Meet our Researchers: PhD Student Tim van der Zee

What can a teacher do to help students learn online successfully and stay motivated? Universities are heavily committed to online education, so research into this new subject is most welcome. Tim van der Zee, who started working as a PhD Student at CEL in May 2015, will be tackling this pioneering work.

His research is part of the broader-based CEL research programme that focuses on student engagement and achievement in online higher education. Tim focuses on the role of the teacher in open online education.

Tim: ‘I just finished my Master’s in Psychology of Human Learning and Performance at Erasmus University Rotterdam this spring, and I was looking for a PhD position where you can do good research into fundamental questions with practical relevance.’

This post was exactly what he was looking for: ‘With online education you can reach a large number of people, even those in remote areas. So it is certainly relevant. And what is more fundamental than human learning? So I was very happy to be selected.’

I intend to do theory-driven research’, Tim says. ‘Because a conceptual framework for online teaching is still lacking. Classical teaching is often simply replicated to online teaching. There is too little focus on structural differences.’

He has already identified a possible approach: ‘A teacher at the front of the classroom is there in person, but at the same time he is his own instrument. In online teaching, this connection is sometimes lost. That is something we have to carefully think about.’

‘When I started out studying psychology, my original idea was to study clinical psychology because I wanted to help people’, Tim says. ‘But when I was writing my bachelor thesis, I discovered that I loved doing research even more and also that I was good at it.’

When I was doing my Master’s, I was lucky to be involved in several research projects carried out in Erasmus Medical Centre, as a research assistant and later on also as a co-author. These were all projects in my own field, Human Learning and Performance, focusing on clinical reasoning and acquiring clinical expertise. My Master’s thesis was about the question how well interns can estimate the correctness of their own diagnoses.’

One of the things that I learned there, being a social scientist working in a medical setting, was working in a multidisciplinary environment. I liked that very much and I hope to be able to contribute to bringing different research cultures together.’

‘So the other good thing about doing a PhD within CEL is that this is such a multidisciplinary environment. I will be working alongside education experts, psychologists, IT specialists, engineers, and policymakers in three universities. And with the online teachers themselves, of course. I think it is wonderful that three universities work together to make university education better, both locally and globally.’