As third-level colleges plan for a blend of in-person and remote teaching from September, students across the country have expressed mixed views on the return to on-campus learning, with some calling for initiatives such as recorded lecturers to be retained.
Zoe Whelan, who is in her second year studying Biological and Biomedical Sciences at TCD, is uncertain about a return to campus having had a pleasant experience working remotely.
While disappointed to have missed out on many first-year experiences, the 19-year-old said the flexibility of remote learning worked well for her. “I have no idea if I am looking forward to going back to in-person teaching because remote learning suited me so much that I am scared that I now won’t do as well as I hope.”
Final year student at NUI Galway, Darren Browne, worked from his home in Donegal during his second year. The 21-year-old Computer Science & Information Technology student said his course was well suited to online learning and during his third year, afforded him the opportunity to take on part-time employment.
“Overall the learning experience was largely positive as I got to be at home for some important events such as the lambing season and not miss out on any college but the main detraction was the social isolation,” he said.
Lauryn Mckeon, a second year General Nursing student at Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT), said she is excited about the return of in-person teaching and a more enjoyable college experience this year having found it difficult to concentrate at home.
Similarly, Criodán Ó Murchú, a recent Chemistry graduate, struggled while studying from home. The 23-year-old who is about to embark on a masters in Environmental Sciences at NUIG, said it is “significantly easier” to study in-person “without the barrier of distance and miscommunication”.
Terence Rooney (22), president of DCU’s Student Union, said while the flexibility of online teaching offers a valuable learning experience and accommodates students with specific needs, “the general consensus is students are very excited to return to campus, to reconnect and engage in student life once again.”
All universities are planning to resume face-to-face lectures, with some planning remote classes for larger groups, but many students said they felt aspects of remote learning such as recorded lectures should remain in place.
Students who spoke to The Irish Times also had mixed opinions on whether vaccines should be mandatory to access campus facilities.
Colleges say students will not be required to be vaccinated in order to access their campuses but will need to show a vaccination cert when entering indoor college facilities such as canteens and bars.
Biomedical Engineering student Iseult Bracken (19) said not requiring students to be vaccinated in order to return to campus is a "mistake". The second year student from Co Laois who is studying at UCD felt only those who have been fully vaccinated should be allowed avail of in-person teaching.
Luke O'Gorman, a third year student at Mary Immaculate College, feels the decision not to make vaccines mandatory on college campuses is "asking for trouble". The 20-year-old who studies Irish and Maths said it is important for students to return to campus but added: "I'd hate to see colleges being closed again because of those who aren't vaccinated."
On-campus vaccination centres
President of the Union of Students Ireland, Clare Austick, noted a distinction must be made between a student accessing campus facilities and visiting other indoor public spaces: "This is not a one size fits all model. Students will still need social spaces to wind down after and between lectures and must have access to meals throughout the day."
However, she added that when the initial framework for reopening of colleges was published, “there was not an expectation that we would be so far along in the vaccination process”.
The Government has announced plans to establish pop-up vaccination centres on campuses. Student unions said they were encouraging those returning to campus to get vaccinated and are seeing a huge demand for vaccine uptake among students.
Earlier this year, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris launched a project which will examine how higher level education could be reshaped following the Covid-19 pandemic. Findings and recommendations from the project, Next Steps for Teaching and Learning: Moving Forward Together, will be published in November.
Cillian O’Donohue, president of UL Student Life, said while students believe third level education should return to campus, “the option should be there for students to watch the lectures back. The pandemic has proved that it is possible but it’s up to the institutions to implement this”.
For students with disabilities, remote teaching brought many welcome changes to their university learning experience.
Dr Bairbre Fleming, Deputy Director of UCD Access & Lifelong Learning, explained that the pandemic changed many aspects of university learning in positive ways which have particularly benefited students with caring needs and those managing chronic illnesses or fatigue: "In the Churchillian mode of 'never wasting a good crisis' the move to remote learning and support has introduced and enhanced several aspects of the student experience."
“The crisis has in many ways been the opportunity to rethink how we support students with disabilities and to offer them the flexibility and service delivery they need to maximise their participation,” she added.
Mairead Maguire, who is in her third year studying History and Politics at TCD, said her disability can cause her energy levels to fluctuate, meaning spending hours on campus between lectures is often “impractical”.
Another TCD student, Rachel Murphy, found there were "surprising benefits" to remote learning. The fourth year History student who suffers from chronic illnesses said she hopes to attend some in-person classes in her final year but thinks there should be options available to students to attend remotely or watch recordings.
Catherine Gallagher (24), is a PhD student at DCU's School of Communications and has been studying at her family home in Achill Island since March 2020. As a student with a disability, she said studying remotely was "a very isolating time".
“Suddenly I was doing my work and routine without the usual support I would receive from a personal assistant during my working hours, this slowed my work down.”
However, she explained the move to remote learning is an accommodation disabled students have advocated for strongly. “I think there needs to be an overhaul in access to materials for students,” she said, “be it digitally, visually, aurally etc. Materials and content need to be accessible. Having recorded lectures is so important for disabled students, but it is also universally helpful.”