COVID 19 requires change in education

COVID 19 leaves deep traces in education but also creates opportunities. What triggers organizations or people to change course? And when do you decide that a change is necessary and thereby let go of the old and embrace the new and unknown? When or how does the insight arise that mopping an overly wet floor no longer helps, and that things really have to be structurally different?

Ralph van Houdt in conversation with Sape Miedema.

Everyone knows the analogy with the frog that feels very comfortable in cold water, but does not notice that the water is boiling. In our daily lives we come across examples such as this all too often, both private and business, but in most cases we only realize elements to a situation in hindsight.

Fortunately, we also see examples of where things are going well. In conversation with Sape Miedema, Associate Professor and Program Director (Head of Studies) of the MSc Offshore & Dredging Engineering at the 3ME faculty of TU Delft, we looked back and forward to the moment of the outbreak of the pandemic in the Netherlands up until now. How did he view the imminent problems of the pandemic almost 1 year ago from his position. The change management question automatically arises.

When do you decide to do things differently and what information drives you to make you make that decision?
From whom do you accept this information from, and from whom do you not. Do you rely on what colleagues, management, or the board of directors say, or do you get information from the primary target group of your business or service? What does change mean for your strategy and when do you recognize that the current path no longer leads to the higher goal? What were the triggers of Sape? And what made him decide to make a virtue of necessity?

“The way you view the world personally is an extremely important factor. For me, every day is a new starting point and based on that I think about how to continue from this. Looking back is certainly useful, however you can only influence the future, is my persuasion. In our bi-weekly management meeting, we fortunately already saw the storm coming. At that early stage there was also consultation on the Executive Board of the TU. We have short lines of communication here. We discussed different scenarios about how long it would take and possibly more importantly how big the lag effect would be.

A negative but realistic scenario was that the effects of COVID would certainly impact us until mid-2022. This led to guidelines from the board that we, as the management of the 3ME faculty, have translated into a workable situation for our faculty.

The reason for pushing the horizon so far was the fact that in a period of less than 3 months from some kind of rumour / concern far away in China, led to the impact and magnitude in March in our country. Our underlying belief was that a virus could / cannot disappear as violently and powerfully as it swelled so quickly. That made the acceptance of this scenario easier and realistic. Letting go of the existing and deploying something new from that moment on was no longer difficult. That fits very well with my way of being in the world. Using existing knowledge and at the same time looking for new ways of teaching and testing.

Everyone goes online and no backlogs in exams
Another good working principle is that when something like this happens, you can keep resisting, but if you cooperate in such a change, there will be something in return. So you stay at the table and stay in the driver’s seat to ensure that it runs smoothly for your own organization.
Speed and clarity about the new milestones were important success factors. When the guidelines formally reached us from the board, we had our draft plans ready. The plans contained clear guidelines, frameworks and timelines. We left filling in the details to the specialists, but we did offer extra support. Most teachers clearly enjoyed it and it gave them guidance for their students. A few received the guideline and wanted to come to an approach based on consensus.

We deliberately did not give a scope, at the time we thought speed was more important than consensus at all levels. Everyone, with exceptions, had to adhere to these guidelines. The interests of the students were paramount. Our credo became everyone goes online and no backlogs in exams. Incidentally, the early decision of the board helped us a lot. It had 2 main effects:

  1. The period until mid-2020 was long enough. The effect is that if you invest in new teaching materials, you know that you will get a lot of time and results in return.
  2. It created a sense of urgency but with light at the end of the tunnel.

Of course that was easier said than done. It also affected me directly. The attitude of tackling and just starting helped. There were 2 resit exams planned for me, each with 50 students. And I didn’t feel like taking an online written exam where the control element was very much present.

I came to a solution with quick and creative thinking. Everyone was given an assignment and they were allowed to work on it in groups. It concerned a specific part of the material for which they had to make an exam with questions and correct answers. They now had to communicate to each other to complete the assignment. This resulted in students knowing the material very well in their own individual way, much better than in usual practices. They had really mastered it. The breadth of knowledge across the profession was less, but that is less of a problem. At TU Delft, we want students to learn by understanding so that they can apply it. The goal was thus achieved.

In the end, this worked out so well that the number of students for this course doubled. That prompted me and my colleagues to also look at other alternatives. Cheating was hardly an issue anymore. By means of the oral check, you could see within 10 minutes whether a student got the hang of it or not. Focusing or encouraging and rewarding good behavior worked much better than possibly punishing bad behavior. We adhere to this principle at all times when taking exams. Of course it is not just a success story, it takes a lot of time and effort, we still regularly think that we see too little students, but the positive movement is there.

Contact in the workplace (students and teachers), coordination with management and the board, extra support and assistance to teachers, regularly conducting surveys and keeping a critical eye on what is being achieved, whether it meets the objective, being open to better methodologies, continuing to learn and making adjustments where necessary, have all proven to be important success factors. And of course, because we didn’t go anywhere overnight, we also quickly placed a scanner at the door with which we could check whether students, researchers and other staff were adhering to the guidelines set. Having that kind of concrete data helps to secure or, if necessary, tighten up the policy.

Finally, I would like to say that you can only do this together in a process where everyone takes their own role and responsibility. You manage and support each other this way.
I would like to look forward to the start of the new academic year, and will get back to you at the end of August and a year ahead towards the summer of 2022.”

FOR DUTCH CLICK HERE: Interview Sape Miedema