finding other methods of contacting partners and others, to share knowledge and support each other. Hans van der Kwast coordinates the project on eLearning with IHE Delft partners. Together with the DUPC2 programme coordination team, a platform has been launched on which they share information on distance teaching and distance communication.
Two webinars have so far been run on these topics. For those unable to participate live, recordings are available at the platform. More webinars are being planned and on 16 April a free course on online course development will start to support IHE Delfts partners in investing online education.
Students adapted fast to the new situation, as most of them are very familiar with digital technologies. They have been indicating their appreciation that IHE Delft is adapting quickly by transferring everything online and it has generally gone smoothly. The priority for IHE Delft was to minimize disruption to the students’ courses by offering classes online, which has been achieved. There is however the emotional challenge facing many students who are experiencing stress and loneliness and are worried about their families in their home countries.
Abdur Rahim Safi, WSE student 2018-2020 from Afghanistan: "Initially, when the pandemic broke out, I was anxious about my life and education in the Netherlands. Then soon, our institute took measures that diminished my fears. Face-to-face classes were cancelled, and alternative online methods were adapted. Video messages from the rectorate were delivered to all students ensuring that the institute will support students in accommodation and financial difficulties they would likely face due to COVID-19."
How are lecturers coping with distance teaching?
The sudden transition from face-to-face- to online teaching generally went well, with IHE Delft facing no major problems, because many investments in online education had already been made. All materials were already on eCampus and everyone already had online access to all tools. For Associate Professor of Hydrology Jan Willem Foppen, it took an hour to switch from face-to-face- to online teaching. He only had to learn how to work with Big Blue Button and then he was keen to engage with his students virtually.
The switch to online teaching/learning has been challenging not only for students, but also for lecturers. Fortunately, most IHE lecturers have several years of experience teaching online courses. ‘A well-functioning internet is the first requirement for it to work properly’ says Jan Willem Foppen. A few weeks ago, he started teaching a module in the classical face-to-face way, and then, when the lockdown measures took effect on Friday 13 March, he had to continue online. He found that teaching takes longer online, because of the lack of interaction with students. When the lecturer is in the back of the classroom he or she can see who is keeping up and who is not. With online teaching, it is harder to keep track of individuals’ progress throughout the course. Jan Willem noticed that this is harder for some students, therefore extra feedback sessions are organised to provide the opportunity for students to ask questions. ‘Distance teaching is definitely not a replacement for face-to-face teaching’, says Jan Willem Foppen.
In general, the feedback from lecturers and students is that IHE Delft is adapting fast to distance teaching, however, we recognize that there are still challenges. Head of the Education Bureau (EB), Erwin Ploeger comments, ‘It’s a great opportunity for our academic staff to explore new techniques for teaching, especially in the context of our Institute, where we need to share knowledge throughout the world, urgently, if we are going to succeed in tackling global water problems. Ironically, I think, this crisis will accelerate these efforts considerably, as staff will feel more comfortable working online when things return to normal. As an Institute, we believe in blended learning, which is a combination of online and face-to-face teaching and this is an approach we will apply increasingly in the future’.