Online learning: a collaborative approach

What defines a high-quality online learning experience? We look at how student expectations are met.

The third-level experience is always evolving and changing. About two decades or so ago, it became particularly focused on what students want from a course.

I remember one lecturer - old school, highly experienced, beloved by students - who was wary of the university’s new focus on student feedback, and only handed out student evaluation forms with extreme reluctance. His view was that lecturers were the ones with experience, and that tailoring courses to what students want risked a dumbing down of standards. All this time later, it’s debatable as to whether his concerns were borne out but, as more and more courses move online, the student viewpoint is becoming even more important.

Dr Jen Harvey, assistant head of academic affairs for teaching and learning at TU Dublin, along with her colleague, digital education manager Dr Frances Boylan, say that students across Ireland, at primary, post-primary, third-level and beyond have all experienced some form of online learning as a result of the pandemic.

“Fully online courses are not for everyone,” Harvey and Boylan, who work together at TU Dublin, said. “Some students do not do well in that environment. Therefore, they should make sure that they understand the learning experience fully before enrolling and the level of responsibility they would have towards engaging and participating actively with the online content and activities.

“Over the last two years, TU Dublin has developed expertise and knowledge of what works: guides have been created for lecturing staff to help them build pedagogically sound online courses, incorporating multi-media and plenty of continuous professional development opportunities (both synchronous, asynchronous, and on-demand) are provided to support them in their efforts,” Harvey and Boylan said.

“In addition, an effort has encouraged a shift towards more authentic learning and assessment methods that will help prepare students for the world of work. These include more collaborative activities that support engagement with industry and the application of theory to practice.”

TU Dublin has been carefully gathering research and data into student perceptions of online teaching quality, with a particular focus on “Hybrid-Flexible” - shortened to “HyFlex”, a multi-modal instructional approach that allows students choose whether to attend classes face-to-face or online, whether at the same time or on their own time.

This research has allowed the university to see, from a student perspective, what works for them and why.

“The feedback showed that the students appreciated and liked the flexibility provided,” Boylan and Harvey say.

“They also recommend that this level of flexibility is retained going forward. From the students’ perspective, rigour and quality do not appear to have been impacted by the Hyflex approach, with 79 per cent of students seeing no impact and 70 per cent of the students not seeing any negative effects from joining a class online. The retention project (funded by the Higher Education Authority) explored student needs and perceptions of their pre/early orientation experiences and has, as a result, created a new student online portal for success and made changes to early orientation activities and processes.”

Griffith College Dublin also surveyed learners during Covid-19 to assess their perception of online teaching quality.

“Our learners, both full-time and part-time, consistently expressed their satisfaction and appreciation of the college’s move to online,” says Dr Tomás Mac Eochagáin, director of academic programmes at Griffith College.

“As COVID hit, we also moved our examinations online to protect learners’ health. This move was also welcomed and for most faculties has been continued despite the opportunity to return to on-campus examinations.”

Julie Ryan, head of customised and sectoral programmes at the Irish Management Institute (IMI), which provides a range of professional learning and development courses, says that the face-to-face learning model sometimes limits the capacity for senior executives to engage with learning opportunities.

“Virtual learning has changed that, greatly increasing the participation of these leaders - for example where commuting time has been eliminated – and opening more opportunities for these types of senior executives to benefit from virtual engagement with colleagues.

“It is important that participants feel they can undertake a very focused form of self-directed learning, one that is bite-sized. The persona and communication skills of the facilitator are central to participants getting the most out of the virtual classroom experience, with a more structured approach required.”

At the Technological University of the Shannon Midlands-Midwest (TUS), Seamus Hoyne, dean of flexible and workplace learning, says that student views and insights are a part of how programmes are developed and reviewed.

“This is both to determine the demand for the programme and the preferred mechanisms for delivery,” he says. “In particular, for flexible learning, engagement from potential students from industry is gathered and students are also part of the validation panels which are held to approve our programmes. Delivery modes are informed by multiple factors - including content, focus of programme and pedagogical best practice etc - as well as the needs of the student.

“Students will make decisions to sign up or undertake a flexible learning programme based on multiple factors such as careers needs, career changes, access, scale and scope of theprogramme, cost and work-life balance etc,” Hoyne says.

“An online delivery mode increases accessibility for many students but if the programme is not relevant to their specific needs the delivery mode will not be the ultimate decisive factor.”

The student viewpoint:

“I changed my career to work for a SAAS cloud booking software company, where I started in tech support, and then moved into sales. This is a remote position and allows me lots of flexibility to travel and surf. My interest was piqued when working for the current booking software company that I work for, so when I saw the opportunity to apply for the HDip in Computer Science at SETU Waterford campus, I went for it.

“Being able to work and also study this course remotely, has enabled me to keep up my passion for travelling, surfing and competing around the world. I feel that doing this course is going to open up more remote working opportunities for me in the future, so that I can continue to have this level of flexibility in my life. Also, so far, the course has enabled a better understanding of aspects of the current SAAS software that I currently work for too.

“If you work remotely, SETU Waterford campus is set up in the best possible way for remote teaching and learning, and even though it’s all online, you do get to meet and chat with new people on your course.”

  • Grace Doyle, SouthEast Technological University, Waterford campus

“I studied fully online, only meeting my classmates for the first time at graduation – it felt like finally meeting friends for those particular few I’d worked with closely on various modules and projects.

“You do get to know people quite well, even when you’re studying online. The programme I was doing [was a good] fit with my work life and I knew it would assist with my career, so for me staying focused and motivated was not an issue.

“Even so, it was still a challenge to balance home/social/work/study, so time management is important.

“But then, online study means no commute, so all the time given to achieving your chosen qualification can be spent on classes and assignments, not running between home, work and college.

“I have two pieces of advice: don’t hesitate to access the student support team if you need them, they really want students to progress and achieve and are a college resource available to you as a student – even online - just like the lecturers and the library and the more obvious study-related stuff; and, know why you are taking on this commitment and never lose sight of your goal.”

  • Anna O’Connor, PG Dip cybersecurity at National College of Ireland. O’Connor will continue onto a MSc in cybersecurity in 2022/23

Student wellbeing at Atlantic Technological University

Being a student can be stressful, which is why ATU has built digital interventions to support mental health, with a particular focus on students engaged in online or blended learnin

“Students, through their Moodle page, access practical well-being tips, support tools, and online counselling by engaging with the applications, to suit their timetable and meet their individual needs,” says Louise Kearins, online learning project manager at ATU.

“We have two digital mental health and wellbeing intervention programmes. The first of these is Epigeum’s Being Well, Living Well, a new online toolkit focused on the positive. The second is provided by Silver Cloud Health - the top digital mental health company in the world - a confidential online therapeutic and psychoeducation programme [where] students have access to eight weeks of internet-delivered cognitive behavioural therapy treatments.”

An ATU research student, Kelley Hester, is currently evaluating the efficacy of these programmes, and hopes to publish her findings later this year.