Teaching from a distance

Interview with Ines Lindner on the effects of Corona on academic life

On the 1st of May 2020, Just de Groot and Denise van Dijk interviewed Ines Lindner about the current situation. This interview was mostly about her experience of teaching from distance.

Ines Lindner is associate professor of Mathematical Economics at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Even before the coronavirus started to spread, she was already experimenting with “blended learning”, which is a combination of studying online and having contact hours.

A stressed start

In the beginning of the corona period, Ines was overworked and had a lot of stress. There was complete radio silence from the VU, making the circumstances even more challenging. Before period 5 of the academic year started, there was a first online hangout with Arantza. Ines was very glad with this hangout, because Arantza already knew the students from the previous period and previous years. “I didn’t know anything about you, were some of you in China in a hospital?”. In the beginning, she was also very stressed because the software did not work, which caused her computer to crash all the time. Fortunately, she is much more relaxed now and can mostly laugh it off.

Miss the most

When we asked Ines the question what she missed most she replied: “I’m glad that I have already been at the VU for 10 years, otherwise it would be quite scary to know what expectations are set upon you during such a communication breakdown. What should I be doing? Communication is very important. I’m fine luckily, because I know, with your help, how to run courses, and I have my research project. Otherwise, I would feel a little lost.”

Fortunately, she feels save the way everything goes now. However, she does miss, just like most of us do, the social stuff. Laughing with colleagues or the absurd situations of everyday life in a faculty are mostly gone now. For example, she once borrowed a pointing stick so she could more easily point at things on the screen. When she borrowed it, the lender was worried she would lose it. Before the lecture she went to the ladies room, put the stick there and forgot it. This poor man had to wait in front of the ladies room until it was relatively empty to get his stick back. 

You need these kinds of stochastic shocks to get yourself out of an absorbing markov state.

These funny situations is what Ines misses, these situations that gives energy and motivation, like laughing together and getting inspiration from taking a short break and talking to each other. This is also interesting to think about from a wider organisational perspective, because we need stochastic shocks in our life. For example, there was a huge discussion about book choice from Amazon: if you buy a certain book, they keep feeding you with your taste, creating this political bubble. You need these kinds of stochastic shocks to get yourself out of an absorbing markov state. Just randomly meeting people in an organisation really gives you new ideas. This isn’t only chit chatting, it’s also coming up with new ideas. She misses the social cohesion, the inspiration kick from an exogenous random shock: “Usually, when we were meeting in the classrooms, students would come afterwards, coming with questions and discussing certain topics. This is also a little more difficult online, so I encourage students to contact me by email. Normally, in a classroom, other people would also listen and stay afterwards, starting this spontaneous discussion which culminates in a learning discussion.”

Work-life balance

While many people struggle with finding a balance in the new circumstances of working from home, for Ines the work-life balance only changes a bit: “To be honest, I don’t have a very good work-life balance. This might be why I think I ended up in mathematics. When you study mathematics you get absorbed and a bit obsessed with stuff. This was very clear when I was writing my PhD, as I sometimes wrote 19 hours straight without any breaks, only to be exhausted for the next three days”. She has tried to improve this the last 10-20 years, with some measurable success. She has been becoming a bit more clever at it, as her friends coach her into doing certain things, while she does the same for them. For example, she went for a walk with a friend (with the necessary distance). So they coach each other to ensure they are both doing good with their plans.

Luckily, Ines has a very independent son, allowing her to be at rest about his schoolwork. He sleeps a bit longer, but he is very independent in his study. Because of the circumstances, Ines her work-life balance has become a little more quiet, partly due to saving time. She also noticed that meetings became a little more efficient. “We used to get a room, have some chit chat with coffee first, and start ten minutes late and with some postponing… It’s much more efficient, because everyone is in such a corona hype and has a very full agenda.”

We then had a small discussion with her about why we think meeting might be more efficient. Ines says the challenge with teaching innovation is finding out why something works and under what circumstances. Meetings might be more efficient because there is for example a very singular goal or a few singular goals and online there are few more tools to quickly set and distribute those subgoals. It could be compared with playing video games where you have giant teams of players competing against each other, yet they still cooperate in whatever way they can, because they have a few goals that align. On the other hand we have that at the campus meetings sometimes seem more chaotic. Or the goal of the meeting is to get a setup, while now the setup might be made before or even during the meeting. Whatever the reason might be, the fact that online meetings seem more efficient is still an interesting topic for research.

Blended learning

Ines was actually quite happy that people are willing to listen and willing to change something: “I’ve been telling people about this blended learning approach. However, I think the culture wasn’t ready yet. Students had some adverse reactions, preferring the more simple and straightforwards books”. However, something is starting to change: the culture is shifting, allowing for much more blended learning. There has been a lot of research about blended learning. There was some research from Harvard University from five years ago, which had three main insights:

The first is ‘teaching teaches the teacher’s perspective’, which sounds a bit weird. It means that from a students perspective, about 50% of the time the mind wanders off. It’s clear that the brain isn’t a perfect retainer of information, as Ines herself notices sometimes. When she hasn’t given a course for a year, she goes through the material again to revise. It is then that she realises what what they mean with ‘teaching teaches the teacher’. Lectures clearly aren’t a good way to transfer information, they became an outgrown model, which we might not see anymore in 10 years. 

The second is that social structures motivate. As a teacher you can’t just give the homework and expect students to perform well despite any connection. They need some kind of social interaction, whether it be with their peers or with lecturers, to become more engaged in the subject material.

The third is immediate feedback. When you hear something, you need immediate feedback. When you make a test, you want to know what went right and what went wrong. Having a clear snapshot of your capabilities through active feedback can help a lot when learning.

These are the three insights which Ines personally tries to integrate. First, by using clips to give high quality lectures, instead of the standard lectures we commonly see. Second, she sees it as something very important for students to stay in contact, to motivate themselves through social structures. Third, by having the weekly Canvas quizzes which gives some good immediate feedback.

...that you guys should help us with designing the course.

Culture shift

Last year students might have been more reluctant to her blended learning approach. “The students might have thought I was too lazy to give lectures”. But now due to this culture shift that is going, students also start to realise that this concept makes sense. “My dream would be that you guys demanded this, because books and pdfs and so are nice, but I think, which is also what I mean with co-ownership, that you guys should help us with designing the course.”

The online university

Besides the proclivity of most to keep to their old ways, Ines recognizes that a blended learning approach to university education has more challenges than that. The quality of education through the use of online videos and other means would have to be kept on a respectable level, requiring high quality teaching videos and more extensive and comprehensive testing tools. She describes that this isn’t a temporary matter due to the current circumstances, but also to stay competitive in the market. Creating a more online integrated approach would be fantastic, especially for international students. 

Luckily, there’s already been some substantial testing right here in the Netherlands.

A prominent technical university has already started something like this 4 to 5 years ago, where they set up an online campus. They work together with several universities worldwide, for example from the US and from Australia. If you are a student of one of these universities, then you can follow any course at another of these universities and gain the associated student credit. The problem here is that you have to insure a certain quality of education. This is a little bit how the Starlines alliance works, when you book a flight with a certain airline and it’s taken over by another one, then you can be assured of the same quality standards along these lines.

This type of online education will become much more prevalent and change the dynamic between students and lecturers. “I think the role of a lecturer will become much more supervising, we will be much more supervising in the way that we give the material and answer any questions that come up when you’re stuck. Which is exactly what blended learning does”.

The main setup, as Ines describes, would have libraries with three kinds of videos. The first type of video would be the type where the theoretical concepts and definitions, such as what a p-value is, are explained. These videos would be of high quality, relatively short, and made specifically to explain what this concept entails and nothing more. These would most likely be made by the faculties most affluent with the concepts, such as a mathematics faculty explaining a p-value.

The second type of video would be where someone from the field of your study, like a professor in that particular field or someone active in the business, explains the relevance of this concept. These videos would give some context to why the students are learning this, how it’s practically applicable, and a general sense of how to solve the exercises.

The third and final type would be the more specialized videos, where either a TA or a professor shows how to solve certain kinds of exercises. These would be the most practical and relevant to the professor, because these are directly based on the exercises and exams they create.

Aside from the online video lectures, there are contact hours. These aren’t like the old fashioned lecture contact hours, but far more geared towards the individual students like a tutorial.

Moreover, there is also a difference between courses for both students and lecturers. For lecturers it’s because for an Ethics class it might not work when lectures are recorded. For any course, the whole point is to stimulate interaction. Most lecturers would love to hear how to do this, but actually doing it is the tricky part. 

I sometimes feel like a dentist having to torture students with “painful” quantitative stuff.

For students, it may just be that they aren’t as intrinsically motivated for the course they are taking. “You are more intrinsically motivated since you are not scared of maths. On the other hand if I teach to IBA first years, then I have many problems. They are typically not intrinsically motivated for the more quantitative stuff. I sometimes feel like a dentist having to torture students with “painful” quantitative stuff. Second, they are tired at the end of the first year and a course like Statistics is not a BSA course, so they are even less motivated. There I have a more monitoring and controlling role, to push them to motivate them to make the exercises. You guys are far more motivated for maths, so that also helps a lot while teaching from distance.”

This is where the professors need the help of the students as well. Feedback from students is important. Of course, the teacher is responsible for your learning experience, but it would be the very helpful to make the students the co-owners of the class. It would greatly help with both the current situation and the general learning experience of the students. This would improve the lecturer’s ability to convey information to the students, but it would also improve the student’s motivation, as they feel they are doing something more than just following a standard university course.

This approach also requires something which we have seen a lot more in these times of distress, faculties working cooperating on a much deeper level than before. It’s required, because the quality videos need to come from somewhere. Besides that, the continual improvement of education will partly rely on more feedback, which can be applied to all kinds of faculties if they can relate more to each other through his cooperation.

This is one of the few advantages, as we’ll have a huge innovation boost.

These concepts aren’t all that new, and there’s so much research in teaching innovation from psychology, which has an intersection with the economics of education. The data is here, as we are all test bunnies in this enormous experiment. The whole course is set up as a test now. We could empirically evaluate this, if we’re allowed to. Ines hopes that people now realise that teaching and research aren’t separated, so we can maybe try and approach learning and teaching in a more scientific way. This is one of the few advantages, as we’ll have a huge innovation boost.

Short videos

What most students like about the ME II course, is that the videos are quite short. Ines chose these videos on purpose, which is true to the first insight of the Harvard University study. Recording lectures and putting them online stimulates procrastination, because students simply tell themselves that it would be there for them to do at any time. Clips that are way longer than 20 minutes do not work as most people drop off after this. After this summer Ines hopes to get FeedbackFruits, which are some plugins for Canvas. Using this makes it very easy to insert extras with the clips such as questions. This makes a huge difference in a students concentration, because it makes much more use of the practical psychology.

Social structures

Everyone needs social structures. When Ines teaches online, she doesn’t see most of the students faces. When students face class where they don’t already know other students, they also have no idea whom their classmates are. This reminded Ines of a business model of a certain company, where there were small diverse teams formed with some social cohesion. Working with people you don’t know is very difficult, because you don’t know how they work or if there are any cultural differences. For example, how do asian people, who aren’t used to bold mannerisms, react when they speak to an Italian? You need some connection, but you can’t be overly familiar as there’s nothing new that can be produced. 

If you put two people with the exact same research background in a team, there won’t be any innovation. But if they are too different from each other, they can’t discuss any overlapping topics. There is a crucial way to handle this, because there has to be an optimal cognitive distance to come up with new stuff. How do we measure cognitive distance? What is the cultural impact? This is a nice topic for a master thesis: So, you are the dean of the faculty, and you have to manage your researchers. Is it better to partition a class in larger with less communication or smaller groups with more communication? This is all social networks in action, and it’s very interesting.

Feeling safe in class

A sense of safety is very important for a learning environment, Ines personally experienced during her postdoc that some lecturers would call some questions stupid and chastise people for ‘stupid’ questions.

With the current circumstances, students also experience differences. We had an intermezzo with Ines about students feeling safer in class or in videolectures. We discussed these apparent differences. Something students miss from normal lectures is asking the professor something after the lecture when it’s a one-to-one affair. When talking in a zoom conference, either your video or your name is put full on display which makes some of the students uncomfortable. On the other hand, it is in zoom possible to use the chat and, something which Ines tried in the ME II videolectures with success, it’s possible to split the whole group in smaller groups and have shorter questions hours. Beforehand, Ines assigned  each group a leader that talks on behalf of the class with Ines. This approach works well because the group leader must be someone that doesn’t mind sitting in front of the camera and talking with the teacher, while the others don’t have to be visible and feel saver asking their questions in the chat.

Ines also told that feeling safe is not just a student problem. Even at conferences, professors can think ‘am I the only idiot who doesn’t understand this?’. Funnily enough, the people at conferences who are very bold and these Nobel prize winners really don’t seem to care anymore. This feeling of being the stupidest in the room, it’s a part of us as our insecurities.

Some of her colleagues might be scared of the changes.

Colleagues finally accepting changes

The communication with colleagues is a bit different now. The new circumstances put teaching innovation in a new light. In the past, Ines often observed resistance to innovate among academic teaching staff. Innovation means time investment as we have to learn a new method, adjust our teaching material, and most importantly, leave our comfort zone. New methods don't always pay off or only after one or two trial periods such that it is a risk. ‘What is wrong with just going to university with a book?’ is what we sometimes got to hear. But what is important to realize is that we are offering a service to customers, the students, and they are the ‘youtube generation’ and the university should, rationally at least, be more ‘consumer friendly’. But due to the circumstances we have now, my colleagues are much more aware of this fact. They realize this change is necessary, that it is both needed and desired.

Some of her colleagues might be scared of the changes. What might help is good communication. It is clearly possible, because there are platforms where universities share their innovation. However, it is also challenging, because what Ines observed is that when your own course is too far removed from another’s course, then you are far less likely to copy or look at their ideas in reference to your own. The key here is to set up good communication, the past also shows that people that use these platforms or innovations are usually interested anyways. And those who were not interested didn’t feel the need to change, because it costs time and innovations are a risk. Thus, it is always safer to stay with your old model.

Fortunately, the current situation also brought some positive things. People start to realise the possible changes in education. All in all, it was an interesting interview and we were happy it worked quite well using Zoom, to give you an impression what it looked like:

Look forward to next week’s article, where Noah Berhane details the life of an entrepreneur as a former EOR student.

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