Online learning - making sure the glove fits

How are classes designed for each subject? Can we be sure that off-the-shelf courses are suitable for individual courses? How do you know that you are only being fed old course content?

For a lot of people - if not most of us - online learning is still quite new.

Maybe you are used to learning in a classroom. Perhaps you got your degree by going in and out of college while chatting to your classmates and getting involved in the clubs and societies.

Blended or fully online learning can feel like a very different proposition - so how can you be sure that the glove fits, with the right course content for your needs delivered in a way that will work for you?

We wanted to get a feel for how course design works, without boring you with the ins and outs of all the boxes that the various course providers must tick in order to get accreditation from Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), the statutory agency with responsibility for the external quality assurance of further and higher education and training in Ireland.

At Griffith College, Dr Tomás Mac Eochagáin, director of academic programmes, says that the Covid-19 pandemic saw the college move to online delivery for many programmes.

“We used the exact same schedule in relation to contact teaching hours. Learners attend online at the same time as they would in-person and can see and interact with the lecturer live. Lecturers similarly see the learners as they would in a physical class.

“Being able to record the classes and have them available as resources for review and revision purposes provides a great support for learners, allowing them to revisit material as they choose.”

Dr David Shepherd, dean of undergraduate studies at Trinity College Dublin, says that teaching and learning approaches vary based on the nature of the discipline and the needs of the student, whether online or in person.

“Professional development is available for teaching staff at Trinity on how to design for learning in an online or blended context. All classes form part of modules and broader programmes and as such are carefully designed to enhance student learning as they progress through their programmes.”

How can students know that they are not simply being fed old course content and that the course is tailored for online learning?

“Our students [are] partners in learning rather than empty vessels to be filled with content,” Shepherd says. “Trinity students experience a research-led curriculum and a dynamic learning environment. Some core content does not need to change from year to year, but teaching and learning experiences and resources flow from cutting-edge research and are updated regularly to reflect this.”

In 2021, Trinity Teaching and Learning, led by Dr Pauline Rooney, conducted a large research study which explored student and staff experiences of digital teaching, learning and assessment during the pandemic.

Shepherd says that this is informing teaching and learning at Trinity.

“Our research suggests that Trinity students prize flexibility and inclusivity as core features of teaching and learning regardless of ‘where’ teaching happens - whether online or in person. Perhaps for this reason, many Trinity students are keen to continue to experience a ‘blend’ of online and in-person teaching and learning.

“Our research [also] indicates broad agreement between staff and students on the benefits of blended learning. Careful curriculum design is always a key enabler of enriched learning, but particularly so in a blended context. Trinity is actively encouraging close collaboration between staff and students to ensure that the best features of digital teaching, learning and assessment during the pandemic can be embedded in a more “normal” teaching environment as we move forward.”

A good learning environment should be agile and responsive to the needs of students.

At the South-East Technological University (SETU), for instance, courses including the management of occupational stress and wellbeing - a 20-credit course delivered over two semesters - students watch on-demand classes weekly, and there’s a one-hour support class they can join if they have any questions.

All colleges will update course content every year so, while a lecturer might be extremely busy designing a course in its first year, tweaks, changes and updates in the following years will generally suffice to keep it up-to-date.

A traditional in-person lecture generally involves the lecturer talking, usually using slides or other mediums such as video or audio clips, with the students generally sitting passively. A traditional tutorial, meanwhile, is generally much more interactive, with students in the same physical room discussing and teasing out ideas with their tutor. Online, this is upended.

“Online classes provide a democratic environment where everyone has a front row seat – no one is ‘at the front’ and no one is ‘at the back’ of the class,” says Mac Eochagáin.

“Having everyone’s first name visible also allows early identification and familiarisation of classmates to all. Using the ‘raise hand’ facility creates an ordered means of question and answer management.

“The ‘chat’ function allows for parallel supportive interaction during classes with the break-out rooms providing direct sharing and development of ideas amongst smaller learner groups, allowing classes to become active learning workshops. For example, splitting a class of 30 learners into five groups of six in a physical room makes for a very noisy room when each subgroup starts sharing ideas. Being able to group people instantly into separate break-out groups online without the distraction of others is very helpful.”

But online learning won’t work for every course, and sometimes there’s a real need to be on site. This is particularly the case for science or health courses that require lab experiments, but it also applies to some creative courses.

“Film-making and drama production typically require in-person on-site group involvement that is hard to replicate or simulate online,” says Mac Eochagáin. “During COVID, group-based elements of these programmes were scheduled when public regulations permitted.”

On the other hand, some courses that you may never have thought possible to deliver remotely were a surprise.

“Prior to the pandemic, the college’s certificate in music production for games was delivered on-campus,” says Mac Eochagáin. “However, during COVID, lecturers and learners proved that it could be delivered equally well online with learners having access to all the software resources and equipment from their own homes / recording studios. Participation rates from across the country increased greatly as learners from Cork and Donegal could join classmates from Dublin without the need for travel.”

How a course was designed: MSc in machine learning for finance at the Kemmy School of Business, University of Limerick

A flexible, multidisciplinary digital course which integrates quantitative finance and applied artificial intelligence, the course has been designed to suit busy, full-time professionals who are looking to upskill.

The curriculum was designed where the journey usually ends for the student: with the financial services employers.

In developing the programme, the course team - Dr Barry Sheehan, Prof Finbarr Murphy, Dr Darren Shannon, Dr Martin Cunneen and Erin King, found that there was considerable industry demand for applied technical and quantitative skills blended with strong financial knowledge.

Combining this with knowledge of skills shortages helped them to identify the most crucial learning outcomes and technologies for the modules.

The focus is on flexible lecture delivery and assessment, delivered primarily by recorded online lectures and supported by tutorials, assignments and live webinars in the evenings (typically non-mandatory sessions once a week).

The course exposes students to complex, real-world finance and computer science problems and asks them to propose solutions.

The course designers say that, given the isolated nature of distance-based online learning, they wanted the course to integrate an interactive and student-centred environment into the modules, which was achieved by embedding student interaction on forums, assessment collaboration and peer-review as well as webinar group discussions, into assessment.

For instance, in the capital markets and corporate finance module, the class commences the weekly webinar with a group discussion about the past week in international finance, encouraging them to stay on top of current affairs, which is vital for any leadership role in quantitative finance.