The swift spread of COVID-19 required an urgent response from many institutions – and universities were no exception. Classes were quickly moved online, which proved to be a challenge for instructors and students alike. To get a glimpse into how our Master’s programme dealt with this transition, we caught up with Programme Director Dr. Julieta Marotta as well as current student Joshua Hofert.
Dr. Julieta Marotta
As a Programme Director leading a Master’s with multiple specialisations, how did you kick-start the rapid transition towards online education?
We worked together as a team. Two weeks before Maastricht University decided to shift to distance education, in one meeting, someone asked, “what if we have to provide distance education?” After that meeting, I started to work in developing a protocol to go online and informed course coordinators. I could rely on the expertise of my colleague Dr. Mindel van de Laar, who shared her advice on effective distance education. Further, Programme Assistant Abbie Daley shared with us how her boyfriend was experiencing distance education in China. We continued drafting the protocol, sharing it with another colleague, Dr. Michaella Vanore and the Board of Examiners. As a result of these efforts, a draft protocol was ready the day Maastricht University announced the move to distance education. A consolidated version was shared the next day with our course coordinators and Office of Student Affairs, to explore options to adjust to their needs. A team assisted coordinators in preparing for distance education during the weekend, and the move was made successfully on the Monday. My goal was to ensure that course coordinators and students could finish the course as scheduled.
Course coordinators adjusted in an admirable way: they took over their responsibilities to educate students and allowed them to continue being intellectually motivated in a moment of uncertainty. Students responded very well too, showing a great capacity to adjust to uncertainty and cooperate in the adjustment. We also worked with the Board of Examiners in adapting for distance assessments and worked with Bo Nuis, who in her capacity as Study Advisor, helped design a plan to support students in their well-being. Later, the Office of Student Affairs developed a newsletter and well-being pamphlet to share weekly with students. In addition, we worked with the Education Programme Committee to adjust the course evaluations and to add questions to understand the elements that served for the engagement and motivation of students in distance education. All these efforts were done under the umbrella of support opened by the Directors of SBE and UNU-MERIT. This is only a summary of what happened, and the main factor that allowed for a smooth transition was that we responded as a community trying to achieve one goal: continuing with education in a healthy manner.
— Melissa Siegel (@MelissaSiegel1) March 25, 2020
What were some of the main challenges you encountered? How did you overcome them?
The main challenge encountered is the complex global situation we are currently living in, which is something we all share. No matter how much we think about it, how much we read, it is difficult to comprehend the dimensions of what we are currently living through.
In this context, uncertainty has also been a constant challenge. In response to that, I worked to provide students and course coordinators with certainty in what has to do with the courses. In this process, Abbie Daley has been my right hand. Under normal circumstances, we work well together, and under extraordinary circumstances, we even work better! Together with Abbie, the Office of Student Affairs, our Study Advisor, and the Board of Examiners, we worked in supporting course coordinators to be able to perform, and students to be able to continue receiving high quality education. At a personal level, being far away from my home country has also been a challenge. This challenge allowed me to be especially empathetic with our body of international students who needed to make decisions about staying or going back to their home countries.
The situation we are living through is difficult, since we are reminded about sickness and death daily. In this context, what helps me to overcome are: the company and love of my husband and son; my love and respect for the MPP and this cohort; my close (and warm) team; and the admirable group of course coordinators and tutors. I am indeed grateful to my close community!
What lessons do you think universities should take away from the COVID-19 crisis?
To my eyes, a main lesson for universities is the awareness of their capacity to overcome obstacles. Universities from all over the world continued supporting staff and students during this time, and instructors and students were able to adjust with almost no disruption. A second lesson is the importance of common goals for overcoming obstacles. In this scenario, we were all working towards the same objective: ensuring education while protecting the well-being of everyone. A third lesson is the importance of having a solid team that works with autonomy, professionalism and a common goal. And a fourth lesson is the impressive power of technology to keep us connected, and how ready our community is to switch from in-person experiences to online experiences.
— Simone Sandholz (@SSandholz) March 16, 2020
How did the rapid transition towards virtual and long-distance education affect your experience in the MPP?
I remember the evening when the university announced that all buildings would be closed as of the following Monday and education would (somehow) be shifted into a virtual space. It was 12 March 2020, my birthday actually, which I was spending with friends from the MPP. We were discussing—both as individuals and as public policy students—how the novel COVID-19 situation would affect us and our Master’s studies, our loved ones, and perhaps the world. We were wondering whether we would meet again face-to-face in the weeks to come.
Now, six weeks into distance education, we have been seeing each other face-to-face—on the screens of our laptops. Initially, it took me some time to fully understand that this would be the new normal for quite a while and that returning to education in a real classroom in the remaining months of the MPP appeared unlikely. I guess many of us at UNU-MERIT were caught somewhat off guard by the transition, at least by its speed and scope. In these exceptional times, I have been truly impressed—by how seamlessly my social protection lectures and even tutorials have been shifted online, and by the support and kindness everyone in the UNU family has extended to each other.
What challenges are you facing? How are you overcoming them?
As an MPP student, I can consider myself relatively lucky. I am able and used to predominantly studying and working on my laptop. And I spent the first six months of the MPP meeting inspiring fellow students and researchers in person. Thanks to those encounters, the participants in the Zoom calls are not strangers, but friends and colleagues. At times, I miss biking to UNU-MERIT in the morning, attending ‘real’ classes, having a chat with friends in between, studying together. At times, it is challenging to stay focused and to maintain a productive structure of the day at home without all those moments—working with peers in (virtual) groups really helps though. Other times, however, I am enthusiastic about the future potential of the expansion of virtual communication tools and our familiarity with online collaboration, hopefully well beyond te crisis.
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Pexels / J.M. Cameron; UNU / S. Sanholz / M. Siegel