When the government decided to close the schools teachers faced a huge dilemma: how to organise online education? Tim Huijgen, Teacher Educator at the Department for Teacher Education of the UG quickly came with a solution. He organises professional training for history teachers at the Expertisecentrum Vakdidactiek Noord (Expertise centre teachers education North, EVN) and decided to do this online. Within two weeks, together with his colleague Marije Brouwer, he had everything set up. The central question: how do you organise distance learning?
Normally the EVN offers several types of post schooling for teachers. One example is the Professional Learning community where 20 to 25 teachers meet six times per year. ‘The plan was to organise something for that group of 20 people, so we can help teachers shape their online education,’ says Huijgen. Rapidly it became apparent that there was a lot more demand for this type of support. For the first session roughly 60 people signed up, including, to the organisers' surprise, a number of Belgian teachers. Following this session, two follow-up sessions were planned in which upwards of 130 Dutch and Belgian history teachers participated.
The sessions, in part, cover practical business: a lot of schools use the same software, but which functions are at your disposal? Of course there are also some questions on subject specific methods, because how do you translate those to a digital learning environment? This leaves some room for creativity: thus, a method where students work in groups to do exercises using a map was transformed into an Excel file. ‘It’s great to see teachers find these solutions and in these sessions we can exchange those ideas,’ says Huijgen. To ensure the solutions that are devised are also effective, attention is also paid to the scientific side of distance learning.
How different is the digital classroom? The most important difference with distance learning is in activating the students. After all, in a classroom the teachers can see which students pay attention and who doesn’t. ‘When everything is done via laptop, a student can log in and go back to bed,’ explains Huijgen. By asking more questions, or incorporating a lot of small exercises in the lesson you keep the students involved. ‘When you have software with a form function you can immediately see the input of a student, and you know they pay attention,’ explains Huijgen. Teachers also note that students ask fewer questions. This is understandable according to Huijgen. ‘They are more anxious to ask questions through microphone function. Suddenly the most assertive students are shy.’ The solution lies in creating a safe learning climate during the digital lessons and consciously encouraging students who ask a lot of questions. Finally a school has to make clear arrangements with the students about their behaviour and translate the school rules to the digital classroom.
It is clear that distance learning required a lot of adjustments but there are, strangely enough perhaps, some advantages too. For example, a participating teacher talked about a guest lecture by a survivor of the Second World War. When the lecture was offered online, not only the students were glued to the screen, but parents and siblings joined in too.
An advantage for the online post schooling for teachers is that a considerably larger and more diverse audience can be reached. After all, there is no need to travel. As a result, teachers from all over the Netherlands and Belgium are now participating, which can lead to even more exchange between different teachers. ‘It is great to see an international exchange happening too. My dream would be that in ten years time we can plug into an VR environment from anywhere in the world so that we can talk about history education’ Huijgen tells. Dreams? In any case, this strange situation has already provided an extra impulse. For next year's course, there are plans to invite foreign speakers to talk about their teaching via video call. ‘Of course, the current situation is terrible and we want to go back to how it was,' Huijgen continues. ‘But this crisis has brought us ideas that we might not have had otherwise'.
But Huijgen is not just about the didactics, he’s also about the subject itself. ‘The memory of the Second World War, for example, is very important, especially because soon we won’t have eyewitnesses anymore,’ he explains. With this passion he is also working on keeping history alive outside of the UG. For instance, he contributed to the digital platform about the Jewish dancer Roosje Glaser and on June 1st he joined the board of the Oorlogs- en Verzetscentrum Groningen (War and Resistance Centre Groningen).
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