Will online education become the ‘next new normal?’

Inequitable access to technology and broadband continues to be an issue

As the Irish third-level sector calibrates itself for a return to campus again this autumn, it will do so following two years of near constant adjustment and change.

In March 2020, as the country prepared to go into lockdown, universities, colleges and schools were forced into an unprecedented and nearly universal move 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 students could attend virtual classes, access study materials, and complete the course’s online assessment regardless of their location.

Or at least that was the theory.


The move to online brought with it its own problems. Inequitable access to technology and broadband highlighted a digital divide that disproportionately affects low-income and rural students.

The urgent nature of the shift to online also meant that not all institutions had sufficient instructional design staff or processes in place to maximise the potential offered by online learning.

Professor Mark Brown, Director at the National Institute for Digital Learning at Dublin City University says there is “no doubt” that the pandemic was “a watershed moment in time” for online learning.

However, a “strong tendency” to emulate as closely as possible the face-to-face experience of the traditional classroom meant that lessons learned from Distance Learning over many years were not always applied.

“This point is evidenced by the rapid pivot to replace lectures with live synchronous classes (where everyone attends the 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 a move away from the more flexible “asynchronous approach” where students could engage “at their own pace and in their own time.”

“Such flexibility has always been a hallmark of well-designed online distance education, especially for students who are studying part-time whilst 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 achieved during the pandemic be developed to further improve the quality of online teaching and learning?

Prof Brown says more people now see the potential: “there is evidence that more people throughout Ireland, and beyond, are now aware of how online learning can allow them to continue to learn as they earn.”

“The demand for online learning continues to grow post-pandemic. However, the challenge remains to harness the potential of new live synchronous platforms in ways that move beyond merely delivering large blocks of digital content down the Internet to relatively passive learners.”

A good online course is not just about watching the lecture and taking notes. It should be cognitively challenging and student participation should be a core element.

“The key point is that good online learning requires high levels of student interactivity. It remains to be seen whether the traditional lecture delivery model continues to dominate the design of online learning in the post-pandemic era,” says Prof Brown.

“If this is the case, which is arguably the most likely outcome, then unfortunately the pandemic may do a great disservice to the future of online learning.

“A related point is that we are seeing signs of the “whitewashing” of online learning as an inferior mode of teaching as higher education institutions are placing renewed emphasis on place-based education.

“To some degree, institutions are distancing themselves from online learning as a reaction to the pandemic and the far from ideal experience of emergency remote teaching.”

Course design

Course development, design and delivery are all key to the design of a successful educational programme and many in higher education are keen to explore new opportunities to improve the educational experience.

“We know conclusively from the research literature that learning design is fundamental to the efficacy of the student experience,” says Professor Brown.

“If there is one positive legacy from the pandemic, it’s a better appreciation of the need for more intentional learning designs that are fit-for-purpose according to the desired outcomes, types of students, the particular subject discipline, etc,” he says.

“Accordingly, there is now an increased demand for specialist learning designers who can support teachers to harness the potential of new models of digital education,” he added.

At the Atlantic Technological University (ATU), which has over 150 part-time online and flexible learning courses available, staff are increasingly using online technology in their day-to-day classes.

“Since the pandemic, staff have begun to see the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) as a teaching tool as well as an important interface and communication tool for student engagement,” said a spokesperson.

“ATU have an extensive portfolio of flexible and online learning programmes that have been designed specifically for the purpose of learning online,” the spokesperson said.

New technology such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) have the potential to make fieldtrips, lab experiments, and work experience more accessible and pilot projects are underway at ATU’s nursing department where the potential use of virtual reality in the field of nursing competencies training is being explored.

Time will tell whether the move to online learning will be regarded as a milestone in the development of third-level education or little more than a short-term stopgap emergency measure designed to address a health crisis.

In the meantime, institutions are increasingly offering a variety of online, hybrid, and on-campus course options at third-level but issues relating to access and broadband availability will continue to be a factor.

“While it’s true that new digital technologies have opened up more accessible pathways for study and higher education, we should not overlook the fact that poor internet access remains a problem, especially in rural parts of Ireland,” says Professor Brown.

Another concern is that old teaching methods could hamper progress.

“How will the traditional lecture delivery model mesh with the new metaverse?” asks Professor Brown.

“We have an opportunity to reimagine traditional teaching models, but it remains to be seen whether we are brave enough to do so and challenge ourselves to embrace online learning as a mainstream part of the future and next normal of higher education.”

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Iriseoir agus Eagarthóir Gaeilge An Irish Times. Éanna Ó Caollaí is The Irish Times' Irish Language Editor, editor of The Irish Times Student Hub, and Education Supplements editor.