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We are eager to have education on campus again

29 April 2021
After more than a year of drastic measures to combat the coronavirus, we cannot wait to return to campus. We have been getting everything ready behind the scenes at VU Amsterdam in preparation for the government’s recently announced relaxation of the measures, so that we can start coming together again in person as quickly as possible. José van Schie, head of the Student and Educational Affairs department and member of the Operational Crisis Team (OCT), explains how this is being done.

How do the corona measures at VU Amsterdam actually come about?
“When the corona crisis broke out, the OCT came together to keep everything running smoothly. I take care of education. Others deal with work, campus, operations and events. And, of course, all of this involves both Dutch and international students and staff. Cabinet policy is always leading. As soon as a press conference has taken place and new measures are announced, we look at what that means for VU Amsterdam. In recent months, there have been no major changes. Since mid-December 2020, the lockdown has meant that only location-based education, which is primarily practicals, has been able to take place on campus. And our study places have been available for students who find it difficult to study at home.”

“At the beginning of the crisis, all decisions were taken by the Executive Board, supported directly by the OCT. Now, measures from the government are announced earlier, and we primarily prepare for decision-making elsewhere in the organisation. Of course, the team doesn’t operate in isolation; we receive input from a strong support base, including the Code Red team for education. And there is a light at the end of the tunnel, as the government has recently announced a relaxation of the measures by the end of April. That will set all kinds of wheels in motion for us. What does that mean for VU? How feasible are the measures? What is happening within the organisation? What needs to be put into motion? And how are other universities doing it? Of course, it will still be a bit nerve-wracking because nothing is certain, but we will make sure that everything is in place and that we inform everyone as best we can.”

So, what all do we have to take into account?
"Well, we’re still talking about education at one and a half metres, so there are various considerations at play. Earlier, for instance, we didn't want to switch from online to in-person education in the middle of an education period. That is asking a lot. But we let go of this. We are eager to have education on campus again. The expectation is that, with 400,000 m2, we can accommodate quite a few students, even remotely. But we have to take into account the public areas—the lifts, staircases and corridors—where we also have to ensure safety. We normally have room for 11,000 students in lecture halls. But in corona time, due to the one and a half metre distance, there was only room for 2,100. And, of course, it is not desirable for thousands of students to come to campus by tram or train every day. So, agreements have also been made with the transport authorities about the maximum number of students and staff who can safely use public transport at the same time."

“We’re learning as we go along. At the beginning of the crisis, for example, we decided not to organise classes in two-hour blocks, which is what we’re used to, but in four-hour blocks. That resulted in fewer movements and thus more students on campus. But a four-hour lecture—nobody can stay focussed for that long. That meant faculties had to be creative with the allotted time. In addition to lectures and tutorial groups, for instance, they also organised thesis sessions—all at a one and a half metre distance, needless to say. Writing a thesis is a solitary activity anyway, but especially in these times you can imagine how lonely that can be. Everyone being able to work on this individually behind his or her own laptop, but together in one room, proved to be a good move. Students had support from one another. In any case, the way things are done differs per faculty, per programme and per course. For example, some programmes give priority to first-year students, but if these students already meet on campus for practicals, it may also be preferable to organise education for Master's students on campus.”

“There is some customisation required, because how do we fit a group of a hundred students into a hall where the capacity was normally sufficient but can now only accommodate fifteen? That demands a lot from our education. What do we offer then? How do we organise that? Many of these kinds of decisions are not taken by the crisis organisation, but by the programmes themselves. That also applies to the introduction of a national decision such as the ‘soft cut’ (zachte knip).”

When you look back at the measures so far, what things will you carry over, and what should be done differently in the future?
“For the first semester, from September 2021, we are aiming to be able to use the campus without any restrictions. After all, we’re a campus university. We will then again opt for classes in two-hour blocks. That will make organising education much easier for the faculties. That choice—between being able to accommodate more students or being able to organise education better—is a difficult one. But we have realised that the education must be the central focus, not the capacity or the logistics. And in any case, whether it is a time of crisis or not, we have to keep putting ourselves in the shoes of students and the teaching staff. How do they experience it? What is important to them and why? We have to base our choices on that. What we see in society, of course, also happens at VU Amsterdam - so many people, so many opinions. For example, we saw students protesting at the Museumplein because they wanted more in-person education, but the turnout was quite low when we were able to provide some of the education on campus again. And the same applies to lecturers; for some, online education offers new possibilities, while others want to return to campus as soon as possible.”

“When it comes to blended and activated learning, we have developed enormously in these areas recently. We would like to stay the course and develop further. So, before the start of the new semester, we are looking at how we can both make full use of the campus and also continue to give online education a place. Each study programme is considering the question: Which type of education—on campus, online or blended—is best suited where?”

“With everything, I notice that—despite the fatigue that everyone is suffering from—we can only do it together, and that—despite or perhaps precisely because of the corona limitations—a lot of good things are created. Let’s carry this into the future, in which we will be together again as much as possible, as soon as possible—also online, but especially on campus.”

This interview is part of a two-part article: "Studying and working in times of crisis: how do we actually do it at VU Amsterdam?"