Independent journalism about VU Amsterdam | Since 1953
22 February 2024

Science
& Education

Programma manager Silvester Draaijer and lab coordinator Nadia van der Pool

First aid for teachers

Educational innovations may sound like extra work, but they could actually help take off workload, the VU Education Lab believes. ‘There are so many possibilities many teachers don’t know about.’

The headquarter of the VU Education Lab in the NU building doesn’t look like your usual office space: it’s a large glass office with some curious objects scattered around: an upright box the size of a human, a robot that looks like a screen on a stick with wheels, some 3D-printed objects that look like they’re meant for sitting on. There are bureaus for the staff at the edges and a large open area in the middle where people can meet. 

That is what the VU Education Lab is intended to be: a meeting place. Any VU teacher who has questions about how to set up their teaching and assessment, how to use polls or knowledge clips to engage their students, how to compose reliable and valid tests, or anything else regarding education, can pop in. 

“We are there for any teacher who thinks: ‘Help, I don’t know how to do this’, lab coordinator Nadia van der Pool says. “Luckily, more and more teachers are finding us.” 

“Most of the time, there are people here who can help”, programme manager Silvester Draaijer says, “or at least they know to whom they can refer people.” 

Make life easier 

The lab is there to help teachers make their teaching more exiting, more engaging and more fun, often – but not always – with the use of technical innovations. And if teachers think: I don’t have time for that, it’s totally understandable, the average academic is beyond busy. “If your lectures are going well without any technical innovations, that’s fine”, Draaijer says, “but if you realize students are dozing off and should be activated during class and you don’t know how, we’re here to help you.” For VU teachers, the services are free.  

VU Education Lab

The VU Education Lab started four years ago, as a part of the Centre for Teaching and Learning. They have fifteen VU employees and fourteen student assistants and can be found in office 1A-25 in the NU building.

Educational innovations don’t only take time to implement, they also can make life easier for a teacher. Knowledge clips, for example, have the advantage that you don’t have to explain the same thing over and over again. Once recorded, you can use it for several years and students can replay it in their own time without bothering you as a teacher. Also, students can do part of the learning process amongst themselves by commenting on each other’s work in interactive documents, for example. 

No whiz kid 

You don’t have to be a whiz kid to use new technologies in your teaching. That’s exactly where the education lab comes in. It helps teachers find solutions they wouldn’t have come up with themselves and overcome technical hurdles, by helping organize sections and subgroups in Canvas, for instance. 

The lab also has a 3D printer, VR facilities and a studio for recording knowledge clips, vlogs or podcasts. When you book the studio, there are student assistants there to help you make a good quality recording. 

Teachers can also be helped using Mentimeter, a digital polling programme, to enhance active engagement of students in lectures, or with making interactive reading lists for students in Canvas. The lab also assists teachers who want their students to use video or audio for assignments. 

Goodbye, chalkboards 

The VU Education Lab doesn’t exclusively work for individual teachers, it also supports faculties in improving their education. “We join in meetings about the educational programmes at faculties”, Van der Pool says. “Since we have an overview of innovative approaches, we can sometimes come up with solutions faculty staff hadn’t thought of themselves.” One of the places new technologies have been brought into the curriculum is in anatomy courses, with the use of VR glasses.  

The lab also advises about the design of new classrooms. “In this building, for example, there are no chalkboards anymore. Initially, not everybody was happy with that”, Draaijer says. “Especially math teachers protested. They need space to write their formulas and the possibility to add things later on. In the smaller rooms, mobile chalkboards were re-installed. But for the big lecture halls, this was not sufficient. Eventually, we found a solution in a digital board with a very pen-board feeling touchscreen that is also projected on the large back wall. It includes a function to project multiple screens to double the writing surface. Math teachers tried and tested it and were happy with it.” 

ChatGPT as starting point 

The education lab has existed for four years. During Covid, it played a big role in supporting teachers in online teaching and assessment. This last year, many questions from teachers had to do with ChatGPT or other generative AI apps.  

“ChatGPT is fundamentally changing the academic world, since it’s almost impossible to know whether students hand in original work or used the help of AI in writing their assignments”, Draaijer says. 

The VU Education Lab lends their advice in the VU workgroup on AI. It supports the responsible and didactically sound use of generative AI, for example from a privacy and ethical point of view. In general, the use of these programmes for writing study assignments is not allowed at VU, but given the rapid development of AI-generated texts, it can sometimes be smarter to allow the use in a responsible way. 

“As a teacher, you can take ChatGPT as a starting point”, Draaijer says, “For example, you can ask your students what ChatGPT knows about a certain topic an ask them to explore the issue deeper from there, or to comment on what ChatGPT states about a certain topic.” 

No sensitive data 

The VU Education Lab has workshops for teachers on how to deal with AI in their teaching. Draaijer emphasizes that it is very important with generative AI that teachers try these programmes out themselves. Only then can they know what is and isn’t possible with the use of these technologies.  

Another important issue with AI language is the data you share with these systems. “Please, never give sensitive information as input”, Draaijer warns. “It is tempting to put your data in a generator and see which analysis it comes up with, but we don’t know where the data end up, so don’t do this with private or otherwise sensitive data.” 

Although in the academic world it’s considered fraud to let AI write your articles, it is allowed to let the machine help you improve the stuff you write. Writefull, for example, is a programme that checks your academic English. The education lab has made it available for students and staff.  

Testing ground 

At last, a function of the VU Education Lab is to be a testing ground for new gadgets, like the Holoconnects box – the human-sized box mentioned before – in which a virtual 3D version of a person can for example give a lecture. “We acquired it during Covid times”, Draaijer says, “anticipating use when everybody would come back to campus and our lecture halls would not be big enough.” 

Whether the Holobox has advantages over an ordinary screen? Draaijer isn’t sure yet: “We’re a lab after all, we try out new things. Not everything has to be put to immediate use. Trying things out gives inspiration and a good education system can’t do without that.” 

‘If you realize students are dozing off during lectures, we’re here to help’

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