Deserted campuses, lectures from the living room and uncertainty around when normal college life will return are just some of the ways Covid-19 has affected third-level institutions.
Despite what was an unprecedented challenge, particularly last March when the move to virtual teaching first began, those delivering postgraduate courses now seem to have found their rhythm. While the nuts and bolts of postgraduate life lectures and assignment deadlines continue, the pandemic has opened up new opportunities for colleges.
Despite the lack of face-to-face interaction, the move to online has resulted in increased student engagement, says professor of international business at Maynooth University (MU), Audra Mockaitis.
Students have been using the tools available through the online platforms, such as the “raise hand” function, to ask a question or using the chat function to type in comments or queries during the lecture.
“In the normal classroom all eyes are on you and you are speaking in front of an audience, but here, I guess they feel more comfortable ... A lot of our lecturers have noticed this trend at post-graduate level,” says Mockaitis.
The absence of a commute, or even having to walk to different buildings between classes, not only freed up a huge amount of time for students, but did so for lecturers, too. This has allowed them be more available to their students and to reach more of them than was previously possible. Zoom calls can be more easily organised and there is more time to respond to emails, while MU’s business school now hosts weekly “drop-in” sessions where staff are available to students for any queries. Working from home also means both students and lecturers can use their time more efficiently and effectively.
“Instead of bringing them into the classroom and giving them the information through a lecture, we are now able to post the lectures online and then meet with the students and talk to them more and develop ideas and exchange ideas more than we would have done had we been in person,” says Mockaitis.
People having more spare time has also had a positive impact on enrolment numbers on the Smurfit MBA programmes at UCD, and on Waterford Institute of Technology's part-time executive MBA course. "People are still very interested in doing an MBA, which is very heartening to see," says Sophie Carey, senior manager of UCD's MBA programmes. Their typical class size is 30 students but this year that has risen to 37, the highest in three years, while there has been huge turnouts online for their virtual open days and great interest in the MBA courses beginning later in the year. "The pandemic is not putting people off," she says.
At Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), Dr Tom Egan, the executive MBA course director, was apprehensive about how the pandemic, and the shift to online, would affect student numbers. However, like UCD, class numbers have remained strong, and about 20 per cent of this year's intake would not have joined had it been in a traditional setting, as work travel commitments would have prevented them from attending campus.
The simplicity of being able to connect online has also given institutions greater access to industry. Both UCD and MU have had industry leaders address their students from the US, something that would have been a logistical and financial challenge were they to come to Ireland to do so.
The pandemic has also allowed third-level institutions to innovate. In UCD a masterclass series was introduced outside of the core curriculum, which used the pandemic to discuss real-time issues with MBA students, such as global disruption, what leadership looks like in a pandemic, and the economy and Covid-19. UCD’s MBA students are taking part in a sustainability “hackathon” later this year, while MU’s international business students will engage in a project working in virtual teams with people from all over the world, on addressing sustainability issues. These projects, and the skills gained though the shift to online learning, will really stand to students when they enter the workplace, says Mockaitis, with colleagues interacting and working in teams together remotely from different countries.
Gaining new IT skills and becoming more digitally literate is one of the positives that MU postgraduate Nicole Carr (21), a first year professional masters of education (post-primary) student has found in the shift to online learning. She will welcome a return to campus and student social life, but she says the current situation "is convenient, as I have a space to do it and, as I'm really busy, I can go from one thing to the other with clicks rather than having to plan it all out if I was on campus".
As the students union postgraduate representative, however, Carr knows not everybody has the same experience as her. Some students she hears from don’t have a proper space to study in, have unreliable broadband and have experienced issues accessing library books. She also hears a lot from students questioning what their fees are being spent on this year as there are many on-campus services they cannot utilise, something that the union is hoping to get some clarity on from the university.
“There’s a lot of positives to it and a lot of negatives and that is just how it is in the online environment, and everyone’s experience is going to be completely different. But if you are thinking of doing a postgrad in a course you always wanted to do, you should take the risk. You never know, the online environment might favour you. There is lot of benefit to it as well as some downfall. If it was me, and it was me, I’d take that risk.”
Engagement with students throughout the pandemic has been key to making online learning work, says Carey. Keeping in touch with student reps to take temperature checks and gathering feedback on what works and what doesn’t has allowed her team to adapt to students’ needs. This has resulted in the MBA programme making some changes such as shorter class times, more pre-recorded material and providing additional virtual office hours.
While life on campus, particularly the social side of things, is missed, the positives of online learning are likely to lead to postgraduate courses taking a more hybrid approach with a mix of on- and off-campus learning.
“My view of executive education at MBA level going forward is that it won’t revert to face-to-face delivery for the majority,” says Egan, who sees WIT’s MBA course possibly taking the approach of half of the lectures being on campus and half being online. “Those that haven’t developed the ability to blend will suffer ... Students have crossed the Rubicon.”
Study at home tips
– If possible, have a dedicated study area that will help focus your mind and signify that you are now in study mode.
– Studying from home means you have to manage your time differently. In the absence of face-to-face contact, you may have to put more time into engagement with classmates (for groupwork and so on) or with lecturers.
– Make very small to do lists each day and tick them off as you complete them as seeing your own progress will help keep you motivated.
– Stay linked in to what is going on socially online. Even if you don’t want to attend every virtual event, just knowing the option is there can help make the lack of face-to-face interaction a little easier and it keeps you aware of upcoming events you might be interested in.
Tips from Audra Mockaitis, professor of international business at MU, and Nicole Carr, MU student and postgrad students union rep