Universities prepare a new normal for campus life

Summary

Flanders’ universities and colleges were handed a new challenge this year and are spending the summer refining a mix of online and in-class teaching

The corona classroom

Students beginning higher education in Flanders this autumn will have a different learning experience from previous years, thanks to the coronavirus. But universities and colleges are determined that this new normal will not simply be an extension of lockdown. For most, the aim is a complete return to campus life.

Early in the lockdown, institutions of higher education across the region closed their campuses and took as much teaching as possible online. While deemed a success, these measures also demonstrated a significant sacrifice.

“They highlighted how irreplaceable direct contact is between lecturers and students and among students, how important campus life is, how crucial easy access to labs and libraries is,” said Luc Sels, rector of KU Leuven, in a letter to students at the end of term.

Campus spirit

Things would be different next term, he promised. “The virus will still have an impact. But in the next academic year, KU Leuven will not at all resemble the online community it has been forced to be in the past few months.”

Just how much impact the virus will have when term begins in mid-September is still an open question. But the hope is that a mixture of in-person and online teaching will restore the campus spirit and provide the flexibility to adapt to changes in measures to control the spread of the virus.

Learning in person is considered particularly important for first-year students, who are encountering the university environment for the first time. They learn how to learn through contact with their professors, and also with other students.


“It’s important that they see their peers, that they learn together and see how others evolve during the term,” explains Tine Baelmans (pictured above), vice-rector of educational policy at KU Leuven. She adds that personal contact is also vital for staff. “It’s important for lecturers to keep in touch with their students. They also missed that personal contact during lockdown.”

While physical lectures and other classes will return next term, there will also be more blended learning. Students will be guided through new material online, working at their own pace, before having in-depth discussions or working on exercises in smaller groups on campus.

Professors in each discipline have been asked to identify the contact time that is most important for their students’ development, so that it can be prioritised. The answer is often practical work, such as laboratory sessions for science students, or clinics for medical students. “Practical work is important for students to get a sense of what a discipline is all about,” Baelmans explains.

We will still have plenty of student orientations in the first week, but in smaller groups, with facemasks

- KU Leuven vice-rector Tine Baelmans

Meanwhile, efforts will be made to gather students into study groups, both for contact learning and online study. Each group might comprise 20-30 students, enough to use a lecture hall while maintaining social distancing, for example.

The study groups making up each course would then attend lectures physically in rotation, following them online when others have their turn. Sub-groups will be created for tutorials or practical work, depending on what is involved.

Again, distancing measures or facemasks would be required at all times. “We don’t want to give the impress that these study groups are a social bubble,” Baelmans insists. “We’ll need to take safety precautions all the time.”

Common strategy

Safe social bubbles are a separate issue, best organised according to students’ living arrangements, she says. This should allow a social life on campus, albeit more restrained than usual.

“The first week will still have plenty of student orientations, but in smaller groups, with facemasks and so on, adapted to whatever the pandemic situation is at that time. But the huge parties and welcome events normally held will not take place.”

KU Leuven is not alone in taking this approach. In July, the five Flemish universities – Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Brussels, KU Leuven, Ghent, Antwerp and Hasselt – agreed to a common strategy along these lines for the 2020-21 academic year.


The hogescholen, or university colleges, released a similar strategy, which reflects differences in the kind of education they offer. The main difference is an emphasis on practical skills, learned in real-world settings.

“Internships and work placements are an essential part of hogeschool education,” says Isabelle Claeys, a spokesperson for Hogeschool Gent (HoGent). “Even during corona times these final competences have to be demonstrated.”

During lockdown, internship committees met for each programme at HoGent to work out how placements could take place safely, or to devise alternatives. In some cases, placements were delayed until businesses were able to reopen over the summer.

Priority will be given to first-years and graduate students, and any students with practical classes

- Isabelle Claeys of HoGent

In other areas, such as teaching, students replaced classroom experience with an involvement in online preteaching. And some nursing students moved into hospital administration or support departments if the wards were considered too dangerous.

These internship committees will continue to operate in the next academic year, responding to developments in the corona crisis. Otherwise, HoGent aims to combine in-person and online education, with as much activity as possible on campus.

“Priority will be given to first-years and graduate students, and any students with practical classes,” explains Claeys. To make this possible, safety measures such as social distancing, facemasks and hand hygiene will be essential, along with an optimal use of campus space.

“The recommendation is to follow classes of 90 minutes with 60 minutes of ventilation, so we’ve extended teaching until 20.00 where necessary.” And to ensure social interaction and student well-being, learning communities will be set up for both online and offline education.

Vesalius: a different path

One higher education institution following a different path is Vesalius College in Brussels, a private college that co-operates with VUB and shares its campus. While VUB aims to get students back in person this autumn, Vesalius has opted to stay digital for bachelor students, at least until January.

A significant factor in this decision is that 80% of the college’s students come from abroad, and so face much greater uncertainty about travelling to study on campus. “We thought it better to move fully online and work towards continuity,” explains Sven Van Kerckhoven, vice-dean of education. “This creates some peace of mind for our international students, who know they can start studying and then come over when everything is in place to host them safely.”

Another issue is that Vesalius College follows the American academic calendar, and so had to decide in May how it would handle the new term, which begins later this month. “That has given us time to prepare both the professors and the infrastructure,” Van Kerckhoven says. “For example, we’ve made a full online course for our professors about how to teach online, and we’ve established an office for online teaching and learning innovation.”


Time has also been needed to tailor courses to the digital environment, such as replacing long lectures with a mix of short videos, exercises and live Q&A sessions. But the most challenging aspect of staying digital is how students can be made to feel they are part of a community.

According to Van Kerckhoven, the best people to address this are the students themselves. “They know better than we do how they want to engage with each other,” he says. “Together with the students, we are building tools to allow them to meet and mix online.”

Meanwhile, the college hopes to add live events to the digital mix, such as talks by high-level guest speakers and picnics for the minority of local students. “This will also help them come together and feel that they belong.”

Photos, from top: Courtesy HoGent, courtesy KU Leuven, ©Getty Images, ©Getty Images