A well-known stumbling block in the natural and social sciences is the wide variety in the quantitative skills levels of the first-year student intake. VU University Amsterdam aims to address this situation with a project called ‘MOOCs and webinars as preparation for growing knowledge, with digital assessment as a tool for feedback and contact’. In the summer of 2016, incoming students were able to prepare themselves via an online summer school in basic mathematics.
The online summer course was developed for the student intake on VU’s three programs for economics, business administration and international business administration. As expected, setting up the architecture for an online school was no easy task. We spent a lot of time thinking about communication, because the average student on these 3 programmes is not particularly keen on maths. Most of them see it as as bit like going to the dentist: it’s annoying but it’s something you sadly have to do. So, to encourage them to take part in the online summer course, we set up a separate website with professional advertising clips for each of the programmes and worked closely with the PR department. The course was configured on the SOWISO platform and enriched with video clips.
The number of students who took part in the diagnostic test that preceded the summer course exceeded expectations. Through a great deal of publicity using all possible channels, we managed to get 485 out of the 635 incoming students to take a diagnostic test. Of these, 342 were recommended to take the summer course (70 per cent). Ultimately, 170 students enrolled for the course. As a result, the study association Aureus, which organises coaching on campus over the summer, saw a drop in applications.
It is noticeable that very few students completed the full online course and, although the first term is already under way, we are currently seeing a significant increase in activity on the site. We know from experience, however, that the maths that is taught in term 1 is too tough for students to be able to brush up on their basic knowledge in parallel. This confirms our suspicions that, in spite of all the warnings, too many students don’t realise that they will have problems if they don’t prepare themselves properly. On the other hand, it’s quite understandable: you’ve just finished your school exams and you’re looking forward to the summer holidays…. and then someone asks you to do extra work on a subject that you really don’t like.
What we can learn from this for the future, is that we must continue to encourage prospective students to take the opportunity of an online summer course.
The structure of the online summer course is such that it can easily be adapted for other courses, especially since it takes cultural differences into account. For example, on average, students on programmes such as econometrics and chemistry have far more affinity with mathematics, so you wouldn’t have to focus so much on PR and encouraging students to take part. For students on other programmes, such as psychology or social sciences, on the other hand, this is likely to be more of a problem.
Over the course of this project we have collected three types of data: (1) data from the student secretariat, (2) data from VU PR and (3) data from the SOWISO platform. Over the next few years, we want to link the data from this project to the grades achieved by students. We hope that by combining often dissimilar data from multiple sources we can achieve new and unexpected insights.
Innovation scheme: Digital assessment for Customised education
This project is one of the 9 projects in SURFnet’s innovation scheme Digital assessment for customised education. Under this scheme, between 1 July 2015 and 1 July 2016, higher education institutions experimented with the use of digital assessment for the creation of customised education, with a view to improving the quality of teaching and to devising learning processes that better match lecturers’ and students’ requirements.
Halfway through the scheme, the project managers each wrote a blog about the progress of their project. In this latest blog they describe the results and the lessons learned from their experiments. Read the first blog on this project.
About the author
Ines Lindner is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Econometrics and Operational Research at VU University in Amsterdam. She is researching the implementation of MOOCs and webinars in an online summer school, using digital assessment as a tool for feedback and contact.