Online tips: ‘Know what is expected of you before you start’

Student tips for online learning: What you need to know about blended and online learning

The following are some tips students should be mindful of when using a virtual learning environment in the coming year.

1 Course delivery How the course you have signed up for is delivered will depend on the type of course you have opted for and the institution you have chosen to study in. If you are a full-time day student, most courses are likely to be designed as a blend of online classes and tutorials along with some in-person on-campus activity. If you are a part-time student studying at night it is likely that your course will be mostly delivered online. In practice, any on-campus element will largely be dependent on coronavirus restrictions and the degree to which the virus and its variants have been contained.

Most third-level institutions use a single online platform or piece of software which is where the bulk of the online element of the course will be delivered. These online platforms (sometimes referred to as integrated or virtual learning platforms) provide instructors with the tools they need to deliver lectures and track student performance. They include packages such as Moodle, Brightspace, Canvas and Blackboard.

It is through these online platforms that students will access much of the course curriculum as well as other key resources such as reading lists and assignment details.


After you register for college you should receive guidance on how to find your way around the platform. This should come easily enough to anyone who is already used to everyday tech tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The college's learning platform shouldn't be too much of a challenge to anyone who is familiar with social media.

It is important that you make use of learning resources that will be made available to you as part of your student orientation.

Some colleges will run short courses or modules on online learning while others will have dedicated apps to help you navigate your way around your new learning environment.

"Engage with as many of the activities and resources that you can," suggests Billy Kelly, Deputy Registrar and Dean of Teaching and Learning at DCU.

"Most institutions offer preparatory courses or support in the use of technology. You may know Instagram, Snapchat and other social media platforms but there are so many other technologies that are available to help you through your studies."

In many cases students will be expected to prepare in advance of class. Lectures can be made available by video recording while the live element, which is really the class itself, will be spent exploring the material in greater depth.

Some work will be done “live” where students will be given a task to complete during class. This can be done on their own or in groups as these online platforms allow lecturers to create “break-out” sessions where individual students or groups of students can work together. More of that later.

2 How should students prepare Students need to develop a different skills set as they prepare for blended and online learning, says Nuala McGuinn, Director of NUI Galway's Centre for Adult Learning and Professional Development.

“Students need to plan better and manage their time differently as they have increased flexibility in the online environment.”

Read everything you receive. Read the course guide. This should be accessible through the online platform. Make sure you know what is expected of you before you start the course. Will there be many assessments, find out what format will they take, will you have end-of-term examinations or will you be assessed in other ways?

Take note of fixed lecture and tutorial times. Set aside time for study and research. Make use of your course calendar, take note of key dates and integrate them with your own personal calendar. Set time aside for assignments and projects and participate in the virtual classroom if and when required.

Your course will demand your attention for the next few years and you will need the discipline to ensure that you dedicate that time to your studies.

Familiarise yourself with your college’s virtual learning environment as it is likely to be where you will view most of your lectures and access course material. Depending on the course, it will be delivered through an assortment of tools from videos and quizzes to downloadable documents and simulations.

You will interact with your lecturer and fellow students through discussion forums, assignment platforms, group work collaboration options and video conferencing tools.

3 How will I submit coursework and assignments? Assessing student knowledge is a central part of third-level education. Analysing your performance over time gives instructors the information they need to understand your strengths and weaknesses. The measurement of this data should inform any direction your instructor needs to give in order to help you improve your performance over the course of the programme.

While assessments have traditionally had a focus on end-of-year written examinations, the virtual learning environment offers new ways to measure ability and knowledge. You may sit some tests in a live setting at specified times, while other assignments and tests could be downloaded to your computer for you to work on in your own time.

For some assignments you might be required to upload an essay or record and upload a piece of video or audio. Group assignments may require you will engage with your fellow classmates in forum discussions. Try to co-ordinate group chats with your classmates to discuss ideas and the task in hand.

Stay up-to-date with your assignments and make sure you back up your work. Take note of delivery dates for projects and assignments and use a study planner.

4 How can I collaborate with my classmates? Being able to share notes and discussing coursework with fellow students has always been a central focus for students and, it could be argued, is how you will acquire some of the most sought-after skills in the labour market – an ability to work with others.

These days there are many tech tools that can enhance communication between you and your teachers as well as with your classmates.

Teachers can work individually with students to make sure the student’s needs are met while networking and video-conferencing tools make it possible for you to collaborate with fellow students on projects no matter where they are located.

Talk to your classmates and work out what method works best for you to stay in touch with each other. It might be easier to step outside of the dedicated learning platform. Some will use services such college discussion forums while others will already be in touch on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

5 Class etiquette Etiquette – or netiquette as some might call it – is an important part of engaging constructively online. While you will use the online platform to learn about your course and the various related elements, you will also have to learn how to communicate in an online environment. Students will have to be comfortable engaging with colleagues via chat, audio or video. The same rules apply that apply to social media use – think before you type and only post appropriate information.

The internet is an extension of the real world – it isn’t a place in which anything goes. Therefore, you need to apply the same rules that we expect in public. This means no hate speech, abuse, bigotry, racism, sexism and treating others as we would expect to be treated ourselves. Many platforms allow the use of chatrooms or chatboxes during lectures. Make sure you don’t misuse these as it can be a source of distraction for teachers and students alike.

Submit your exercises on time and in the correct format. Teachers will often make it known that certain naming protocols are preferred – following submission instructions and departmental guidelines will ensure that your tutor can access your work easily and on time.

6 How should I study? Blended learning is set to become the new norm for many students. Whether you are a day student or a fully remote student, it is important to create a dedicated home-study space and establish a learning routine.

Make sure you have good ventilation and light, a desk with enough space and a decent chair. Have all the materials you need to hand and make sure your power connection is nearby and accessible. Keep your desk tidy and as distraction-free as possible. Use organisers, boxes and shelves to store your materials and don’t forget to turn off your phone when studying!

Time management can be a challenge at the best of times but the pay-off will be worth it. Create a routine by setting aside time each day for study.

Build a study plan by first considering your own learning style. Is it more effective for you to learn in the morning or in the evening? Work out your study needs, for example, think how much do you need to do for each class? Highlight upcoming classes and study sessions on your calendar. Draw up a plan for each subject. Allow for revision and take breaks.

7 It is difficult to focus at home, how can I stay engaged? Sitting right in front of a window can be a distraction for many. Try to position your desk in such a way that it will mean distractions (such as the outside world) are away from your gaze.

There are additional tools to help the modern student and the software available to colleges these days is designed to enhance student engagement. The progress of students can be monitored by course co-ordinators and they can identify those who may have disengaged or who may be struggling with the course content.

Keep track yourself of your own progress and over time assess if there are changes you can make to improve your performance.

Of course, depending on the course you are doing, not all activities will necessarily be online. For full-time day students, face-to-face teaching is likely to feature prominently in the form of tutorials, seminars and lab work. It is important to attend as many of these as is possible as they offer students a valuable opportunity to engage directly with teachers and instructors.

8 What if I have a question? If you are struggling with coursework you don't have to suffer in silence. Avail of opportunities to engage and can ask questions online. "Don't be afraid to ask questions - you are not the only one starting third-level and it is guaranteed that you are not the only one with questions. It's ok to not know the answer to something," says DCU's Billy Kelly.

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Iriseoir agus Eagarthóir Gaeilge An Irish Times. Éanna Ó Caollaí is The Irish Times' Irish Language Editor, editor of The Irish Times Student Hub, and Education Supplements editor.