Laptop etiquette: 'dress nicely and participate, please’

foto: 123rf

“Right now, teachers are often talking at a black screen because students have their cameras turned off,” rector Henk Kummeling remarked in a conversation with DUB. It removes a lot of the joy from teaching classes, he meant. “Teachers don’t get any response, and they’re not sure whether their words are resonating with the students.”

The ‘silent group’ is not, of course, an exclusively online problem. Throughout the years, teachers have had complaints about students who refused to open their mouths (in Dutch, ed.) during ‘in-person’ classes. But you can imagine that for students, it’s a little bit scarier to just appear full-screen in all their classmates’ rooms compared to speaking up in a classroom.

Plenty cause to think about how to improve the online contact between teachers and students. UU educational specialists have been doing so for a while now. After the summer, they will issue a guide, an online etiquette with do’s and don’ts. The contents are as yet unknown, so we asked the members of our DUB panel what their tips would be.

Advice for students:

“Turn on your webcam during lectures and work groups!” says Marte Vroom, Earth Sciences student/ “Make sure that, just like in a regular lecture or work group, you’re dressed nicely, not lying in bed with your laptop, but sitting at a table or desk.”

And if you’re taking online classes, be an active participant, Marte says: “Try to make the most of your contact hours. Ask questions.” Student of Pedagogy Djoeke Wijbenga has the same advice. “Nothing worse than looking down at your phone and waiting until other students respond to questions instead of just taking initiative yourself.”

Moreover, interaction with each other is a valuable thing in times in which it’s easy to become lonely as a student, says Ingrid Weerts, Master’s student of Media Technology in Leiden, elective courses student in Utrecht. She refers to the positive effects of WhatsApp groups, team assignments, Blackboard wikis and virtual quizzes. “Or, start your own study group as students, in which students silently study with their webcams on: kind of like a University Library simulation.”

But if you’re in the active mode and you say something in a chat, do take a second to ask yourself whether your contribution is constructive, is the advice of Philosophy teacher Floris van den Berg. “When I let my students reflect on their own input, the quality increased significantly, and there were no more joking remarks. It’s as though you explicitly need to teach this to students. So an etiquette for online classes is a good plan.”
As long as the new etiquette doesn’t amount to a set of rules that need to be checked, warns Educational Sciences teacher Casper Hulshof. That means no mandatory webcams, for instance. Active presence as a requirement should be enough, he thinks. “It’s the same you’d apply to a regular work group.”

Advice for teachers:

The advice of the members of the DUB panel for teachers roughly amount to one golden rule: thou shalt encourage students to feel involved. Ingrid Weerts emails: “Some teachers read PowerPoint slides out loud for an hour and a half with a monotonous voice (let’s call this ‘the horror scenario’), others actively look for ways students can participate. There are always going to be differences like that. Still, even during regular lectures, it’s useful to initiate interaction, otherwise distractions in students’ immediate environment become tempting.”

“I almost can’t imagine how hard it is to speak for 1.5 hours at a computer screen without any interaction from students,” Djoeke Wijbenga says. “It’s understandable that students then notice the teacher’s enthusiasm is transmitted a lot less effectively than in a lecture hall.” Still, she keeps encouraging teachers. “Classes are easier and more fun if the teacher has clear passion for and interest in the subject.”

Marte Vroom is requesting more ‘live’ lectures and classes. She says students need those scheduled moments. Just working independently on large assignments reduces students’ commitment to courses. “Please: don’t stop teaching classes after half of the block.”

Educational scientist Casper Hulshof isn’t sure lectures necessarily have to be taught ‘live’. “The mistake some teachers make is that they view online lectures as regular lectures. Rather: see it as a series of vlogs. That means: captivating videos of 10 to 15 minutes.”

He has a practical solution to the tricky issue of ‘how to get more interaction in work groups’: “I think you should be a little more secondary school-like than usual. Actively calling on someone for answers, for instance. As Teams gives you a nice alphabetical list of names on your screen, that should work just fine.”

Philosophy teacher Floris van den Berg also uses his own experience of these last few months. Before the start of the class, for instance, he tries to have a chat with students (“as though it’s a talk in a lecture hall”). During his last class, he organised a Philosophy Café, in which students were asked to turn their cameras on, and he used Mentimeter (a programme that encourages students to respond to statements or presentations) to involve students in the material. The exam became a group assignment in which students had six hours to write an essay.

With a feedback group consisting of students, Van den Berg had weekly discussions about their findings. “The switch to online teaching has given me the boost to innovate my education and we’re well pleased with those innovations.”

Ingrid Weerts says this is always good advice for teachers and students: evaluate courses at some point during the course. “Because let’s be honest: we’re only inventing the wheel now, and we can’t expect anyone to do this perfectly the first time.”