Coronavirus: Irish universities prepare for students to return

The new student experience is likely to be substantially different from previous years as colleges adapt to social distancing measures

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The threat posed to public health by the coronavirus pandemic has led to universities across the globe having to address how they can continue teaching while keeping their staff and students safe.

While non-essential businesses had to close their doors to the public in the space of just a few weeks in March, almost all teaching activity at Ireland’s universities and colleges had to rapidly migrate online.

Course instructors had to adopt technologies that had never before been used on this scale in the experience of Irish education. All of a sudden, the virtual classroom took centre stage. Students would complete their studies online without having to attend classes in-person, while assessments and examinations were quickly reappraised and reconstituted.

This migration represented the single biggest structural change in the third-level sector in Ireland in recent years. One academic referred to it as “the great onlining of Irish higher education”.

While the rapid response of the sector to the pandemic was a testament to the universities and dedication of the staff involved, it quickly became apparent that this new approach, or at least a more sophisticated variant of it, would become the “new norm” for Irish education in the short to medium term.

This, ideally, should mean revisiting the design of course programmes. Hastily shoe-horning course content online in response to a crisis might work as a stop-gap but it is not considered to be best practice when it comes to online education.

“When done well, online teaching involves far more than putting your lecture slides on the internet and merely substituting your scheduled face-to-face classes with live online ones using Zoom or MS Teams,” says Prof Mark Brown of the National Institute for Digital Learning at DCU.

“Indeed, this type of remote teaching and digital delivery of course content in a crisis is almost the antithesis of good online education,” he adds.

“The challenge is to help educators understand that online education requires different learning designs and teaching approaches.”

Planning

In Ireland, colleges are already planning their own blended or hybrid approach to the delivery of education for the next academic year. In many cases, lectures will be delivered remotely while students will attend campus in smaller groups for face-to-face sessions, tutorials and lab work.

While the new student experience is likely to be substantially different this year, students and their parents will expect that the integrity of academic programmes will not be compromised by the transition to online.

The degree to which academic programmes will be redesigned to place online at the core of curriculum delivery still remains to be seen.

As colleges and universities shut their doors, in came video conferencing, online quizzes, virtual learning platforms, specialised simulations, asynchronous and synchronous teaching. Photograph: iStock
Any lengthy continuation of campus closures is likely to have significant and unforeseen implications for students and colleges alike. Photograph: iStock

Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), the State’s watchdog for education standards, has already stated that it is working with partners across the education and training sector “to support and provide leadership for FET and HE providers in their efforts to maintain the integrity, quality and standards of the Irish education and training system, at this time of unprecedented challenge”.

Fully transitioning courses online requires fundamental course redesign, a process that is costly and resource-heavy.

Instead, most colleges in Ireland are likely to offer a blended approach where some elements will be delivered online and some delivered on-campus.

They will spend the remainder of the summer months fine-tuning and re-evaluating their course offerings to make sure they fulfil the needs and expectations of their students, and it will probably be August before it becomes clear what students can expect in the autumn.

Of course, any lengthy continuation of campus closures is likely to have significant and unforeseen implications for students and colleges alike. Universities have lost considerable revenues over the summer months from the loss of tourism and conferences, not to mention the losses likely to be incurred by the absence of foreign student revenues.

Students are also likely to feel somewhat uncertain of what lies ahead with many questioning whether the costs normally associated with full-time college are justifiable when courses will be delivered online.

Campus life

Many academic, learning and social support services designed with on-campus students in mind will have to be adapted and innovative opportunities will have to be developed to assist students who wish to engage in the wider life of the university, including sports clubs and societies.

Of course, huge uncertainties lie ahead and many students will ask whether they should plan for a return to campus this year or should they delay going to college by a year in the hope of a return to some degree of normality by then.

In this supplement we look at some of the issues that are likely to arise in the upcoming academic year. We ask if it is possible to improve learning outcomes through online learning and examine what options are available to school-leavers.

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