University moves online: Where planning for the unknown is the only certainty

Can digital courses match the traditional face-to-face classroom model?

As uncertainty surrounding the longevity of social distancing measures is likely to continue into the autumn at the very least, the rush to move third-level programmes online has sparked a debate over the quality of such courses and how they will compare with those delivered through the traditional means.

Students registering for college in September will expect more than the emergency remote teaching approach that was adopted in the closing weeks of the last academic year. Most will accept that the college social experience will be limited to some degree this year but they will at the very least also expect learning outcomes to be on a par with what was on offer in previous years.

We spoke to a number of academics and asked them whether it is possible to improve learning outcomes through online and distance learning methodologies.

Prof Mark Brown is the Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning at DCU. He says effective online education has very little to do with the “delivery” of content. Online education becomes highly engaging and interactive where knowledge is built with students “through socially interactive and critically reflective learning experiences”.


The approach involves far more than just posting lecture slides online and hosting video recordings of lectures on the virtual learning platform.

“Well-designed asynchronous, self-directed and small group learning experiences can be far more engaging, interactive and challenging than sitting passively in front of a screen watching a live or recorded lecture,” says Prof Brown.

“Aside from successfully passing the course the real measure of our success is whether the learning experience was engaging, enjoyable and academically challenging where students develop important transversal skills, including learning how to learn in more critical, innovative and imaginative ways for a rapidly changing future,” he says.

One of the biggest obstacles to designing more impactful online learning experiences is the lack of professional development for educators – particularly for those who are new to teaching online.

“We need to support our educators to develop the knowledge, skills and courage to be creative and imaginative in how they design new digital spaces for learning,” says Prof Brown.

"It also needs to be noted that in Ireland many online degree programmes receive no Government funding. This is a major barrier and disincentive to universities investing in the development of online education."

Improved learning outcomes

Nuala McGuinn is the Director of NUI Galway’s Centre for Adult Learning and Professional Development and she believes the right approach to online learning can lead to improved learning outcomes.

“Students have diverse learning needs, this was always the case whether they were taught in the traditional classroom mode or via online learning,” she says.

“One of the advantages of online learning is that it allows students to choose where, when, and how they wish to learn. So a well-designed online course will allow the student to engage with the course material through multiple means.”

For a course to transition from one method of delivery to another, it is important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy.

“In an online course, the role of the instructor moves from delivering content and instruction to one of supporting and guiding the construction of knowledge through the facilitation of communication between course participants,” says McGuinn.

The good news for colleges is that most already have virtual learning systems and a range of tools in place that can facilitate remote working and distance learning. However, it is important that they are used in the right context and to the right degree.

“While instructors have powerful tools available to them through the virtual learning environment, it is important to get the balance right,” says McGuinn.

“Each tool has its own purpose and a balance is required in the use of these tools so not to overwhelm the learner and also taking into consideration their access to technology and internet connectivity from home,” she says.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework designed to improve the learning experience for students. The approach acknowledges that one size does not necessarily fit all and it offers flexible methods of teaching, assessment and engagement and, according to McGuinn, its principles can be applied to designing online courses without causing much additional work.

“The best practice principles of UDL can also be applied in the design of assessments and provides students an opportunity to validate their learning in more creative ways than just end-of-term written assessments and proctored examinations.”

“Online courses provide flexibility in the timing and type of assessments used and can lead to improved learning outcomes,” she adds.

Students can be more prepared ahead of class which means they arrive with valuable background knowledge of the subject area which allows the instructor to focus in on other areas during the live class.

“The purpose of these live interactions can focus on the real-world application of learning or an opportunity to consolidate the theory or concepts and foster a community of learning amongst course participants,” says McGuinn.

Planning and design

Dr Mary Fitzpatrick, is Head of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at UL. She emphasises the time and effort it takes to design an online course

“While there are many benefits to online course delivery and assessment, it is critical that these are as a result of careful curriculum planning and design at programme team level which can take many months,” she says.

“Where this is the case, the benefits include greater flexibility on the part of the student in terms of accessing material, engaging with resources and setting their own pace of study. It allows for the development of technical skills and critical problem solving in an alternative environment.

“For lecturers, it can also generate similar benefits in terms of flexibility but also developing alternative means of engaging with the students in a more global platform.

“Notwithstanding the incredible response to the emergency transition to online learning and assessment, there are also many challenges in the situation we find ourselves in.

“Where we might think that this is the new normal, there is nothing normal about the way we are working, living and studying, as we continue to live through this pandemic and all the consequences that this brings at a personal, professional and social level. The challenge for the sector is to ensure that we continue work in a collaborative way to support both teachers and students in the next phase of academic planning for the new academic year.

“What often takes nine to 12 months to bring online was brought online in a matter of days. This was accepted by staff and students in light of the emergency, yet there will be less tolerance and forgiveness for a less-than-planned approach in autumn 20/21,” she adds.

The challenge for the sector, she says, is to plan for the next academic year, “in a way that meets the expectations of students and the capacity of staff and institutions, where planning for the unknown is the only constant.”


Of course, many courses which were forced online due to the spread of the Covid-19 virus would look very different were they originally designed with online delivery in mind.

“Adapting is not the same thing as programme design. Don’t think that it is anything more than a response to challenges,” says Kathleen Hughes who is a lecturer in marketing at TU Dublin’s College of Business.

Whereas students could usually ask questions during face-to-face lessons, or approach the instructor once the class or lecture ended, the loss of this key characteristic of college learning means measures need to be taken to compensate for the loss of person-to-person communication and class participation.

“You can tell when you talk through concepts whether two people have got it, 80 per cent have got it or if there’s a couple at the back not really paying attention. That’s all gone,” says Hughes.

Most new online learning platforms will offer workable solutions allowing instructors to address students individually or in groups during online sessions.

“I can take each group into a private break-out room which is not recorded and have a personal meeting with them while the others are working on something else,” says Hughes.

What lies ahead?

The pandemic has already changed how we think about higher education.

Universities and colleges across Ireland and further afield will spend the rest of the summer months working out how they will deliver their courses in a socially-distant context.

A lot has already been learned.

While the purely online model of distance education allows students the freedom to study at their own pace it is unlikely to be adopted in full in the short term especially while some chance still remains of a return to campus.

Instead, most institutions have stated their intention to adopt hybrid models or a blend of online and traditional face-to-face instruction.

Rapidly developing online content will not always result in a best-practice high-quality online offering and the degree to which the blend is applied will most likely depend on the individual course and the resources available to the college.

While some courses were originally developed pre-Covid to incorporate some degree of online teaching not all will fit the online-only format.

Realising the goal of offering a high-quality online programme will require more funding and a good degree of organisational planning on the part of colleges and universities – not least because it will require more training and the development of a more sophisticated technological course infrastructure.

Now that programmes have started to move from the traditional face-to-face setting to the virtual learning environment are we likely to see an acceleration of “the great onlining of Irish higher education” as it was described by one academic?

“The pivot to rapidly teach online has forced us to think around corners and fast-track the future. While history teaches us to be wary about making speculative claims about the future it is highly probable that online education will never be the same again,” says Prof Brown.

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.