At the moment, Wageningen Center for Development Innovation, part of Wageningen University & Research (WUR) offers all its courses online. Travelling to the Netherlands is no longer necessary; lifelong learning can be done from the comfort of your own home or office. And that has advantages, especially in this Covid-19 time: better balance between work and private life, more variety in the programme and more customisation possibilities. What has changed and what exactly do these changes mean for the students?
Every year, Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation (WCDI) provides approximately 30 different courses about food systems, for professionals from all over the world. "The wish to go online arose in 2015 as part of our blended-learning approach, and was given a boost by Covid-19. We wanted to be more sustainable, let students travel less and make our learning paths accessible to more people," says Diane Bosch, researcher and course coordinator at WCDI.
"Low-income countries, in particular, often suffer disproportionately from the consequences of such issues. So it's not surprising that the majority of our students come from these countries. What does change, however, is the form in which we offer the courses.”
Flexible study times
"Online participation means that students log in from their home or office in their own country, i.e. from different time zones and with varying connectivity; in some countries the internet remains quite slow," continues Diane Bosch. "It is unrealistic to imagine we could get 30 people, all behind the screen, at the same time, for 8 hours a day. That’s why for each course, we look at what is feasible in terms of the overall course length and the number of hours per day. What used to be a two-week full-time course in Wageningen might become a six-week part-time course".
“This allows the students to better combine their work and private lives, especially in this time of Covid-19. "Moreover, the course is now also accessible to people who do not have the time to come to the Netherlands for two weeks. Think of young professionals, who can now log in via their smartphones, or senior professionals who are unable to take time off because of their busy jobs," says Diane Bosch.
New ways of working
The second significant change, according to colleague Riti Hermán Mostert, is that there is more diversity in the programme. "Learning online involves other ways of working. More often, for example, the course members receive individual assignments that they can carry out where they are based. Instead of interviewing a Frisian farmer, they interview their director or a local farmer. As a result, the assignments fit better with their own field of work, and possible cultural obstacles are minimised. In addition, the course leaders have more time for individual coaching because the participants also work more individually."
"Diversity is also found in the use of new tools", continues Riti Hermán Mostert. "We have created a kit with various tools that you can use to facilitate brainstorming or to use videos for stakeholder analysis, for example. Sometimes these online tools even make it easier to work together. Where we used to scribble with a pen on a flipchart, we now work together in a single document, each from their own screen".
More expertise available
"We also discovered that, online, you can have more experts providing different expertise and input and that, too, creates more diversity. For example, a professor from India can simply log-on and provide a 30-minute mini-lecture. Or you can invite a few former students to share their experiences. In the old situation it was not really feasible to involve so many different people. Contact was mostly limited to the course leader and the course participants," according to Riti Hermán Mostert.
"The third big change is that we deliver more customization," says Diane Bosch. "Where students used to have to work together, ‘sharing’ four or five cases, they can now go out into the field alone; everyone can work on their own case. As a result, the skills they acquire are better geared to their own work situation. An important point here is that the peer review process is maintained, because the course members learn a lot from each other's perspectives. This intercultural working is one of the unique characteristics of our courses. What's more, you can offer students more depth online, by linking to videos and other material with particular relevance for that person".
Feeling of community
"In short, we see many benefits," says Riti Hermán Mostert. "But of course there are also disadvantages of online learning: for example it is more difficult to create a sense of belonging in the group. That is easier if you meet each other in person. Think about the effect of a chat in the bus on the way to an event, eating together afterwards and the jokes in between".
"That's why we put a lot of effort into creating a group feeling and stimulating interaction, by making time for informal moments, such as a walk-in hour or a coffee break. We need to, because, online, we dive into the content more quickly. We also do more coaching and use additional tools for the fun stuff, such as WhatsApp - where a student might share a family photo. That’s just as important!”