7 questions for Chris Blom

‘The teaching had to go on so that gave us the drive to get everything online’

Photo: Anne Reinke

Chris Blom is the learning environment product owner at the Education Support Centre. In that role, he is involved in putting Wageningen’s teaching online. A conversation about digitizing teaching and the influence of the Covid pandemic.

What was the first half of 2020 like for you?

“It was all about making sure the education could continue. The coronavirus crisis meant that all the teaching had to move online and a lot of different technological innovations had to be implemented in double-quick time. We’d recently switched to the online learning environment Brightspace, where students could find all the information for their course, and that made it much easier for us to transition to all-digital teaching. That’s because in Brightspace it is possible to add virtual classrooms to the digital learning environment. We have also recently introduced a facility for inputting course participants in MS Teams. You can then use that system to organize online meetings and collaboration between students.”

“The new digital facilities and support meant that nearly all courses could continue at Wageningen. I think that’s a major achievement. Mainly on the part of the teachers of course, but I’m very pleased we at ESC were able to support them. Having to do it gave us the drive. It made us all motivated to get the education we provide on campus moved online as quickly as possible.”

The coronavirus crisis meant various technological innovations had to be implemented in double-quick time

What was your specific role?

“My role as the product owner focuses mainly on the practicalities. I look at issues such as how the learning environment is set up, what decisions we need to take and what should take priority. My task is to have a vision about where we should be heading and to make sure the systems are pleasant to use and efficient and that they do what they should. The learning environment should support the learning process and the teaching.”

How important were data management and data security in the transition to online only?

“The aim of our work on the digital learning environment is to make sure students and teachers can do their thing. The teaching staff put their assignments online, provide course materials and organize activities for students so that they can do the assignments. They also organize mid-course tests and arrange assessments. The students can study the material and practice using it. Collaborative assignments and tests show them whether they have mastered the material. A key factor is trust. Trust on the part of the students that they are getting high-quality teaching and their privacy is guaranteed, trust on the part of the staff that they can work safely with our system, and trust on the part of society in our research results.”

Name

Chris Blom

WUR career

Degree in Environmental Protection (WUR) and student assistant for Project-based Education Obtained a PhD on the Courseware development in agricultural education Lecturer in Education & Learning Sciences Employed since 2000 in the Education Support Centre on IT support for education, for the past two years or so as a product owner

Private life

Likes cooking, making bags, DIY

What do you see as the most important data developments in educational innovation?

“People often use the term ‘disruptive innovation’ when talking about digitization in education, and rightly so in my opinion. The increasingly far-reaching use of digital learning environments has led to more individual attention for students, it has improved learning and made teaching more efficient. Digitization has led to a much richer approach to education.

The classical approach in which a teacher spends a lot of time telling students about the topic in lectures is outdated. Actual learning takes place not when the lecturer is talking but when the student starts working with the material and gets feedback. That is the situation that you want to give pride of place in students’ contacts with the teacher. That can be done for example by giving assignments before the class.

The advantage of this new digitally supported learning model is that the teacher can see how everyone is progressing, not just the subset of highly engaged students who speak up during and after lectures. We call that the ‘flipped classroom’ – letting students come up with a problem beforehand so that it can be discussed in the lecture. That gives lecturers a much more activating role when they are addressing the class.”

What are the potential pitfalls for educational innovations?

“You can’t assume teachers will always be motivated to use IT tools. And many IT tools assume teachers will behave in ways that aren’t always realistic or don’t suit their style. Online learning requires teachers to change their approach. But because Covid-19 meant we now had no choice but to go online, everyone cooperated enthusiastically. A potential pitfall in the future is how teachers deal with the new options they now have. If they prefer to get back to the old situation as soon as possible — if they say ‘thank goodness I can say goodbye to all that and return to the old normal’ — then we will be missing important opportunities. Namely the increased efficiency and enrichment of the teaching process that I just mentioned. But that requires teachers to put in the effort first. For example, videos can tell a much more powerful story than just text and pictures. They let you convey the material faster and more effectively. But the lecturer still needs to make that video.”

Photo: Anne Reinke

What has been your experience of working from home and the other coronavirus measures?

“I found it quite convenient at first because your life has a lot more structure when you work from home. But I soon got fed up with it. Simply because you find yourself completely exhausted at the end of the working day. You spend eight hours a day obsessively staring at a screen. You don’t have the walking around, the diversions that you automatically get in an office environment. Working from home has a negative impact on your creativity and relationships with your fellow workers.”

How serious are you about data?

“As far as my own data security is concerned, I’m just an ordinary employee sticking to the rules. The hard drive on my laptop is encrypted, all my software is up to date and I log in using codes from my smartphone. I delete confidential documents when we no longer need them, for example documents to do with job applications. I do my best, but I’m only human.”

Learning takes place when the student starts working with the material and gets feedback