Online together

You can hardly open an email, internet page or newspaper, or switch on the television or radio without a reference to COVID-19. So does this column. The virus has changed both your daily life as a student and our lives as teachers and researchers considerably. Written by: Anne Balter

Just after the first measures against COVID-19 were put in place in the Netherlands, block 4 started. Suddenly we had to switch to online education. As coordinator of the first-year Bachelor course “Introduction to Finance and Actuarial Science”, I recorded the lectures in short videos from my bedroom and we interacted online. Now, during the elective master course “Empirical Finance”, we also have live Q&A sessions which increase the direct interaction. Interruptions from you during a teacher’s monologue is what makes teaching most enjoyable, at least for many of us. When you raise questions, we perform at our best. Answering and clarifying a particular issue confirms your genuine interest to understand a specific topic.

On discussion forums or in the chat of live sessions via which you could raise questions about the homework or lectures, the answers are sometimes provided by your fellow students, even before we have had a chance to view it. Passive listening has proven to be a less effective way of learning and less efficient in terms of the percentage of material remembered. At the top of the learning pyramid, we can find the act of explaining something to someone else. Therefore, when you explain something in the chat or forum you are actually helping both your fellow students and at the same time learning the best you can yourself.

Some things, however, have not changed when comparing in-person and online education. When an on-campus class is over, some of you stay a bit longer and approach the lecturer to ask questions about the material or to ask the lecturer’s opinion about related discussions such as financial investment decisions or the pension reform. It appears that this behavior also exists online. While lingering around until the online meeting is closed, some of you turn on their microphone when the crowd is getting smaller.

With respect to group size, the smaller the group, the greater the feeling of connectedness. From the five senses that Aristotle proposed, you can easily increase the connection by turning on your camera. Perhaps surprising to some of you is the value of simple body language like nodding when you understand or shaking your head when you do not. Furthermore, hearing a different voice and in particular raising your questions out loud creates a fresh sound. This makes us feel that we are not completely alone sitting next to our bed or in the kitchen, talking to a screen with a list of names.

To increase the quality of the online classes, both innovation and active participation are important. Since the beginning of the 21st century, information technology has been growing rapidly and it has brought us to where we are now. This advancement has created an apparent contradiction: it allows us to study and work in the current circumstances but at the same time life has become more individualistic.

Will this COVID-19 period with a relative lack of social interaction lead to higher rates of mental illness or do we learn from it and does it make us happier eventually? Even before COVID-19, society and in particular younger generations were increasingly relying on online rather than face-to-face interaction. COVID-19 might help us realize that our lives were becoming too digitalized and lonely, and we might crave for down-to-earth physical meetings.

A student life without parties, without making new friends, or exploring the world stagnates the process of developing independence and discovering oneself and others. Can you as an econometrician test whether we are at a structural break in the growth process of individualism? Or will you yourself make the regime shift significantly?

Anne Balter is an assistant professor at the Department of Econometrics and OR and a senior research fellow at Netspar. Her research interests include mathematical finance, in particular robust portfolio problems, pension economics, and real options.

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