Blending emerges as an effective learning and teaching strategy in wake of Covid-19

Greater integration of technology with teaching methods offers students more flexibility as education adapts to ‘new normal’

The Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris recently launched a project aimed at examining how higher level education could learn from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The education sector was one of the first societal casualties of Covid-19 and the project will draw on the experience of leading higher education stakeholders including representatives of higher and further education, student representatives, Ibec, and others.

It is expected that the project (Next Steps for Teaching and Learning: Moving Forward Together) will focus on the move to online and remote teaching to help inform future policies and strategies around teaching and learning in Ireland.

Emergency remote learning
There is no question but that the pandemic was a huge challenge for Ireland's education system. Key elements came under great pressure last March and in the following months as colleges and universities were forced to close down and move to online teaching and virtual education.


Given this exceptional situation, the sector demonstrated considerable skill and agility when it came to shifting programmes and resources to the online setting. This was a significant challenge as institutions had to adapt to a growing public health crisis while still offering a meaningful learning model to students who were to become remote learners almost overnight.

In most cases, core educational elements ranging from basic teaching and learning, student assessments and curriculum design had to be re-evaluated and in some cases reinvented.

Of course, the shift to online was not without its problems. Not everyone has access to high-speed broadband or to a computer with a powerful processor and not all courses were suited to online delivery.

Campus closures also threw the social and economic issues facing students into sharp relief. They ranged from concerns about student debt, rent, fees, digital access, the loss of social interaction and mental health.

Remote teaching forced by a public health emergency is not at all the same as a dedicated remote or blended learning model where the course is designed with an entirely new type of delivery model in mind and where students are likely to expect consistency and coherence when it comes to course design.

While emergency remote teaching would have been a very useful learning process for many teachers, the unintended consequences of such a rapid transition led to concerns that some courses could fail to meet the expectations that students had set at the outset of the course.

What have we learned?
But as colleges now plan for a post-pandemic future, what does the future look like for Ireland's third-level institutions?

Will the type of courses that have traditionally been offered at higher level change now that higher education institutions have had more time to consider how blended and online learning methods can best inform their work?

While there may be some questions that cannot yet be answered and uncertainty is likely to continue in terms of the public health situation, much has already been learned.

The provision of online lectures and the use of interactive tools means students can be better prepared ahead of classes and seminars, allowing for greater engagement and discussion of the topics being studied.

"Online delivery has made some aspects of student learning sessions more accessible; lectures being recorded, subtitles on videos, increased am- ounts of content available online meaning students can access their learning from any location," says Billy Kelly, deputy registrar and dean of teaching and learning at DCU, where online learning has long been featured on the college prospectus.

“Online delivery can enable everyone to participate – students with caring responsibilities whether it is their caring for their children or a sick or elderly relative – online learning means they don’t have to come to campus or if they miss a class they can catch up.

“Students are sometimes reluctant to engage in a lecture theatre with more than 100 fellow students in the room. Online delivery allows them to engage more, ensuring everyone is heard and not just the extroverts in the class,” he adds.

Colleges with previous experience of online and blended delivery were well positioned when the crisis hit.

"This experience was invaluable when we, like many other organisations, had to move all our activities entirely online in March 2020," said Dr Eimear Brown, dean, School of Law at King's Inns.

As social restrictions look set to disrupt the traditional teaching model into the months and years ahead the question now is how courses delivered in “the new normal” will compare with those delivered through traditional means and if they can they be improved further.

The delivery of a meaningful blended or remote online course requires an engaged approach where the characteristics of the learner and the strengths of the available teaching tools are taken into account with the aim of achieving greater cognitive and social engagement.

A wide range of tools are available to lecturers who can track student process on a far more granular level than ever before and research suggests that placing students at the centre of an active learning model can yield better outcomes. Getting the right mix is key and requires preparation.

Balancing the mix
"Our teaching staff have considered how to balance the mix of synchronous learning [where students learn at the same time] activities with asynchronous activities, how students navigate the course materials and how to design for more authentic assessments," says Nuala McGuinn, director of NUI Galway's Centre for Adult Learning and Professional Development.

Of course, the blended learning model should not spell an end to on-campus experiences.

Social interaction and the development of communication skills are some of the factors that inform a well-rounded educational experience. Students will expect that their institutions will ensure good lines of communications are created both on and offline where they can engage directly with tutors and lecturers and ask questions when they need to do so.

Whether the experience of Covid-19 will ultimately result in a paradigm shift when it comes to the delivery of third-level and higher education in Ireland remains to be seen.

The findings and recommendations made by the “Next Steps” partnership project will be published later this year and they may offer some insights into how learning and teaching will look in the future.

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.