How online learning can offer greater flexibility

What defines a high-quality online learning experience?

Any college can put a course online, but can every college do it well? While flexibility is key for students who choose online or blended learning, what defines a high-quality online learning experience?

“The Covid-19 crisis forced university staff and students alike to rapidly find new ways of working within an incredibly short space of time,” says Dr Kieran Meade, Associate Professor at the UCD School of Agriculture and Food Sciences.

“While we don’t tend to associate benefits with the pandemic, the changed work practices it precipitated has been welcomed by many. Flexible arrangements are now highly valued. The benefits are manifest from permitting personalised scheduling of learning and work around family time and a reduction in peak time traffic and consequential stress.”

Professor Martin Hayes, academic lead of the University of Limerick’s UL@Work programme, says that online learning technology-enabled learning at a pace and time that allows learners to develop their skills while continuing to work fulltime or manage other responsibilities.

“Online learning gives students the opportunity, if they so wish, to stack their credits towards the next professional qualification that is required for their individual upskilling journey,” he says.

“Online learning is moving away from the classical closed book terminal exam form of assessment toward a more continuous, activity-based approach to assessment that better reflects the day-to-day online work practices.”

Flexibility, however, is not necessarily the only consideration for potential online learning. Hayes says that students considering an online course should ask themselves some key questions:

1. Is the programme relevant to my upskilling requirements?

2. Will the programme help me pivot to that new job or role that I am considering, or maybe interested in applying for, in the near future?

3. Has the programme been developed with significant industry or enterprise involvement at the design stage? Are there strong testimonials from industry in relation to this particular programme meeting future skills needs?

4. Is the mix of live, recorded and forum based content that is provided right for my particular learning style?

5. My time is precious. Will I receive fast, focused, personalised feedback so that I know quickly that I am on the right path?

6. Is there a moderated community of practice that will facilitate me achieving the learning outcomes (become an expert) more quickly?

7. Is the workload manageable and will studying on this programme afford me the right work/life balance at this time?

8. In addition to the specific technical competences that I am in interested in attaining will this experience provide me with the transversal, power skills that are so valued by employers right now?

Even with all this, however, how can a student be sure that their course offers high-quality?

Kathy McLaughlin, learning technologist, both work at King’s Inns, says that their college uses technology not just to enable flexibility but also to allow students to review learning materials anytime they wish.

“Whether through the use of lecture capture software to record lecture content for consumption by the learner in their own time, through the delivery of live group learning sessions using videoconferencing software, or by making learning materials, including course manuals and lectures, available online via our virtual learning environment (Moodle), King’s Inns can deliver learning to students at a time, place and, importantly, a pace that suits them,” says McLaughlin.

“Such flexibility in the learning provision mainly serves individuals who need to fit their study around existing work commitments or those who live at a distance from [the college].”

Flexibility has particular benefits for disabled or neurodiverse students. Ellen McCabe is instructional designer on the iNOTE project for Atlantic Technological University, which is focused on building digital capability for flexible learning delivery in the west and northwest region.

“While offering flexibility in relation to time and location, online and flexible learning also provides students the opportunity to customise learning material and resources to their own particular needs and preferences,” she says.

“At Atlantic TU this has been maximised through the introduction of Blackboard Ally. Ally is an accessibility service that allows students to engage with learning resources in the original format uploaded by their lecturer or in an alternative format such as semantic html, audio, ePub, electronic braille and tagged PDF. In this way it allows students to personalise their learning experience while improving accessibility across the university.”

For Nuala McGuinn, director of the centre for adult learning and professional development at NUI Galway, traditional classroom modes or online learning both have the same function: to cater for the diverse learning needs of different students. This, she says, has always been the case.

“Support for learners in the online environment is critical,” she says. “It cannot be assumed that all learners are coping well and are at ease with the course materials. Making sure to build in opportunities for pastoral support of students or some ‘online coffee-like threads’ to check in and see how students are coping with the online environment, [is] important.”

Dr Morag Munro, Maynooth University Project Lead for the Irish University Authority’s Enhancing Digital Teaching and Learning Project, agrees.

“An interesting consequence of the move to remote learning and teaching during the pandemic is that, not only has it helped us to reflect on what can work well in respect of online and digital learning, it has also helped to remind us about what we value in respect of face-to-face teaching and the on-campus experience,” she says.