15 June 2020

The first, cautious, steps

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When I walked onto the VU campus a couple of weeks ago, I was confronted by a stark image – deserted buildings, empty classrooms, not a student in sight. How different it was three months ago: a vibrant buzz, animated discussions in classrooms with the lecturers, groups of young people studying together, interacting with each other and with the staff, learning together.

The spread of the coronavirus pandemic, and the introduction of mitigatory measures and lockdowns, changed this overnight. As universities, we scrambled to transfer educational programs online, and were largely successful in providing continuity of education, thanks to the enormous dedication of our staff members. There were, are, and will continue to be challenges in this transition.

It’s like performing an experiment – we’ll have to adjust and fine-tune as we go along

This week, we are taking the first, cautious, steps to resuming a limited number of educational activities in the coming weeks. It’s a new reality, and we are quickly finding out what it really means to implement social distancing in practice on campus. It’s like performing an experiment – we’ll have to adjust and fine-tune as we go along. The lessons we learn in the coming weeks will be essential as we look forward to the start of the new academic year.

Learning is not a solitary exercise. It is fundamentally based on interactions – with the material, with lecturers and tutors, with each other. It’s not just about learning the material, but being able to interpret it in context, and about developing a framework that is influenced by the interactions with, and within, the broader academic community. An education is also about exploring the myriad opportunities that universities offer – studying abroad, exploring courses outside your major field, but also being active in study associations, student organizations, and sports, participating in faculty and university student councils to help shape the course of the university – in short, becoming part of the community.

Seeking creative solutions

Our students represent the future, and will help shape our society as we try to emerge from the societal and economic disruption caused by the pandemic. We are trying very hard, within the boundary conditions prescribed by the public health guidelines, to plan activities on campus. First the essential activities that are tied to locations on the campus, and as soon as we can, more activities to promote the all-so-important interactions between students, and between students and staff, to create a sense of community. But I also want to manage expectations. The guidelines mean that we can likely only have a small fraction of our educational activities on campus, and that a very significant part of our work will continue to be online. We are seeking creative solutions to maximize the number of activities on campus, while working together with local, regional and national stakeholders to make this possible.

If you’ve got ideas to share, please do so. We’re in it together.

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