Mirko Tobias Schäfer / Assistant Professor
University of Utrecht Department for Media and Culture Studies

How we responded to the COVID-19    


In early March, I started preparing for a lock-down with simple activities, such as moving all meetings for a week online instead of meeting in real life. I did not share the motivation for it as I feared the team would think I am hysterical. When my son came down with a flu, I had a good excuse to stay in for the second week of March, working solely from home. In week two I also reached out to my two management team colleagues Iris and Karin, and we thought about how this would work for the entire team. Together with Sander, who runs all things infrastructure and tech at UDS, we drew up a document about how to go remote, listing the running research projects and courses, and what would be required to continue them online. We made an inventory of software solutions and platforms which would be available to assist our workflow.

Thinking in scenarios is something we are used to at Utrecht Data School. We don’t have fixed funding or long-term contracts, and oscillate between two very different environments, the dynamic knowledge economy and the academic world. That experience came in handy when things were unclear for basically everybody. We thought about two different scenarios which we dubbed UDS remote and UDS retreat. The latter would mean to scale back all operations and go into a state of hibernation. We dismissed that option quickly and went all in for the remote option.

The first four weeks were rather tactical, thinking on our feet about how to solve the most pressing issues at hand. We checked our balance and calculated for how long we could keep paying salaries and fund research activities. Next, our team members Tim and Britta developed three scenarios for our first upcoming teaching offering: UDS summer school offline in the usual form hoping the pandemic was over and all went back to normal, hybrid with limited seats in the classroom and other participants online, or online only. Just before May, prior to any official University decisions on the matter, we opted for the online only scenario and were reinventing our summer school.

Nobody knew how long the pandemic was going to affect public life, but after ten weeks and considering the news about reduced classroom capacity and limited public transport access for students, this felt less than a phase and more like a caesura. Since then, we were less concerned with the lock-down and COVID-19 but with the impact on higher education in general and the humanities in particular. The last crisis taught us that the humanities are hit significantly harder.

Communication and Participation

When the lock-down was announced we quickly invited the entire team to think along. We communicated clearly what we knew, what we thought we should do, and spoke about uncertain aspects and the unknowns. That enabled not only an open and honest conversation, it also allowed the individual members of the team to share their own thoughts and come up with ideas about how to tackle challenges together. A shared document became the starting point for joint effort to get through this crisis. It was experimenting in the first weeks and reviewed every week what had worked well and what was less effective. In Mattermost (like Slack but self-hosted) we had an ‘office channel’ where everybody checked-in in the morning stating what their plans were for the day. It was intended to emulate a feeling of working together on site, even if we were not; it also allowed to indicate whom of the team you would need to speak about projects, or just to share what you were working on. The person who felt that this was more panopticon than just co-operation used a bot for checking in and out, and after a while dropped the channel altogether. Teams, the default platform of our host institution, became a primary means of communication. Of course, it cannot replace the informal chats, the effective communication in a shared office space.

Beautiful things at Utrecht Data School often happen when people share their thoughts about what they are working on, start helping each other or come up with completely unrelated projects that frequently add meaningfully to our overall operations. This is very difficult to recreate if each encounter needs to be scheduled.

Community and Team Spirit

Our team, ranging between 14 and 20 members, is a tight group. Before the lock-down some of us were meeting regularly for boardgames, and for Dungeons & Dragons sessions. There were attempts to emulate these evenings. Our lunches at the office were a big thing prior to the lock-down. Some team members would bring their own hot sauce, sample self-made limoncello, or boast about hip culinary experiments. Sometimes, even team members not working that day would just drop in to join for lunch. Now, we met daily for lunch on Teams, and although not everybody is participating and some never joined, it became the way of meeting the team members and chatting about the most different things often unrelated to work. A spin-off of these meetings is the Mattermost channel Quarantine Bites where members shared recipes depicted in Instagram-worthy photography. Our students met weekly for a chat with Iris about the progress in their respective internship projects and to gossip about life at UDS. These meetings continued seamlessly online.

Our Epic Meme Contest hit a nerve and led to a creativity boost filling our Mattermost with the most witty, sarcastic, at times mean and snarky but always funny memes. It became an outlet for dealing with the more frustrating aspects of the lock-down and the uncertainty of what might come after. But most importantly, it brought the team together in a mode of communication that carried shared experience, common signifiers, and creative ways of expressing them. Someone came up with a chain-card challenge, and since then postcards travel from one team member to the next with inspiring assignments and the witty, creative and inspiring contributions of previous recipients.

After a while, members felt too confined in their homes, and once the regulations were eased, they immediately met up for a chat in real life, of course minding the social distancing rules.

Actual Work: Teaching

While teaching moved online practically overnight, it was mostly compromise and damage control. We tried to offer the courses online to the best of our abilities, but they were a far cry from an online course. The teaching was very much rendered to meeting in physical space. Increasingly, it became clear that we won’t go back to offline teaching for the foreseeable future. As media scholars, we are aware that we cannot simply move content from one medium to another without adapting the format. Audio-recording your one-hour lecture onto a PowerPoint might not be too well received by students, but it does the job during the first weeks of the crisis. We now must develop course formats that are didactically appropriate for our learning objectives. We need to develop effective ways of how students and instructors can connect. Of course, we should thoroughly reflect what this shift means for higher education and for media studies in the years to come. But as a small group, our agency here is limited to our own teaching (and research). We felt left alone by leadership in both, rethinking pedagogy to be appropriate for online teaching and in decision making concerning this shift. So far, we are busy remodelling the courses we teach, starting with our summer school and our practicum. We promoted Joris to our chief education online (CEO), and again put together a shared document with all the elements of our teaching and how to translate them into online modules. Again, the team effort in rethinking our teaching in the light of the expected online teaching led to creative and promising results.

Also, more profane things such as basic technology requirements came to our attention. A second display appeared to be necessary for basically all of our activities now, from producing online content to online collaboration; and so are ethernet cables or wifi boosters to improve internet connection, microphones for better sound quality, and camera’s for better video quality. These things were also part of our ongoing exploration of moving teaching activities online and resulted in an inventory of the various options of tech equipment.

As of now, we focus on asynchronous teaching formats where we provide videos, readings and exercises for students to work with, and organize meetings online for joint discussion, tutoring, and peer feedback. Creating all this new content also promises opportunities to re-use it in different contexts, e.g. in online courses or presentations for professionals or external partners. We already use some of the videos for webinars that we now provide to external partners instead of the lectures we gave before the lock-down.

As meetings on campus are not possible or very limited, it also makes sense to open courses immediately for wider audiences, such as students from other universities and professionals, or even to share efforts with other programmes teaching similar courses.

Actual Work: Research

We decided not to participate in any of the quickly emerging COVID-19 related research. We thoroughly lack the expertise in the relevant fields to make a meaningful contribution. We declined to participate in attempts to map the spread of symptoms or to analyse the various open data available. We did participate in public debates about the use of Corona apps as this topic relates to our own work in the field of critical data studies and to our work on tool criticism.

Participatory observation using our own impact assessment for data projects is essential for us to collect data about how organisations deal with ethical challenges in data projects and algorithms. As these impact assessments could not take place, Iris and Marjolein developed a remote version of our process. In May we started testing it, and since then we noticed that it is more effective in documenting the process, and most interestingly that we can also offer it outside our own region. Earlier in June we had the first presentation of our impact assessment at a German university and we plan to roll out DEDA German before summer. Another ethnographic method that is less applicable under COVID rules was the DataWalk. Karin turned it into a DataScan to be carried out at home. Students will use it in the coming term to reflect on how datafication manifests in their homes and devices.

Our comparative analysis of implementing data projects in public management was highly affected by the COVID-19 crisis. At some municipalities projects were discontinued at others things continued slowly. Carrying out interviews was a challenge. Nevertheless, the David, Sander and Roos quickly turned the on site field research into interviews conducted online.  As some projects were on halt, we used the downtime for other things. We hired Nienke, an expert for copy editing some of the manuals that accompany our products developed in the DataWorkplace, we finished and submitted papers that were actually long overdue, and dived again into the particularities of the GDPR’s implementation and research practices. And, our German intern Nelly used the downtime to translate DEDA into German.

Looking Back...

In retrospect, those weeks were a rollercoaster ride, with emotions boiling up sometimes about all the challenges. I have made some mistakes along the way, too. But all in all, this was a very exciting and rich experience. The team did its utmost best to function as a team. We supported each other not only in getting our work done, but also in coping with the challenges of the lock-down. Most importantly, we did not allow the crisis to paralyze us. We also did not wait for our host institution to take the lead. Rather we looked for creative coping mechanisms, tried to seize opportunities, were not afraid to fail, and made sure to learn from past mishaps.

...And Forward

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, they say. We take away so many important lessons. Our office space was always too small for the size of our team. We are positive that the experience of remote working helps us to develop a modus operandi to collaborate effectively with team members who are off site. We also see many opportunities to cooperate closer with colleagues from other universities and other organisations.

Having developed our main products and services as remote versions, we now want to seize the opportunity to expand our research activities into the neighbouring countries.

We are certainly not in favour of the prospect of teaching online, however, creating all these online courses provides us with the opportunity to use them modularly, cater to new target groups and to cooperate with other higher education organisations in teaching.

Most importantly, this crisis has put our resilience to a test. It showed us that our entrepreneurial way of conducting research provides many strengths and opportunities. Not only because of the relatively autonomous funding, but more importantly how it enabled us to react quickly and creatively to the challenges we were facing.

Date July 2020 Category News

As we are gradually coming out of this lock-down, it is time to look back on how the COVID-19 crisis has affected our work at Utrecht Data School (UDS) so far, and what we learned from it. It has been a challenging, but also a fascinating experience. And we noticed that the crisis also provides many opportunities. The following post is a summary of what we have learned on the way.

2000 - 2022 Mirko Tobias Schäfer

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