Further study moves to hybrid – but will the changes stick?

The pandemic forced a changed from in-person learning

In recent years, more students have gone to a so-called “fourth-level” course after a few years – or even decades – in work, a shift away from a time when most postgraduates went straight from college into their master’s degree course. Many have families, full-time jobs and other commitments, so finding the time and money for a postgraduate course can be tricky.

As a result of this shift and the changing needs of learners, higher education institutions have been moving towards providing more flexible, online and blended learning options. And when the pandemic hit, almost all postgraduate learning moved online. So, with society opening up, how are postgraduate courses being delivered now?

"The pandemic has led to workplace and education revolutions," says Jane Downes, career coach at clearviewcoachgroup.com and author of The Career Book. "Education was already moving to blended and hybrid models, but this has accelerated it. Remote learning can be really helpful to some people, particularly if you want to do a course [outside Ireland]."

The move towards micro-credentials has also been a big shift in recent years, says Seamus Hoyne, dean of flexible and work-based learning and director of industry engagement at the Technological University of the Shannon Midlands-Midwest.

“Increasingly we see people who are taking on postgraduate courses in bitesize chunks, allowing them to take on a programme of postgraduate study where they pick up different credits across a number of years, perhaps starting with a postgraduate certificate before, later, coming back for the diploma and then, down the line, doing a thesis and getting a master’s degree. These courses are being delivered flexibly.”

What they want

University College Cork carried out surveys of applicants during the pandemic to find what they wanted, and respondents were clear that face-to-face teaching experiences were best, leading the university to offer a hybrid learning model that combined online and face-to-face elements including laboratory and field classes in smaller group settings, where restrictions allowed.

At NUI Galway, similarly, feedback from prospective postgraduate students for 2022 courses indicated a desire to return to campus and in-class teaching. Dr Colin Hughes, head of the graduate business school at TU Dublin, says that while students now have a higher level of comfort with online learning, they still expect in-person engagement.

Prof Martine Smith, dean of graduate studies at Trinity College Dublin, says postgraduate students want more options than their undergraduate peers.

"Postgraduate students are a very heterogeneous group. Many want the experience of face-to-face on-campus engagement and really value the residential campus experience Trinity offers"

“This applies not only in the format of delivery, but also in scheduling, in how they engage with fellow students and academic staff and also in the time frames within which they complete a programme of study: all in one sequence, or with staged step-off points where they can pause, change direction or just take a break,” she says.

“In many courses, the format of assessment has also shifted and new ways of assessing learning have emerged. Shifts towards less time-pressured, high-stakes assessment to rolling cycles of continuous assessment have played to the strengths of many postgraduate students, capitalising on their intrinsic motivation and independence.

“Postgraduate students are a very heterogeneous group. Many want the experience of face-to-face on-campus engagement and really value the residential campus experience Trinity offers. For those students, hybrid delivery is low on the priority list and only an extra, if needed. Other students have multiple different roles to juggle and, for them, a commute to the campus is a drain on very precious time and resources.”

Meet and network

Prof Denis Harrington, head of the department of graduate business at Waterford Institute of Technology, says full-time postgraduates like to meet and network with their classmates. "The in-person experience is important for them. They also value the opportunity to take modules with others in person outside their specialism as this adds to their overall learning experience on the course. Our MBA has been changed to a blended model of delivery in consultation with staff and students, and this proposed approach sees students on campus in weeks one, five, nine and 12 of each semester – equating to one week per month on campus – with the rest all delivered online. We have found that hybrid or blended modes of delivery do need to address how students are supported in the virtual learning environment throughout the semester and we have found this requires consistent, clear and regular interaction with [them]."

At University College Dublin, Prof Ciarán Heavey, academic director of the UCD Smurfit School MBA programmes, says that executive education was already shifting with consumer demand towards more flexible and blended hybrid learning options prior to the pandemic.

“This shift has accelerated with the onset of the pandemic and is likely to remain a feature of our executive education offerings into the future. For example, our midweek executive MBA students, who attend the campus on Monday and Thursday, are increasingly calling for sessions to be live-streamed and available on demand.”

Dr Stephen Cassidy, dean of graduate studies and academic quality enhancement at Munster Technological University, says that students have welcomed recorded lectures, integrated online learning resources and online authentic assessments as other educational benefits arising from hybrid or online delivery.

Permanent change?

It’s clear that the pandemic has brought about big changes in how postgraduate education is delivered but, with most restrictions lifted, are those changes here to stay?

UCC is among the colleges that has returned to face-to-face settings, while academic staff have been asked to reflect on what aspects of remote learning should remain a core part of their programme.

TU Dublin’s Hughes says the needs of learners are paramount when deciding on the optimum delivery strategy. “For instance, our full-time postgraduate students have different preferences and needs than our senior executive learners. Being a part of a single cohort and going on the journey together is important for some, while others want to take their time and are happy to join multiple different learner cohorts, building an invaluable network of contacts along the way.”

Dr Fergal O'Brien, assistant dean of postgraduate studies at the University of Limerick, says that international students are more attracted to more traditional delivery modes than their domestic peers. "But when they experience a module that is delivered in a blended way on a full-time programme, the feedback is generally very positive."

But Downes strikes a note of caution: “If there is some attendance in class and you can meet new people, it is helpful to interact with them; MBA [master’s of business administration] postgrads are among the courses that benefit from being taught in person. Hybrid courses do give flexibility, and this can be helpful if you want to go in, get your qualification and run – but I’m in the other camp, where I’d see a benefit for really immersing yourself in the subject for a year or two, if you can.”

WHAT’S HAPPENING AND WHERE: A SNAPSHOT

DCU: The master's in insights and innovation is a new programme aimed at people working in the food industry. Run by DCU business school and Bord Bia, it aims to enhance innovation capabilities within Irish food, drink and horticulture. DCU is running a postgraduate information week, March 21st-25th.

Maynooth University: Class schedules are often tailored to accommodate working students. In the school of business, they're on campus for two full days per month. Short courses and micro-credentials are growing in popularity, with the university recently launching a new online part-time master's in international sports law and a new online micro-credential in international law and justice.

MTU: Taught and research postgraduate programmes are co-designed and co-delivered with industry partners.

Trinity College: Trinity offers a wide range of Human Capital Initiative-funded new courses, with strong enterprise links, especially in Stem. These include PGCert, PGDip and master's courses but also continuous professional development, masterclasses and micro-credentials.

TU Dublin: A new life sciences MBA programme to focus on executive training within the biopharma and medtech industries launches in September 2022.

UCC: In 2019, UCC embarked on the Graduate Attributes Programme to provide targeted support to all students. More recently, UCC has embarked on a major project to develop micro-credentials, allowing students to gain the specific skill they need in a particular area.

UL: Learners can choose a traditional delivery master's programme that includes modules delivered in a non-traditional manner, such as the Digital Futures Lab, where interdisciplinary teams work on disruptive solutions to business. UL @ Work is a new range of digital-led programmes, co-designed with industry, enabling upskilling and reskilling through combining education and work in areas including data analytics, ICT, robotics, law and technology and future studies.

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