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How Academic Teachers Dealt With The Sudden Transition to Online Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Overview of Three Master Thesis Projects

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a shift from face-to-face education to online education was made rapidly. Teachers at Utrecht University teachers had – like the whole higher education sector – to switch to distance education in a couple of days’ time. Three students from the master program Educational Sciences at Utrecht University have investigated how academic teachers dealt with the sudden transition to online education. In this article, they summarize the findings from each of their master theses.

Emergency Remote Teaching

The rapid shift to online education during the COVID-19 pandemic can be described as Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT). ERT is caused by a crisis situation and contains a short-term shift to an alternate instructional delivery mode. ERT can be distinguished from an ordinary transition to online education, because ERT reveals a more sudden and unplanned transfer to an online, distanced education model (Hodges et al., 2020). For academic teachers this rapid transition required adaptability and forced them to redesign their curriculum and teaching (Green et al., 2020). Whereas normally in higher education instruction would be delivered in face-to-face settings, during the COVID-19 pandemic it was mostly delivered online. In the master theses, how academic teachers dealt with ERT was explored using three different foci.

What made teachers succeed? (Thessa Drijver)

During COVID-19 teachers had to adapt, out of necessity, to the situation of ERT. Academic teachers who were able to do this in an effective manner can be seen as experts in adaptation. Knowledge influences someone’s ‘adaptive expertise’. In a qualitative study fourteen interviews were held with academic teachers about what knowledge has guided them in making certain teaching decisions during ERT. From these interviews it became clear that the teachers’ knowledge on learning theories (e.g. self-determination theory), their personal preferences (e.g. to teach with a whiteboard), and their knowledge on how to teach (e.g. how to use the tool MS Teams) has supported them during the transition to ERT. Furthermore, knowledge from other sources (e.g. colleagues) and practicalities (e.g. the license of Mentimeter will expire) played a role in teaching decisions during ERT.

What support helped teachers? (Esther Schut)

Teachers’ experiences during ERT can help us to get a better understanding of what types of support can help teachers in different types of circumstances. In a qualitative study support for teachers during ERT was further explored with interviews with twelve academic teachers and an additional focus group with four faculty developers. The results show that academic teachers are in need of support in times of ERT. The most important types of support are organised activities (e.g. organised courses), meetings with colleagues (e.g. brainstorming and sharing ideas) and one-on-one meetings (e.g. targeted questions and sharing experiences). Teachers’ support needs also changed over time: in the beginning they needed support that was mostly instrumental and technical in nature and after a few months they needed support for more fundamental questions as well as specific topics related to online education.

What impact did ERT have on teachers? (Michelle Kromojahjo)

Do teachers see themselves and their work differently if their work context suddenly changes dramatically? This question was investigated in a qualitative study about professional identity of academic teachers in the context of ERT. Interviews were conducted with thirteen academic teachers to create an understanding of teachers’ identity by exploring their self-image, task perception, and sense of competence. Findings show that for self-image and task perception there only was a shift in the way in which these aspects emerged. Teachers still have the same self-image and task perception or even realized some aspects gained importance. However, the way they could act on it differs for the online situation – they had to use different methods. Teachers’ sense of competence was not affected by ERT or was even positively affected. However, teachers did feel less competent at some moments during ERT.


All master theses show that that although the sudden transition to online education was extremely stressful, academic teachers also learned from it. Their learning is not so much related to a change in ideas about what they consider to be important in education, but more to finding ways to put this into practice a new mode of education being fully online. To enable teachers to adapt to ERT or to other unexpected circumstances, the theses suggest that it important to foster their abstract knowledge (e.g. learning theories) and self-knowledge (e.g. what kind of teacher do I want to be). When adapting to new situations, teachers may also benefit from support that is tailored to their needs at that time. Interaction with fellow teachers was identified in all studies as particularly important. This can be facilitated at individual, group and organizational level, both in formal and informal settings.

More information?

The full theses by Thessa Drijver, Esther Schut and Michelle Kromojahjo are available at the Utrecht University Repository. Additionally, all theses are accompanied with additional products to disseminate the findings: Thessa has created an interactive presentation in Gather town, Esther has made a infographic and Michelle has made a podcast about her research.

This article was written by Thessa Drijver, Michelle Kromojahjo and Esther Schut. Their research was supervised by dr. Rouven Hagemeijer and dr. Mayke Vereyken from the department of Education, in cooperation with Esther van Dijk and Rik Vangangelt from the Centre for Academic Teaching.

Rik Vangangelt
18 October 2021

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