As the Irish third tier sector prepares for a return to campus this autumn, it will do so after two years of near-constant adjustment and change.
In March 2020, as the country prepared to enter lockdown, universities, colleges and schools were forced to adopt an unprecedented and nearly universal transition to what for many was an unfamiliar online format.
Access to an internet connection and a device such as a tablet, PC or laptop meant that students could attend virtual classes, access study materials and complete the online course assessment, regardless of their location.
Or at least that was the theory.
The move to the Internet has brought its own problems. Inequitable access to technology and broadband has exposed a digital divide that disproportionately affects low-income and rural students.
The urgent nature of the shift to online learning also meant that not all institutions had enough staff or instructional design processes in place to maximize the potential offered by online learning.
Professor Mark Brown, director of the National Institute for Digital Learning at Dublin City University, says there is “no doubt” the pandemic has been “a watershed moment” for online learning.
However, a “strong tendency” to mimic the face-to-face experience of the traditional classroom as much as possible means that the lessons learned from distance learning over many years have not always been applied.
“This point is highlighted by the rapid pivot to replace lectures with live synchronous classes (where everyone attends class at the same time) using platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams,” says Professor Brown .
One of the ‘less desirable legacies’ of the pandemic, he says, was moving away from the more flexible ‘asynchronous approach’ where students could engage ‘at their own pace and at their own pace’. .
“Such flexibility has always been the hallmark of well-designed online distance education, especially for students studying part-time while juggling the demands of full-time work,” he said.
But now that so many have had a taste of the virtual classroom, could the gains made during the pandemic be scaled up to further improve the quality of online teaching and learning?
According to Professor Brown, more and more people are now seeing the potential: “There is evidence that more and more people across Ireland, and beyond, are now aware of how online learning can allow them to continue learning while earning money”.
“The demand for online learning continues to grow after the pandemic. However, the challenge remains to harness the potential of new synchronous live platforms in ways that go beyond simply delivering large blocks of digital content over the Internet to relatively passive learners.
A good online course is not just about watching the course and taking notes. It should be cognitively stimulating and student participation should be central.
“The key point is that good e-learning requires high levels of student interactivity. It remains to be seen whether the traditional model of lecture-based delivery continues to dominate e-learning design in the era. post-pandemic,” says Professor Brown.
“If this is the case, which is arguably the most likely outcome, then unfortunately the pandemic could be doing the future of online learning a huge disservice.
“A related point is that we are seeing signs of the ‘whitewashing’ of online learning as a mode of lower education, as higher education institutions place a renewed emphasis on location-based education.
“To some extent, institutions are moving away from online learning in response to the pandemic and the less than ideal experience of emergency distance learning.”
Course development, design and delivery are all essential to the design of a successful educational program and many higher education students are eager to explore new opportunities to enhance the educational experience.
“We know conclusively from the research literature that learning design is fundamental to the effectiveness of the student experience,” says Professor Brown.
“If there is a positive legacy from the pandemic, it is a greater appreciation of the need for more intentional learning designs that are fit for purpose based on desired outcomes, types of students, particular discipline, etc.”, he says. .
“As a result, there is now an increased demand for specialist learning designers who can help teachers harness the potential of new digital education models,” he added.
At Atlantic Technological University (ATU), which offers more than 150 e-learning and flexible part-time courses, staff are increasingly using online technology in their daily classes.
“Since the pandemic, staff have come to see the virtual learning environment (VLE) as an educational tool as well as an important interface and communication tool for student engagement,” a spokesperson said. .
“ATU has an extensive portfolio of flexible, online learning programs that have been designed specifically for the purpose of online learning,” the spokesperson said.
New technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) have the potential to make field trips, lab experiences and work experience more accessible and pilot projects are underway at the department of nursing care where the potential use of virtual reality in the field of nursing skills training is being explored.
Time will tell whether the shift to online learning will be seen as a milestone in the development of higher education or little more than a short-term emergency measure designed to deal with a health crisis.
Meanwhile, institutions are increasingly offering a variety of online, hybrid and on-campus course options at the third level, but issues around broadband access and availability will continue to be a challenge. factor.
“While it is true that new digital technologies have opened up more accessible routes for studies and higher education, we must not overlook the fact that poor internet access remains a problem, especially in rural areas of ‘Ireland’, says Professor Brown.
Another concern is that old teaching methods could hinder progress.
“How will the traditional course delivery model fit into the new Metaverse?” asks Professor Brown.
“We have the opportunity to reinvent traditional teaching models, but it remains to be seen if we are brave enough to do so and challenge ourselves to embrace online learning as part of the future and of the next normal in higher education.”