IT Sligo improving access through online writing

‘Despite being unable to physically be together, we formed an almost immediate bond’

Course profile: IT Sligo’s BA in Writing and Literature

Few students were allowed on campuses over the past year. But for many budding students with disabilities, underlying health conditions or care commitments, campuses have long since been inaccessible.

Last year, IT Sligo launched a . The course, part of IT Sligo's Higher Education for All initiative, a partnership between the institute, Mayo Sligo Leitrim Education and Training Board (ETB), Donegal ETB and Family Carers Ireland, was designed to be fully online in order to make it more accessible to everyone.

"The great plus of online learning, of course, is that it can help bridge accessibility gaps for those restricted by geographical location," says Gerard Beirne, chair of the online BA. "Financially too, it can be more affordable, eliminating the costs of meals, travel or accommodation."


The college was keen to ensure that students taking an online programme would not miss out on the social element of a campus-based programme and, to this end, designed an online space with daily live campus footage, a “virtual canteen” for lunch, an online environment that connects with the students’ union, clubs and societies, and campus social events and activities through “live” technologies.

Dr Una Mannion, programme chair of the BA in Writing and Literature, says that IT Sligo created online interactive workshops where students collaborated together on projects, shared their writing and gave and received peer feedback.

"The online writing community worked. Students trusted one another, got to know each other's work and contributed meaningfully in workshops. Students online also had the opportunity to attend live events such as The Word, an author series run with Sligo Central Library where they read their work to a live Zoom audience which was also streamed on Facebook. They attended events together including book launches and online theatre. We brought student groups from the on-campus programme and the online group together to screen films they each made in digital storytelling. The online platform has allowed us to create a community that we all feel part of."

Mannion and Beirne say that distance became negligible. One student based in Vienna, Austria, worked with a student in Carrick-on-Shannon on a creative response to Sophocles's play Antigone.

“Students who might have in the past been uncomfortable speaking in front of a class are eased in,” says Mannion. “Everyone participates and when students are presenting the chat box is awash with support and insights from their peers. We are communicating constantly and the learning environment is still student centred.”

“I have been struck by the remarkable energy within the virtual classroom,” says Beirne. “Engaging with people up close on screen has created a surprising sense of intimacy distinct from the physical setting. The break-out rooms have been very successful and make it easy to divide students into smaller groups facilitating peer-to-peer participation.

“Online classroom tools mean that the groups can interact with each other still. For the students, it helps them to break down the barriers and get to know one another socially. Once again, from my observations, the “up-closeness” of it all seems to encourage bonding between them, and I like how it promotes self-direction. It has been heartening to witness the camaraderie between the students and how they seem to look out for one another.”

Sarah O'Keeffe, class rep, says that she became part of a virtual community. "Despite being unable to physically be together on campus, we formed an almost immediate bond. We created chats on WhatsApp and Teams, along with frequent "coffee breaks" on Zoom. We utilised technology to support each other and a classmate was only a click away. With passing papers around a classroom not an option, shared files or even shared screens became commonplace. The online format of the course provides accessibility from afar, being in different locations in Ireland, and even Europe. This allows for a more diverse group, bringing fresh perspectives."

O'Keeffe created a podcast, "If 5-year-olds Ran the Country", in which a fictional snap election installed some of her son's primary school classmates as new Ministers. "She interviewed the children over the phone, recorded their thoughts, and edited their voices into a news bulletin from the new Dáil," says Alice Lyons, a lecturer on the course.

Another student, comedian Connor McDonough-Flynn, tried to make the best of Connemara in lockdown. “He improvised new material about trying to develop the superpower of seeing in the dark while walking and talking into his glowing phone in the unlit fields around him,” says Lyons.

"The resulting 'Land of the White Vans' podcast also sees McDonough-Flynn speeding on his (fictional) scooter through the Burren, being (fictionally) cursed at by passing motorists, his destination a cave where it is rumoured the Irish brown bear may still indeed dwell. The podcast's ending, a patchwork of roaring beast sounds grabbed off YouTube clips, is worthy of Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man."

“There are many different modes of learning and while some students thrive in the classroom setting, others, I have found, are more comfortable participating at a distance in the small online group setting,” says Beirne. “Independent learners generally find online courses to be well-suited to their needs. It also seems easier to cater for, and complement, a variety of learning styles, whether visual or auditory, by using audio, video, graphics, text and so on.”

Beirne says the course has made him reassess how he engages. “The classroom has become a much more interactive learning environment where my role focuses on guiding the students and facilitating discussions amongst them. It becomes a learner-centred approach that lends itself to greater participation by the students and is more personally meaningful.”