Online Learning in the Irish Context: Submission to Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection

At very short notice, last Wednesday, Professor Brian MacCraith, President of Dublin City University, and Professor Mark Brown, Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning,  along with representatives from the UK Open University and Trinity College Dublin, were invited to give a brief presentation to the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection. A transcript of these presentations appears on the Committee’s website under the discussion topic of ‘Online Learning at University‘. The presentations and follow up discussion was also streamed live and a recording should be available in the next few weeks.


In addition to the short presentations, each institution was requested to prepare a written Executive Summary and invited to submit relevant background materials. The following is a copy Dublin City University’s submission which was supported with copies of a number of relevant high-level reports. The DCU submission was written at very short notice and offers insights and discussion points from our experience, although we also tried to raise a number of matters of national significance.

Executive Summary – Submission to Joint Committee

The recent report to the European Commission by the High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education (2014), chaired by former President Mary McAleese, claims that ‘…we risk being left behind as other parts of the world act more nimbly in garnering the benefits of technology’ (p.6). The report states it is imperative for Europe to take the lead in this area but to date many universities are not yet ready for this change and governments have been slow to respond, especially in the area of funding for higher education. Therefore, it is timely the Joint Committee has decided to consider ’Studying at University Through On-line Learning’. DCU has over 30 years experience in offering flexible/online education and we welcome the opportunity to contribute to this discussion.

While there is a lot of hype and hope written about the disruptive potential of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) movement, it is important to note that online learning is not new. For example, DCU has been designing and delivering online courses for the last decade and has almost one thousand off-campus, part-time, online students distributed throughout Ireland with a small number living overseas. As the recent Porto Declaration on European MOOCs (2014) observes, the movement is poorly defined and MOOCs are just the latest development in a long history of the use of new technologies in higher education. In many cases this history is littered with old ideas being harnessed to the latest new technologies with limited transformative advantage.

That said, the digital world made possible by the Internet is transforming the way almost all human transactions are conducted, including teaching and learning. With access through the Internet to an abundance of Open Educational Resources (OER) universities are now just one source amongst many for ideas, knowledge and innovation. In this respect, the Internet rather than the MOOC is the disruptive force. The Internet has swept almost every corner of the globe creating disruptive change and transformation—for better and worse. The disruptions in higher education closely parallel shifts in other turbulent industries and service sectors in recent years, and traditional higher education institutions have responded to these changes with varying degrees of success.

In DCU’s case, the creation of a Digital Campus is a key strand of our Strategic Plan 2012 – 2017 and ‘Loop’, our online learning environment, has quickly become a defining feature of the student experience. In Loop, every week, thousands of students discuss course topics and access online study materials. Also, DCU has a number of strategic partnerships around the world that make extensive use of Loop to support programme delivery, including a significant relationship with Arizona State University (ASU) in the United States (US). Notably, ASU is the largest public university in the US with over 80,000 students including almost 20,000 studying fully online. In November 2014, ASU and DCU launched a jointly developed online MSc in Biomedical Diagnostics as part of a new International School. Further jointly developed online courses with ASU are planned over 2015 and beyond.

The MOOC movement has been embraced with surprising speed by many of the world’s top universities, aware of both the great opportunities and serious threats inherent in this transformation. However the rush to develop MOOCs is not as transformative as we have been lead to believe. On the surface MOOCs appear to disrupt traditional higher education systems, but on the other hand their legitimacy as an educational form derives primarily from their association with high status elite universities (Selwyn & Bulfin, 2014). Arguably, by analogy with the invention of the steam engine, there is a lot of huff, puff, single-track thinking associated with MOOCs as many traditional universities rush to follow early adopters to secure some form of advantage. In many cases the drivers for adopting MOOCs are not well aligned with institutional missions and there is a sense in which the initial head of steam is motivated by fear of missing out.

A closer analysis of the instructional design of MOOCs reveals they largely adopt a traditional transmission view of learning (Margaryan, Bianco & Littlejohn, 2014), which is unlikely to produce the type of graduate required in the 21st Century. Furthermore, as the Porto Declaration for European MOOCs (2014) points out, they predominately attract well-educated participants from the developed world and suffer from very low completion rates. Given actual and opportunity costs there is also limited evidence that MOOCs provide a significant pipeline for full fee paying students, as evidenced by the 35 people out of a total of 212,000 registrations who indicated on their University of London International Programmes application form that they took one of their four Coursera MOOCs before applying for a full degree programme (Grainger, 2013). Accordingly, MOOCs should not be viewed as an exemplar or gold standard of online learning and it needs to be acknowledged that harnessing the potential of new digitally mediated teaching and learning is far more complex.

In our experience successful Open and Online Education initiatives require vision and strategic leadership, which is driven by, and in alignment with, a clear institutional mission. At DCU this mission is one of ‘Transforming lives and societies through education, research and innovation’ (DCU, 2012, p.14). Implementing this mission through more flexible models of online learning is part of our DNA as DCU has always strived since its establishment to find ways of extending access to quality higher education through the innovative use of new technologies. The main driver for online learning is not about making money but rather ensuring everyone—individuals, remote regions and entire countries—can benefit from the transformative potential of digitally mediated higher education.

‘By 2016, full equality of provision and support will have been achieved in higher education for all students, regardless of time, place or pace of study. A range of indicators will be developed to measure achievement of this goal, with a review of progress before the end of 2014’ (p.5).

Progress to date has been minimal. The High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education (2014) also recognises the need to address this issue. It makes a strong recommendation that ‘National funding frameworks should create incentives, especially in the context of new forms of performance based funding, for higher education institutions to open up education, develop more flexible modes of delivery and diversify their student population’ (High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education, 2014, p.35).Rather than sit by as a passive observer and wait for changes, DCU is moving with speed and strategic foresight to harness the opportunities available through digital learning. In November 2013, Minister Ruairi Quinn and Lord David Putnam, Ireland’s Digital Ambassador, launched the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL)[1]. Professor Mark Brown was appointed the inaugural Director and Ireland’s first Chair in Digital Learning. Mark was previously Director of the National Centre for Teaching and Learning and Director of the Distance Education and Learning Futures Alliance (DELFA) at Massey University, New Zealand. In New Zealand he had strategic oversight of Massey’s multi-campus teaching and learning environment, including 16,500 online/distance students, led the country’s first enterprise wide Massive Open Online Couse (MOOC) initiative through Open2Study[2], and played a key role in the establishment of the Massey University Worldwide brand[3], which included a significant partnership with the World Bank.

Since the establishment of the NIDL, European Commission funding has been secured to participate in three major online learning projects (HOME, EMPOWER & SCORE2020). In March 2015, as part of SCORE2020, the NIDL will host a National MOOC Symposium and this event will be followed in May by the high profile UK/Ireland Moodle conference. The NIDL is also leading a major project to develop a ‘Readiness Toolbox for Flexible Learners’ supported by The National Forum for the Enhancement in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education through the HEA-backed Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund. DCU is also a significant partner in two other major projects supported by this fund. Notably, in response to growing concerns about quality, Professor Brown is playing a lead role in a project funded by the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) to review current quality frameworks, guidelines and standards for online learning.

A high-level International Advisory Board[4] of leading experts in the field of online learning has been appointed to the NIDL to help guide future developments in this field. In November 2014 DCU jointly announced with Arizona State University (ASU) our intention to partner with the highly regarded Khan Academy[5] to use online resources to enhance first-year student success in the area of Mathematics. Also the NIDL announced in November a three-way agreement with the Irish Learning Technology Association (ILTA) and the New Media Consortium (NMC) in the United States (US) to produce Ireland’s first Horizon Report[6] on the challenges, future trends and potential of emerging technologies for higher education.

In line with DCU’s institutional mission, the NIDL has an ethos of leading rather than following and we believe that future online learning initiatives in Ireland would benefit from adopting a similar philosophy. There is a need to consider the longer-term horizon when thinking about the implications of online learning and a good example of this is the recent launch of ‘DCU Connected’[7]. We have adopted the term ‘DCU Connected’ to describe courses available to students who choose a flexible study option. These options encompass a growing range of flexibly delivered undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes and short courses. In addition, ‘DCU Connected’ encompasses our transnational initiatives in a number of countries where students are primarily studying online, off-campus and/or through one of our strategic partners. We call it a connected education. Connecting our students to a quality education wherever they are.

The term ‘DCU Connected’ was chosen because we believe the current preoccupation with online learning is overly narrow and institutionally centric. Moreover, it focuses on a delivery mode rather than emphasising the type of learning experience we want to achieve through new digital technologies. It would not make sense to market ‘DCU Face-to Face’ as a brand, so in the context of online learning we should be thinking ahead of the curve and prepare for a situation when a significant number of students will not be resident in Ireland.

At the same time, we believe that Ireland needs to be concerned to protect its reputation for offering high quality online degree programmes. While new business models are emerging with public-private partnerships, such as the relationship the University of Liverpool has with Laureate in delivering a selection of online postgraduate degrees and the recent announcement by the University of Birmingham to work with Wiley Publishing to expand its distance education offerings, higher education is not like other goods and services. More to the point, knowledge is not a product but rather an exchange or dynamic process involving interaction and co-construction between learners and expert teachers. If the quality of online learning is to be treated and valued at the same level as traditional campus-based teaching, then academic staff must be actively engaged in the design, delivery and evaluation process. In this respect, digital learning should be seen as the ‘new normal’ and we support the recommendation of the High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education (2014) that ‘All staff teaching in higher education institutions should receive training in relevant digital technologies and pedagogies as part of initial training and continuous professional development’ (p.33). After all, effective professional learning cannot be left to chance, as teachers will largely determine the success of new digital technologies in higher education.

The message that Ireland conveys about online learning to the developing world also needs careful thought. In the case of ‘DCU Connected’, we are committed to offering globally recognised qualifications to students, wherever they are, providing a unique Irish perspective in areas of world-class expertise. However, in today’s globally connected world we understand the importance of developing local capacity and customising our short courses and degree programmes to meet local needs. The principle of customisation is an important philosophy underpinning ‘DCU Connected’, as we do not want to follow other major Western countries by inadvertently promoting online learning to the developing world as a new form of colonist expansion. DCU’s partnership with Princess Nora Bint Abdul Rahman University in Saudi Arabia is a good example of how we have customised an undergraduate business degree and adopted new technologies working with a local women’s university to help transform lives and societies.

In keeping with this philosophy, DCU is also a member of the OpenUpEd MOOC initiative[8] which promotes European values of equity, inclusion, and cultural and language diversity. At this stage no other Irish higher education institution has joined this distinctive MOOC initiative funded by the European Commission under the Opening Up Education Programme. There is no doubt that MOOCs have a role to play in the future of both second and third level education, and the promotion of life-long learning more generally, as well articulated by the Norwegian MOOC Commission (2013). However, rather than standalone we believe Ireland will benefit from active participation in European funded initiatives. As previously mentioned, DCU is playing a leadership role in several European MOOC-related projects and has also received external funding to support a doctoral scholarship in this area.

In conclusion, new digital technologies have enormous potential to enable universities to meet a broader range of learners’ needs, to deepen and expand the learning experience of third level students (as often demanded by industry and business partners), and to adapt traditional teaching methods. In this way Irish universities can offer a mix of face-to-face and online learning possibilities that allow individuals to learn anywhere, anytime to gain the type of entrepreneurial skills required for the knowledge economy. However, as reported to the European Commission by the High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education (2014), it is important that educators and policy-makers, rather than the many prophets of doom or purveyors of dreams, shape the digital transformation of higher education. In this respect, Ireland has made some progress over the last year through the work of the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education with the development of a Digital Learning Roadmap – Phase 1 and related funding initiatives. However, there is a strong sense in which we are still building on the fly without and a clear destination in mind and adequate funding to enhance infrastructure and prepare the types of teachers required for digital classrooms of the future.

While we cannot predict the future or solve all our problems, especially under the current financial climate, Ireland needs to adopt an offensive rather than defensive strategy to the challenges presented by online learning. As noted in the Digital Learning Roadmap, the salient question is not ‘where are we going?’ but rather ‘where do we want to go? (National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 2014, p.6). It follows from this question that discussions about the future of ’Studying at University Through On-line Learning’ needs to promote greater debate around what type of higher education system do we want to create by 2030? And more specifically, what needs to be done in the short and long-term to build this system? The answers to these questions will help us to make strategic decisions about the future of online learning and the use of new digital technologies to get the type of higher education system Ireland needs.


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