Campuses were among the first to close. Some third levels already had a basic infrastructure for online learning. For many others, it meant a massive and quick adjustment to online delivery while still helping worried and distressed students whose life had been pulled out from under them.
For all third-level institutions, however, the pandemic has presented a major challenge, with staff from all departments having to rapidly change how they deliver courses while at the same time trying to protect the interests of the students while guaranteeing the integrity of each individual programme.
The disruption caused by coronavirus has prompted many institutions to review their course offerings and to move them from a purely in-class delivery model to one that incorporates modern technology to facilitate distant and online learning.
The following is what a selection of institutions are planning for the autumn. Students are advised to contact their own colleges for more information.
What they use: Moodle as a virtual-learning environment, TurnItIn for assignment submission (a widely used tool for third levels to check for plagiarism).
What's unique: Since 2002, live online teaching has been Sligo IT's core teaching method. The college was one of the first in the world to use this technique. After trying a few different tools, they have settled on Adobe Connect. "Teaching live online, if done well, can be very effective," a spokesperson says. "It can be highly engaging with great interaction between the lecturer and the students and can even facilitate small group discussions in breakout rooms. Because of its similarity with classroom teaching, with appropriate training, lecturers can learn the techniques quickly, use their existing learning materials, allowing us to quickly move courses online when we are asked to respond to demand from employers. Unusually, their online offering means that learners interact with their lecturers online. IT Sligo also runs remote-access labs for engineering and science students, and they recently received HEA funding to develop fulltime online programmes for people who would find it too challenging to attend on campus, whether that be because of disabilities, caring responsibilities or other issues, and these programmes are recruiting for September.
Plans for 2020-21: The college is perhaps among the most ready for the Covid-19 crisis. It has established two taskforce teams to address the short,medium and long-term impact of Covid-19 on third-level education. They hope to open the campus in September but will continue teaching remotely and improving techniques if this cannot happen. They are also looking at a "hybrid flexible" and a "flipped classroom" model if face-to-face contact needs to be minimised. This would mean lecturers recording their classes and giving students exercises to apply their learning before meeting them in smaller groups.
“Staying innovative and ahead of the game is something we continually strive for, as demonstrated by our broad portfolio of 140+ online programmes. In the current crisis, and because we had the infrastructure in place, moving over all our courses to remote delivery went relatively smoothly. A lot of institutions struggled with this when they suddenly had to close their doors and move everything online. For us, it was a case of quietly and confidently switching all our courses over to remote online teaching.”
Dublin City University
What they use: A wide range of digital tools and platforms as part of Loop, with Moodle at the core. The university uses Zoom for live teaching, Mahara for eportfolios and Unicam to support video and rich media learning. Students are encouraged to innovate through their own tools as new technologies emerge.
What's unique: DCU is the pioneer of third-level online and distance learning in Ireland. With more than 35 years experience in the design of online distance education it hosts the National Institute for Digital Learning and, last year, hosted the World Conference on Online Learning. The university has a strategic partnership with FutureLearn which offers online courses and degrees from leading institutions and with Arizona State University, one of the leaders in online education.
Plans for 2020-21: DCU's Mark Brown says the university will develop its suite of online courses. "With plans well under way for the start of the new academic year should restrictions continue, we want to be proactive and leverage opportunities in the longer term. This includes continuing our partnership with FutureLearn and developing more credit-bearing microcredentials, running a new free online course on "how to learn online" for students, and building strategic partnerships to increase online offerings.
University of Limerick
What they use: The semester has continued for UL students using the open source platform Sakai, with 10,000 students accessing it every day. Use of UL's digital classroom and collaboration technologies such as Big Blue Button, Microsoft Teams and Skype for Business have skyrocketed.
What's unique: UL has put in place a student engagement and success unit to help students manage studying remotely. A learning technology forum has provided centralised support and professional development for teaching staff via webinars and resources. UL's Glucksman Library has provided access to resources.
Plans for 2020-21: Kerstin May, UL's vice-president of academic affairs and student engagement, says that the university cannot fully translate a face-to-face learning experience into online or blended modes but that they have to fully engage with the new reality. "We will see a transformation of higher education that includes more flipped classroom approaches and students as partners."
UL expects to see further shifts from high-stakes exams to formative assessments that use algorithms and learning analytics to offer personalised feedback to students and teachers. They expect that the duration and shape of degrees will change in terms of length, how they’re offered and how they’re credited.
Technological University of Dublin
What they use: The university uses both Brightspace and Moodle as virtual learning platforms.
What's unique: Technology has always played a role in how modules at TU Dublin (formerly DIT, IT Blanchardstown and IT Tallaght before they merged) in order to attract a diverse study body and deliver flexible programmes in line with its mission. The past few months, while challenging, have been used to test the experience of virtual provision. TU Dublin says it has engaged with staff and students to learn from their perspective about what elements can be incorporated into future blended delivery.
Plans for 2020-21: The next academic year in TU Dublin is scheduled to begin as usual on September 1st, with programme delivery resuming on September 21st, says a spokesperson. "This gives us a very short timeframe within which to reconfigure activities and facilities to cope with Covid-19. Our aim is to prioritise face-to-face activity in labs, kitchens and studios, and to engage directly where possible with first-year students. Due to the projected social distancing constraints, it is highly likely that a blend of online delivery and face to face engagement will be part of the mix for all students for semester one."
University College Cork
What they use: Canvas as the institutional virtual learning environment, Panopto for recording video content, MS Teams for collaboration and video conferencing and the full suite of MS Office 365 tools and Google education apps.
What's unique: The university says its use of Canvas means all learning tools are integrated for students but, more significantly, they now support students and staff with a 24/7 dedicated helpline and chatline. Anyone with a UCC account can immediately get through to this service and get help, whether it is how to create content on Canvas, how to set up a discussion forum or how to submit an assignment in answer to an exam question.
Plans for 2020-21: "It is such a fluid situation," says a university spokesperson. "Any students who need to take supplemental examinations will be accommodated online. September is still a little of the unknown but we are considering contingency plans for more online teaching if public health advice dictates students can't be on campus for a while longer. We are confident we have the appropriate technology to enable us to do this."
What they use: IT Carlow implemented a roadmap in blended learning in 2019, and since then has been supporting the use of Blackboard Collaborate as a virtual classroom. It also uses MS Teams as a pedagogical support platform.
What's unique: "Our learner-centred approach will always be our underlying core value and we will continue to place the learner at the heart of all our activities, supporting their personal, social and professional learning throughout their time at Institute of Technology Carlow,"says David Denieffe, vice-president for academic affairs at IT Carlow .
Plans for 2020-21: IT Carlow is proceeding with a hybrid approach to teaching and learning for the start of the coming academic year, supporting students both online and when on campus. "Social interaction and strengthening connections amongst all our learners will continue to be our priorities as we begin the new academic year," adds Denieffe.
What they use: Blackboard, frequent contact through online discussion forums, webinars and online learning activities provide opportunities for student exchanges which make learning just as interactive as the classroom experience.
What's unique: NUI Galway is already home to more than 60 undergraduate and postgraduate fully online and blended learning programmes, designed in a part-time, modular format which provide students with an opportunity to take modules on a standalone, CPD basis or to accumulate credit over a time period that suits their personal and professional lives. A comprehensive range of science and technology subjects, along with specialist modules, are also available in an online format; this includes the BSc in science and technology.
Plans for 2020-21: The university is planning a later start date of September 28th for all taught students, with start dates for incoming first years to be confirmed. Teaching will be delivered through a mix of face-to-face on-campus and online methods, in consultation with staff and student representatives.
What they use: A virtual learning environment that provides a range of tools and resource to support online learning, teaching and assessment including quizzes, communication and collaboration tools, assessment and feedback tools, and the dissemination of resources such as course files, videos and links to external resources.
What's unique: Because not all students have access to the technology for learning online, the university has been working to repurpose its laptops, while one lecturer has set up a GoFundMe campaign to purchase laptops for students in need. Staff are using the least-possible bandwidth-intensive resources for students without access to reliable broadband. Staff are building interactivity into live lecturers and working to maintain connection and provide student supports. The university says that dialogue and collaboration with students has been key to its approach.
Plans for 2020-21: Maynooth will put in place additional supports for incoming first year students and hopes that it will be offering – albeit socially distant – teaching and learning from September. Students will continue to have online access to a range of specialist supports, such as the maths support centre and writing centre.
University College Dublin:
What they use: UCD already had platforms in place for library access and Brightspace for student learning when the campus closed in March. Learning at UCD has followed a blended model for many years. UCD IT Services offer the campus community a wide range of technologies to assist with teaching and research ranging from the Brightspace virtual learning environment enabling learning from anywhere, expertise in developing various types of virtual content, ePortfolios and even more options for collaborative learning.
What's unique: UCD has extended its VPN service so students and faculty could access materials. A college spokesperson said they don't want students to miss out on their university experience so they are working to stay connected through various channels. The university already delivers fully online programmes in areas including environmental sustainability, food nutrition and health, forensic computing and cybercrime, world heritage conservation, safety and health at work.
Plans for 2020-21: "Although it is too soon to confirm how classes will be given in September, the intention is to provide a campus-based experience for students and the university will follow the Government's public-health protocols in relation to social distancing, movement and gatherings, and use of personal protective equipment," a spokesperson said. "Inevitably the use of online learning platforms will form an important part of classes for the coming trimester and the university is currently preparing plans on how classes will be delivered."
What they use: Moodle, with a focus on fostering active student engagement. Adobe Connect and Microsoft Teams are also part of AIT's suite of virtual learning tools.
What's unique: In 2019, AIT established the faculty of "continuing, professional, online and distance learning" to deliver relevant and flexible learning opportunities to those in the midlands and beyond. Up to 900 learners nationally have taken one of the online blended learning programmes. They are devising an AIT digital ecosystem to enable staff design learning, teaching and assessment both on and off campus. The college is also trying to ensure the student experience will not be forgotten.
Plans for 2020-21: AIT has convened a scenario planning group chaired by its president, Professor Ciarán Ó Catháin.
What they use: Ireland's oldest school of law is as up-to-date as any other Irish third level and uses Moodle for its online learning environment.
Plans for 2020: The institution offers a wide range of accessible part–time and blended/online courses in specialist areas of the law. Preparations are under way to deliver our courses fully online until 2021.
What's unique: All courses are scheduled to run from September/October 2020 online and in person depending on the safety of the Covid–19 outbreak and advice from the HSE. To adapt to Covid-19 circumstances, the online application process for the diploma in legal studies and the barrister-at-law entrance exam has been updated, so all supporting documents as well as the application can be submitted online.
What they use: Moodle and Office365, with lecturers supported by DigitalEd.ie, a digital education training platform. The library provides real-time live chat 24/7.
What's unique: GMIT highlights its access initiatives and disability supports for students in need and says it is working to deliver the same experience online.
Plans for 2020-21: Plans are under way to further support staff and students in a blended model of delivery. "It will not be possible or desirable for GMIT to move its teaching and learning process to a fully online model of delivery as this would be counter to our ethos of providing an applied, technological and professional student experience," a spokesperson says. GMIT has established a blended and online learning transformation (BOLT) unit to support this transition to blended delivery. The college is planning for the new academic year to ensure continuity of provision and to ensure that, although the student experience will be different, it will utilise all of the digital tools necessary to make it immersive and engaging for its student community.
The TEFL Institute of Ireland
What they use: Multiple platforms to deliver online training including the world's most popular learning management system, Moodle is easy to use and provides a rich, modern learning experience, which is a learning platform designed to provide educators, administrators and learners with a single robust, secure and integrated system to create personalised learning environments.
What's unique: The TEFL Institute of Ireland is one of the most accredited course providers in Ireland, with a strong reputation for high-quality learning experiences, and internationally recognised TEFL courses. They are one of a few who offer Ofqual regulated Level 5 TEFL certification in teaching English as a foreign language, (QCF) which is the flexible, affordable alternative to CELTA and is one of the highest TEFL qualifications available online.
Plans for 2020-21: The plan for 2020/2021 is to develop further virtual classroom training both within Ireland and globally, as well as developing specific courses for transition year students. They are also in the process of establishing unique language training in both Spain and Italy through the use of conversation rather than traditional schooling.
Trinity College Dublin:
What they use: Blackboard, which offers diverse options for delivering lectures and other teaching content. Tuition will follow a hybrid model which combines online and face-to-face elements such as online lectures for larger class groupings and face-to-face seminars, tutorials and laboratory classes for smaller groups.
What's unique: All students will have some degree of face-to-face teaching in 2020-2021. Trinity offers online postgraduate courses, continuous professional development courses and free online courses. Trinity has decided that Erasmus exchanges – as part of the long established EU-wide programme for students – will proceed in the first semester, should students wish to avail of them.
Plans for 2020-21: TCD announced last week that college would open on September 28th. Orientation for all new students will take place in the week before teaching resumes, starting September 21st. "We are committed to continuing with face-to-face education as a core element of the experience of attending Trinity and our intention is to facilitate seminars, laboratory classes and tutorials as far as possible for all students, while at all times following Government guidelines on social distancing," said provost Dr Patrick Prendergast.
Note: This is not an exhaustive list. Students planning on attending college this autumn are advised to contact the faculty in question for more information on individual courses.