How online learning affected secondary schooling

Quick pivot to online meant expectations, resources and capability did not always align perfectly

Educators adapted fast to the pandemic and parents gained a new insight into the real challenges of being a teacher. So how did they find the experience? Were there any surprises along the way? And are there elements that could be kept in a teacher’s practice when life returns to a semblance of normality?

Writing on the Education International website in the early days of the pandemic, teacher Lisa O'Donoghue captured the feelings of many teachers: "It wasn't that I hadn't previously used technology with my classes. I had even set up groups of students on Microsoft Teams prior to now and often used online resources as an accompaniment to my teaching – but, as a medium for teaching? As sole access to my students? In the place of the classroom? I was certainly delving deeper, diving further into water that I had only previously paddled in."

O’Donoghue says that book companies stepped up their game, but that this raised the issue of whether the provision of educational resources as a whole needed to be looked at when the pandemic ended.

Collaboration between teachers proved important, although unequal access to technology, for both teachers and students, was a problem.


Dr Ann Marcus-Quinn is a lecturer in technical communication and instructional design at the University of Limerick. Her specialities include e-learning and ICT in education. Marcus-Quinn and her colleague, Dr Tríona Hourigan, are Ireland's representatives on an EU-funded programme bringing together experts from 24 countries sharing best practice on e-learning, from the initial design stage.

‘Learning experience’

"Teachers finished on Thursday and were expected to roll out a perfect online learning experience by Monday," says Marcus Quinn. "On top of this, with schools closed, a lot of educators had extra caring responsibilities during the pandemic and were trying to juggle those responsibilities in a time of heightened fear. Teachers using Edmodo, Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams might have found it easier to manage but, pre-pandemic, a lot of schools didn't have a learning management system in place."

At the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis some teachers felt that they had to create resources from scratch. “Perhaps they were not aware of Scoilnet, but it’s the jewel in the crown [of Irish second level online resources], it’s endorsed by other teachers and there is quality assurance built in. It’s been there since 1999 and now we are seeing an upsurge of content.

"Since 2012, the World Open Education Resources in Paris has focused on making digital resources open and Scoilnet has a focus on this and making the material accessible using universal design for learning and building principles."

Some of the biggest challenges facing teachers were down to the dice of geography and class. “There has been a big disparity in terms of what schools could offer [online],” says Marcus-Quinn. “In some schools it was a homework dump on a Sunday. In others the teacher came on and spoke to the class, or perhaps recorded audio files. Some schools could paddle along almost seamlessly, but some teachers didn’t have wifi and some students relied on a parent coming home from work in the evening so they could use their phone to do their schoolwork. You could have some houses with four or five children looking to use one device.”

Some innovations worked well, and some of these will likely remain. "We saw more of a community spirit with teachers sharing resources. There was a real community of practice in schools. The RTÉ Homeschool Hub was hugely valuable and should have continued for those students [at high risk or with high-risk family members] who couldn't go to school. It was a really brilliant piece of emergency broadcasting that gave parents and guardians the golden hour during the day. The computer lab may previously have been seen as the domain of one or two teachers, but now every subject teacher is aware of how they can use digital resources."

What won’t teachers miss? “All the after hours work. All those extra emails that clock up over the day. Students won’t miss the feeling of being trapped in front of a screen for hours every day. Nobody will miss the pressure of trying to get through the curriculum without knowing what the exam might look like, or testing students every week because of accredited grades.”

What teachers did online during the pandemic

It surprised me how some students preferred the online version of class and often these did really well. They commented on how there were less distractions at home. [The] lack of social connection was such a challenge but the ability to connect with technology really helped with chat on Teams etc. I never considered the idea of practical cookery online but we became innovative using TikTok to record cookery lessons and students their own cookery at home. Also had few live cookery classes which were great fun.

Jeanne Dowling, home economics teacher

I encouraged students to do scientific experiments at home by creatively adapting the equipment they had to make windmills and water mills for example. I think they realised that science is not just something which only happens in a lab. Twitter ideas from other science teachers was a great source.

K Urell, science teacher

Definitely many underperformers did extremely well and [the] quality of work improved. Many learners with additional educational needs also reported positively on more thinking time at their own pace resulting in better quality experiences. Many positive experiences from teachers as well. How do we sustain?

Sam Conroy, music teacher

Some shy students did very well. online worked well for them – less face-to-face pressure. Disadvantage was heightened. Students who didn’t have access to a laptop at home were left trying to work on phones. Some may not have had the financial wherewithal to pay for internet.

John Hurley, school chaplain

I have had huge success with guest speakers as someone who isn’t based in the capital. Some organisations holding virtual workshops means they are more accessible. Pleasantly surprising!

Catherine McGing, history and politics and society teacher

For some things (very few) the virtual platform for guest speakers is great. More students can access information sessions etc. But overall face-to-face [is better] for this. Using our online platform to its full effectiveness and functionality has been positive. As a guidance counsellor, using the school app messaging function has been brilliant for checking in with students, communicating about appointments etc. They respond well to that. It has its risks and downfalls but with forethought, good communication and boundaries it has been fantastic. For some students a little online check in can get them through to the next appointment.

Valerie Carson, guidance counsellor