Johan Roeland is an Associate Professor of Media, Religion and Popular Culture at the Faculty of Religion and Theology and in recent months, like so many other teachers, he became acquainted with online education. Many of his modules had to be offered online entirely, including the course Introduction to Social Sciences that took place during the first corona wave. This course suddenly had to be altered: it had to be offered online.


“I had 1.5 weeks to change everything and set up an online version of the course. I was convinced that I shouldn’t try to do exactly the same as in previous years, but in an online version. I wanted to make good use of the digital tools that were available and of the fact that my students were scattered all over the country”. According to Johan, cutting and pasting on-campus lectures in an online setting does not work. A digital environment brings additional challenges: body language is difficult to read, interactivity is not always easy to stimulate and conversations are not conducted automatically.

Johan explains what adjustments he has made: “First of all, I changed my theme and focused on the corona crisis. In any case, the intention of this profession is to do research on concrete religious locations. But now the question has been changed into: How do these religious communities deal with the crisis and the new measures? And how do these communities work with different digital means? The research methods also changed. Conducting an interview online is very different from sitting in front of someone. Secondly, I took advantage of the fact that everyone was sitting at home. I had students do research in their own environment, so we all collected a lot of data and got a good idea of how the religious communities in the Netherlands reacted to the situation. Of course, students read a lot about research and in this way they contributed to it themselves”.

However, Johan not only changed the theme of his lectures, he also made adjustments to the form. For example, he made a lot of use of breakout rooms where different students could work together and chat. He also worked more with research groups, so students could het to know each other better and there would be more community building. Johan also made sure that students used the space in which they worked: “For example, I would say: “Look out the window, what do you see, what do you hear? I let them work embodied, instead of just sitting behind a screen”. In order to make sure that the students interacted and remained attentive, he occasionally provided some energizers. “That interactivity is very important to me. I no longer believe in the paradigm that lectures are knowledge transfer, they are a form of knowledge creation. Students need activating education in order to be challenged and to absorb the knowledge that is being treated, especially now”. Finally, Johan has designed the Canvas environment in such a way that it has a conscious flow. Step by step you will be introduced to the process of research, reading literature and being in contact with each other. This way there is more room for students to follow the course at their own pace, because not everyone always has a good internet connection or laptop at their disposal.

According to Johan, students were very positive about the course. They appreciated that he was able to switch so quickly and make the course online proof. They were also enthusiastic about Johan’s personal approach: “They liked that I took the time to ask them how they were doing. Every lecture I also provided a check-in where students in breakout rooms can talk to each other about how they are doing and what they are doing. I emailed students who were behind on their Canvas assignments asking if everything was going well and if they needed help with anything. They liked that too”.

A crucial factor for Johan in being able to switch quickly to digital education was that the VU had things in order: “There was already a good digital infrastructure with which we were quite ahead of other universities before the crisis: the fact that we had already made Canvas our own turned out to be a blessing and many digital tools were already available to us and we could therefore use them right away. So we already had a lot of experience with activating learning. In addition, the colleagues at SOZ, VU Network for Teaching and Learning and Learn! Academy were able to switch quickly and worked hard to shape online education.

In designing his online lectures, a community of learners consisting of a group of trainers and colleagues from various colleges and universities, whom Johan met at a conference in Croatia, proved invaluable. They regularly came together to share new insights and experiment with new educational tools. For them the following sources of inspiration proved to be very useful for teaching during the coronacrisis:

The art of gathering: how we meet and why it matters, by Priya Parker. This book is about the organization of meetings in a good way. Fundamental questions are included, such as: why do we sit together? What is the goal? What is the added value?

The power of ritual: turning everyday activities into soulful practices, by Casper ter Kuile. “This book has inspired me to stimulate personal contact among students and to do small ritual interventions in education that promote contact between students”.

A Transformative Egde: Knowledge, Inspiration and Experiences for Educators of Adults, by Ursel Biester & Marilyn Mehlmann (ed.). This is a handbook with numerous ideas on transformative learning. In this book many activating forms of work are discussed that can also be used in these digital times.