Reimagining University in the age of Covid-19

Political Communication student Alison Burns on how online learning can be a positive experience

A reduction of social distancing restrictions  could be of benefit to the GAA. Photograph:  INPHO/Donall Farmer

A reduction of social distancing restrictions could be of benefit to the GAA. Photograph: INPHO/Donall Farmer


Over the past months, much attention has been given to the impact of Covid-19 on those embarking on their third level education journey. Should you defer your university spot in the hope of a future college experience à la Normal People? Or would it be better to plough onwards, embracing Zoom lectures as part of the “new normal”?

What the discussion tends to overlook is how far the needle had already moved towards digital learning before the Coronavirus pandemic struck. Many of the most prestigious third level institutions around the world have been offering online courses both on their own websites and via third-party sites, such as Coursera and edX, for several years.

While many are short courses, comparable to a single module you would take during a more traditional degree program, professional certificates and online master’s degrees are also available. In other words, a working blueprint for online education already exists.

In addition to what is possible online, it is also important to consider the reality of university life for students before lockdown. Long gone are the days when the library was the only reliable source of information.

Personally, I can count on one hand the number of books I checked out from the library during my bachelor’s degree. Following a five year break from academia, I can’t say I was surprised that when I started my master’s program in February this year, a meeting on the most effective way to search for academic texts online was offered in lieu of a library tour.

While how students gather information may be undeniably digital, some may argue that virtual meetings and lectures fall flat when compared to heated classroom debates.

It may be different, but with good organisation on the part of the professor or tutor, the right technology and buy-in from students, there is a great deal of potential in online discussions.

It goes without saying that access to labs and other on-site resources is a necessity for some disciplines, but other faculties, including business, history and law, need to equip students with skills that will stand to them in a world where working from home will most likely be the reality.

Most academic powerhouses have the experience, high-quality staff, and brand recognition to build a superb online offering. But for many students, the main fear is not that online education will be sub-par, rather the opportunity to join clubs and societies will be taken away.

If Irish universities commit to an online approach for the coming academic year in some disciplines, it is likely that many students will decide not to relocate unnecessarily to Cork, Dublin, Galway, or Limerick.

I am sure most student societies will work hard to create strong virtual communities, and there is also potential for a positive ripple effect across local, particularly rural, communities.

For example, provided that the lockdown restrictions continue to ease, this could be a boon for rural GAA clubs up and down the country, who have reported falling numbers for years now. It would also be an opportunity for university students to get more involved with charities in their immediate area.

For budding entrepreneurs and politicians, it could be a chance to apply lessons learned online to help local businesses or campaign to accelerate the implementation of the National Broadband Plan.

If universities do embrace a digital strategy this September, a big question they need to address is how courses could and should be priced.

Several online petitions have sprung up during this health crisis to make universities across the globe address this touchy subject, driven primarily by international students.

However, given how reliant educational institutions are on this revenue stream, they have been reluctant to fully engage in the debate. A first step would be increasing transparency, outlining how the registration fees paid by Irish students and the money from overseas students entering third level education next semester will be spent to make their university experience engaging and exciting in the age of Covid-19.

Going forward, university could be different. Is different necessarily a bad thing?