Organisatie - 11 september 2014

First distance-learning lectures from Wageningen: New venture in the East

tekst:
Nicolette Meerstadt

Can you really teach students abroad if the teacher stays put in Wagenin­gen? With a lecture series in Singapore, Wageningen University has started realizing its ambitions in the field of distance learning. Students from Nanyang University will soon have Wageningen courses on their transcripts without having set foot on Dutch soil. Resource investigates.

It is 4.30 on a Friday afternoon and 29 students are gearing up for a thorough question and answer session. Outside the palm trees are swaying in the breeze and it is 30 degrees in Singapore. On the other side of the world teacher Julia Diederen tests the camera and the connection. In Wageningen it is 10.30 in the morning and still below 15 degrees.. 

The second-year Bachelor’s students at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are the first to take the Wageningen major in Food Chemistry alongside their local degree course. During the weekly video session with the teacher they can ask questions and Diederen can explain things in a bit more depth. The student she can see on the screen in front of her look rather shy. When one of them wants to ask a question, the camera zooms in on them and the microphone is switched on. They ask good questions, says Diederen. ‘I notice that they work hard. They want to know more than we offer’. 

Perfect storm

The collaboration with Singapore marks the start of an overseas venture for Wageningen University. For the first time, a Wageningen course package is being offered to students without their needing to set foot on Dutch soil. Almost 30 students from Nanyang will be taking five Wageningen food-related courses in the next few years. The courses make up a coherent whole, a major in Food Science and Technology bearing the stamp of both Wage-ningen and Singapore. 

Preparations for this distinctive project have been under way for two years now. Professors Remko Boom and Harry Gruppen had the idea for a joint programme in the autumn of 2012 when they visited their PhD students in Singapore. The planning picked up speed when Queen Beatrix made a state visit to Singapore in 2013. With the prospect of getting three minutes to present the plans, Gruppen eagerly hastened to Singapore. His efforts were rewarded: the royal interest in his plans ensured that the wheels started rolling and now, just over a year later, the programme is launched. 

‘Make no mistake, Nanyang is a top institution,’ says Gruppen of the partner university in Singapore, whose chemistry faculty is in the top 75 in the Shanghai Ranking. ‘It is a logical decision to collaborate with them because their knowledge complements ours.’ A Wageningen programme in South-east Asia is a worthwhile investment in any case, he believes. ‘Industry is heading in that direction too. It is good to have a foot in the door there.’ And Singapore strikes him as the most appropriate location. Not just because it is central and has good connections, but also because it is a small, highly urbanized area with a big harbour. Just like the Netherlands.

Gruppen got a lot of support for setting up the major, he says. ‘Ever since the state visit people have been assigned to the project to organize things really properly, to negotiate and to keep up the momentum,’ he says. ‘The idea came from a couple of professors, but apparently it’s a very good fit with the vision of Wageningen University.’

Rector magnificus Martin Kropff endorses this view. Wageningen University faces the difficult task, he says, of training more and more people while making sure the standard of the education it offers remains high: a firm criterion. Wageningen is not the first university to look beyond the Dutch border for good options. Some universities have even established whole campuses overseas. But that is going too far for Kropff. ‘That is an enormous investment in infrastructure. So we prefer to look for strong partners: world-class universities with complementary knowledge and a lot of self-funding students’. But this kind of strategy is rather abstract, he admits, until an opportunity comes up like the one in Singapore. Kropff: ‘This has the support of enthusiastic teachers, the government there has money and it fits in our strategy. The perfect storm in the best sense.’

Knowledge clips

There are a number of hurdles to be taken before a distance-learning major is established. Because how can you convey the material, and how can you motivate students on the other side of the world? Just recording a lecture turns out to be inefficient, explains Kropff. ‘That does not meet our standards. Distance education must have real added value.’ The Wageningen answer is the knowledge clip, a crucial component of the teaching method. These are eight-minute short films with clear-cut chunks of information. ‘We have made 60 of them for the Food Chemistry course alone. It’s a massive job,’ says Diederen. ‘It’s a fulltime job for months for a teacher to carve up the material into logical segments and prepare it all.’ But the experience gained by doing this has proven useful for the regular course programme too. ‘The knowledge clips are really handy now that student numbers on the course have grown from 90 to 140 students.’ Another challenge lay in the compatibility of the educational approaches in the two universities. In Singapore, courses are often spread over a whole semester, whereas in Wageningen each course block is only eight weeks long. The way practicals are organized is different too. ‘They have practicals for months on end on a fixed morning,’ says Gruppen. ‘We do them in one and a half weeks fulltime.’ In December Diederen will fly to Singapore to run this intensive practical module. This meant the students giving up two weeks of their holiday; otherwise it could not be fitted in. 

Assessment methods and all sorts of rules and regulations had to be fine-tuned too. ‘A fail here should be a fail there,’ says Gruppen. ‘And it is a nuisance that teachers are not allowed to send their exam questions digitally. Now the questions go up and down in an envelope by DHL.’ A more problematic difference is that the Bachelor’s in Singapore is a full degree, which even qualifies graduates to do a PhD. ‘For us, it is the Master’s that is important, and we want to make a joint degree of that,’ says Gruppen. ‘That means adjusting and negotiating.’ 

Food guy 

Wageningen is not alone in setting great store by the collaboration, as we see when we visit the campus in Singapore. Professor William Chen is head of the joint education programme there. While he shows us around part of the enormous campus, with it huge lecture theatres and extensive ‘food courts’, he explains why Singapore is investing in this programme. ‘Almost all the food we consume is imported. That is risky, so the government wants to make the country more resilient in times of crisis.’ Food needs a longer shelf life and wastage could be reduced, but health is an issue too in a country with an aging population. The future graduates will be expected to contribute to addressing such issues, and Singapore is prepared to invest in that. Wageningen knowledge is crucial to this endeavor. ‘We don’t have any expertise in food technology. We don’t get very far with protocols out of journals. We want to roll up our sleeves and learn by doing; we want to act and think like food guys.’ 

Chen personally selected the best students in his faculty, and they are following the programme as an extra on top of their degree courses. ‘This collaboration is a very important step for our university,’ he explains. ‘It is the first of its kind. We hope to be able to expand this in five years to a full degree programme.’ The extra qualification is important to his students as a way of improving their chances on the job market. 

In the coming months the two universities will be holding consultations about the joint future. The most obvious option would be to run joint programmes for PhD students. They could play a role by strengthening links between the two institutions and possibly teaching on Master’s courses. If things get that far, that is. Martin Kropff has every confidence in the new setup but he is cautious. ‘We will take things one step at a time. It is exciting to see whether we can get a joint MSc programme off the ground, and whether companies will really offer internships.’ It is important for motivation within the organization to remain strong too. ‘A lot depends on the continuing enthusiasm of our teachers.’    

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Frances Widjaja, 19, student of Chemistry and Biological Chemistry 

‘Professor Julia explains all the concepts very well and thoroughly, even if she isn’t here. To be honest, I quite like the teacher being on a screen. There is less of a barrier to asking questions than there is when I have to consult a teacher here. To me it’s more relaxed. 

In Singapore we normally have lectures of one hour, and you can only ask questions afterwards. Sometimes that is quite demanding and monotonous, especially if questions have piled up. Afterwards you can go up to the teacher with really burning questions. For the Wageningen course a lecture is split up into short video clips about aspects of the topic. You can review a video at any point or go back to a previously taught concept. That makes it easy to follow. I think my fellow students are coping with the tempo fine too. Outside the classes we talk with each other a lot to get a better grasp of the material. If questions come up during the week I look for the answer myself. If I can’t find anything, I put my question on the blog set up especially for the course. Thanks to that, the distance is no problem for me.

The Dutch learn in a very different way to us. In Singapore we learn chemical reactions off by heart and we do a lot of calculations. But the Dutch style focuses more on understanding concepts. I wouldn’t mind the teachers making more material available so we could learn more about the subject.’


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