Online and upwards: Preparing for autumn return to third-level

Online and blended learning models have tangible benefits

All third-level institutions have a range of digital tools at their disposal but most are anticipating a return of some on-campus and in-person activity.  Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

All third-level institutions have a range of digital tools at their disposal but most are anticipating a return of some on-campus and in-person activity. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

As the roll-out of the vaccine programme picks up pace, third-level institutions are putting their finishing touches on next year’s programmes.

While final arrangements will depend on the National Public Health Emergency Team’s (Nphet) latest public health advice it is hoped that restrictions will be relaxed to near pre-Covid-19 levels by the autumn.

Much work has been put into ensuring a safe return to campus for students and staff and some measures are likely to last, even if new variants of the virus fail to materialise.

Education was one of the sectors most affected by the lockdown but it was also presented with an opportunity to introduce significant changes that might otherwise have taken years to implement.

Many third-level institutions were prompted by the pandemic into adopting virtual learning platforms. Their use varied from institution to institution but they gave students the freedom to view lectures, participate in class discussions and engage in group work remotely.

Some institutions had of course embraced the use of digital tools and were already benefiting from the flexibility offered by a blended approach to course delivery.

But what will third-level look like in the autumn now that most institutions have adapted to online and blended learning? We spoke to a number of third-level colleges and universities to see what they are planning (see pages 4-5). Most if not all are hoping for a return to campus but with one eye firmly fixed on public-health guidance, it is not surprising that they cannot all be prescriptive.

All have a range of digital tools at their disposal but most are anticipating a return of some on-campus and in-person activity.

Continuity

Staff worked hard over the past year to ensure continuity of service for students during the lockdown and many have acquired new skills that will be of benefit both to themselves and to their students in future years.

Online and blended learning models have tangible benefits.

Some colleges reported that students with disabilities have felt more a part of the class and many have worked closely with students to ensure their voice is heard when it comes to planning and executing online learning, teaching and assessment.

The “flipped classroom” approach over the last academic year meant that students were able to digest course material in advance which in turn meant they could focus on engaging more with the material itself during lectures.

Away from the traditional third-level university or college model, the State training agency Solas reported that more than 47,000 people participated in its eCollege online learning service since it was first opened to the public as a response to Covid-19 in March 2020.

Much then has been learned over the last year and many of these changes might never have happened independently of the public health crisis or if they did, they would have taken far longer to implement.

As the Government’s project to examine how higher-level education can learn from the pandemic gets underway many institutions and stakeholders will be asking fundamental questions about how teaching and learning will look in the future in Ireland.

We are now looking at a sector where flexibility will be expected instead of the old and sometimes cumbersome one-size-fits all approach which could be unyielding when it came to accommodating the diverse needs of students in the delivery of academic programmes.