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Lecturer's Blog 6: "Online teaching: some silver linings, and where to go from here?" by Ahmed Skali

Ahmed Skali
Ahmed Skali

It’s a little eerie to arrive to a country in lockdown. That’s what my family and I did when we arrived in Groningen in early January this year. The snow was so kind as to manifest itself a few days after we arrived; our 8-month-old son, fresh out of the Australian summer, looked at it with big puzzled eyes: What is this mysterious white blanket? That wasn’t there last time I looked!

As soon as we began finding our feet in Groningen, thanks to the support of friendly colleagues and strangers, the semester began. Groningen was not its usual lively self, but it was great to talk to people again – behind a computer screen, sure, but actual people nonetheless. It was my first time teaching online, and I did not quite know what to expect. Would students be engaged? Would there be classroom discussions?

I was really hoping this would be the case, as personally, I really don’t subscribe to the view that student are “empty vessels”, or passive recipients of knowledge, only there to learn particular concepts or skills. Sure, concepts and skills are important for life after graduation, but university is about so much more than that. The socialization experience and open-ended discussions about transcending and/or topical issues are also core features of university life.

‘University’ is shorthand for ‘universitas magistrorum et scholarium’ in Latin, or ‘community of teachers and scholars’, so I was hoping for a sense of community that included students, which is not so easy in an online world. Not having that is an issue for us lecturers, but it’s far worse for students! Imagine going through undergraduate or graduate studies without much human interaction.

Fortunately, my students turned out to be quite engaged, and we had plenty of discussions, which I enjoyed very much. My favourite part of teaching is the unscripted part, from whether nuclear-powered energy would be desirable for the Netherlands, to Indonesian food, and why Jackie Chan makes fewer Hollywood movies than he used to. These are things we actually talked about in class; they have varying degrees of closeness to the subjects I taught (international economics and development economics), so overall I think it went reasonably well.

Why did it, though? I am aware of and grateful for the huge efforts our colleagues put in to transition to online teaching when the pandemic broke out last year. I have had the good fortune of teaching online after most of the teething issues were resolved, and students were at least somewhat used to being online.

One key feature that made the online world work was breakout groups. Students, perhaps not surprisingly, had an easier time talking to each other in small groups, so much so that many times, they would not notice me joining their breakout group and listening in on their discussions. Starting discussions in small groups probably makes transitioning to ‘plenary’ discussions easier.

I also have a suspicion that online classes turned out to be liberating for some students, perhaps those who have a tendency towards shyness. Those students, for whom social contexts can be difficult, might not have felt so comfortable to talk in person. In contrast, being online might have provided some feelings of safety. I say this because among those students who participated very actively in discussions, some chose to do so only using the chat feature, others with their cameras off.

Obviously, it is great to be back on campus. But what, if anything, can we retain from the COVID-19 era online teaching? This may be worth reflecting upon, especially as we are more likely to have increased demand from international students. Owing to quite strict travel restrictions, Australia, a major player in the international education market, is now a less attractive destination to international students, some of whom would likely come to Groningen instead. Thus, it may be useful to reflect on how to make our teaching as inclusive as possible.

Here, we are already doing some things really well, like recording videos for some of the more challenging concepts in our classes, so that students can watch them in their own time, thus freeing up conversation time during class. We may also be able to gain some insights from the ongoing conversations about diversity and inclusion we have been having as a Faculty; there are surely economies of scope there, as far as translating some of those insights to our classrooms.

But here’s a perhaps more radical proposition: if class time constraints are the main barrier standing between us, the community of teachers and scholars, and the unscripted discussions we all want to have, then can we schedule unscripted time? This could take the form of a (loosely organized) reading group, although other formats might also work. The idea would be to facilitate discussions as a community about a whole range of issues, without the usual constraints of ‘teaching’. I promise I will try to spare you my thoughts on nasi lemak, even though it is objectively the greatest dish known to humankind.

I would like to pass on the torch to my GEM colleague Milena Nikolova, with whom I have had the pleasure of teaching Globalization Debates in block 1.1. Milena is an outstanding researcher and lecturer, and I look forward to reading her blog!

Last modified:07 December 2021 1.17 p.m.