Third level gears up for blended learning

Approach set to become the new norm for many courses as social restrictions disrupt traditional teaching model

As prospective students finalise their CAO choices and social restrictions introduced to disrupt the coronavirus pandemic are eased, what should this year's crop of first year undergraduates expect when they start college in September?

The first thing worth noting is that the third-level landscape is going to look very different when compared to previous years as the sector has undergone profound change in the space of just a few months.

The arrival of the coronavirus on Irish shores triggered an abrupt move away from the traditional face-to-face style of teaching that most Irish students were familiar with.

Almost all teaching activity had to be rapidly migrated to online teaching platforms as lectures were cancelled, campuses were evacuated, and many examinations were called-off or postponed.


While some restrictions have eased in recent weeks, the expectation is that we are facing into a period of prolonged social distancing and by implication, continued disruption to the traditional university model.

In a sector where you could have up to 500 students attending a single lecture, social distancing restrictions will directly impact how these courses are delivered at our third level institutions.

Blended delivery

In many colleges, lectures will be delivered online and students will attend campus in smaller groups for face-to-face sessions, tutorials and lab work. This combination of online learning and traditional classroom-based elements is referred to as blended learning.

Students should check course specifications with the institution in question to see how their preferred course may be affected.

The majority of third level institutions already had systems in place to facilitate remote working and distance learning before the arrival of Covid-19. These systems, sometimes referred to as virtual learning environments, are now expected to feature more prominently in the coming years as critical tools for the delivery of tertiary education.

Video conferencing tools, online quizzes and specialised simulations might be more reflective of the global digital age than of traditional teaching methods but when used properly they can be effective tools for teaching and learning.

Systems such as Brightspace, Canvas, Moodle and Blackboard have built-in tools that allow instructors to deliver lectures by video or audio, facilitate discussions and even track student performance.

Dr Alison Hood, Dean of Teaching and Learning at Maynooth University says online course delivery gives students the flexibility to work at their own pace.

Learning through technology can also help students “develop the digital literacies necessary for their future careers.”

The use of technology can enable new opportunities for groupwork and collaborative learning and according to Dr Hood, can generate new opportunities for conducting assessment and providing feedback.

“If utilised well, technology can improve access and support more inclusive participation for students with disabilities,” she says.

One strategy that has emerged as a feature of distance learning is ’classroom flipping’. This is an approach to blended learning that is focused on enhancing engagement within the classroom setting. Whereas in the past students would attend lectures, take notes and then perhaps then prepare homework or assignments, flipping means the lectures are watched remotely and the work is prepared in advance while the ’live’ session is spent analysing the work in the presence of the instructor.

"We don't need to bring you in to show you how to look something up online. I can record it remotely and send it to you... you look at it and /[THEN/] we'll discuss it," says Kathleen Hughes who is a lecturer in Marketing in the College of Business at the Technological University Dublin.

Early start

To facilitate the new dispensation, students in many cases can expect college to start earlier than usual this year in order to facilitate special orientation sessions designed to help them adapt to the new learning environment.

At DCU for example it is expected that first-year students will begin two weeks earlier than usual. However, as elsewhere, the health of students and staff will be prioritised as the virus is likely to impact how courses are delivered on an ongoing basis.

Protecting the health and wellbeing of students and staff “is paramount and overrides everything else,” says DCU President, Professor Brian MacCraith.

He says the approach taken at the university enables flexibility and the ability to “adapt to any change in circumstances.”

“We will leverage DCU’s experience and capabilities in online and blended learning to offer every student a safe and high quality learning experience. If any student cannot access campus because of their specific healthcare situation, we will provide the highest standard of remote delivery to overcome these issues.”

Most colleges will have additional supports in place to help guide students . As the focus continues to shift to blended and online learning, more resources are likely to be allocated to help improve outcomes.

The National Institute for Digital Learning at DCU is developing a free ‘Learning how to learn online’ course for students at the start of the next academic year.

The course will support students as they adapt a greater focus on learning online in higher education settings. Insights gained from the course will help harness the potential of online education and provide improved online learning experiences for students.

Unforeseen consequences

The increased use of blended education is likely to have some unforeseen consequences for the education sector and those within it.

There is a danger that the digital divide could increasingly prove to be a barrier to access as technology is increasingly integrated into the learning experience.

To overcome this barrier to learning students will not only need high quality internet access and the technical tools required to do so but colleges and universities will need to ensure the requisite supports are in place to address the social equity imbalance.

Nuala McGuinn, who is Director at the Centre for Adult Learning & Professional Development at NUI Galway says when it comes to the development of online content best practice should include an "awareness that there will be differences in terms of access to the internet and digital resources so flexibility in learning will have to be featured into course design."

It is also important to build in support for remote learners. “Make sure to build in opportunities for pastoral support of students or some “online coffee-like threads” to check in and see how students are coping with the online environment”, she says.

Another unforeseen consequence of the pivot to blended learning is the impact it could have on the student rental market.

The wider rental sector was one of the first to be impacted by the pandemic. Within days of the shutdown, property websites recorded a surge in rental properties coming onto the market as demand for short-term lettings collapsed.

It was reported earlier this month that the number of homes available to rent across the State has jumped by nearly 40 per cent as a result of the crisis.

From a practical point of view students whose presence is no longer required on a full-time basis in college should justifiably ask whether it is worth their while renting accommodation for the year or if other arrangements such as commuting to college on the days they have to be present might be a better option.

Social distancing rules will invariably limit the degree to which colleges can ask students to be present on campus. However, blended learning could offer greater access to third level education and as colleges work out how they can rotate students in and out of campus there could be an opportunity to open programmes up to more people than would typically register for a traditional course.


There is no doubt but students and colleges are facing into an uncertain year. No-one knows how long the restrictions will last.

Some colleges are already making preparations to rebalance back towards face-to-face learning in the event of the virus being fully eradicated.

But, so as not to be caught off-guard, they are also preparing to react swiftly to any reintroduction of government restrictions.

Students will have to familiarise themselves with using the virtual learning environment to a greater degree this year than they had to in the past. There will be challenges for some disciplines, as students of fine arts might attest, but there will also be new and innovative ways of tackling problems.

Flexibility is therefore likely to be a key feature of college life in 2020.

“Now is a period of great uncertainty and our university community will undoubtedly be presented with challenges,” says Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh President, NUI Galway.

“Recommencing teaching in the autumn will require creative thinking and flexibility to adapt to the continuing restrictions and disruptions to normal life.”

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.