Five Lessons from Learning in the Light: Reflecting on the Onlining of Irish Higher Education

By Mark Brown

Speaking from Washington DC on the morning of Thursday 12th March 2020 the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar, announced that all schools and higher education campuses across Ireland were to close at 6:00pm. This news was not totally unexpected, but the short notice caught many people by surprise and resulted in a flurry of activity within and across Irish educational institutions.

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The campus and school lockdown quickly evolved to other sectors with the Government introducing new regulations requiring all bars, restaurants and shops to close. At the time of writing, Ireland remains in a tight lockdown situation until current restrictions are reviewed on May 18th, 2020. However, there is every indication that social distancing requirements will continue for the foreseeable future and seriously impact the start of the new academic year.

No alt text provided for this imageWhen Dublin City University (DCU) hosted the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning back in November 2019 no one amongst the 800+ delegates from over 80 countries could have predicted the great onlining of Irish higher education in the weeks and now months since the Taoiseach’s announcement. The pivot to rapidly teach online has forced us to think around corners and fast-track the future (Brown, 2020). 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 (Brown, Costello & Nic Giolla Mhichil, 2020). In 2012, the New York Times declared it was the “Year of the MOOC” (Pappano, 2012) and now 2020 is likely to be known as the year when online education helped us to keep teaching and keep learning. With the benefit of hindsight there is a prophetic quality that rings remarkably true to this extract from Learning in the Light, a poem written by Réaltán Ní Leannáin for last year’s World Conference:

“We no longer stop learning when the darkness gathers,

Those old webs have crumbled in this era of light.

In an age of information, learning squats tight in our grasp, within reach of all.”

On the whole the Irish response to emergency teaching online in the face of darkness and incredibly challenging circumstances has been remarkably positive and relatively successful. The period from March 2020 to May 2020 can be described in three phases:

(i) get online quickly,

(ii) get organised to develop appropriate alternative assessments, and

(iii) get thinking about future scenarios and next steps.

While the Irish story of our response to the Covid-19 pandemic is still being written the unprecedented pivot to online learning will be etched forever into the history of higher education (Brown, 2020). As we pause, look to the future and enter a new stage, however, what lessons can we learn from the experience so far? Although the following reflections and five lessons drawing on the experiences of the NIDL team do not claim to be a definitive or representative account of how Ireland has responded to the Covid-19 global pandemic, hopefully they contribute to useful learnings and further conversations as we move forward.

You can read the five lessons and the rest of this blog post on Mark’s personal Linkedin account.

“Out of Intense Complexities, Intense Simplicities Emerge”: Assessment and the Pivot Online

By Dr Orna Farrell

On the 20th of April, I gave a presentation at a webinar organised by European Distance and Elearning Network (EDEN) about how to design and manage assessments for online learning which was part of a webinar series called Education in Time of a Pandemic. The webinar contributors included Prof. Mark Brown from DCU’s National Institute for Digital Learning, Dr. Lisa Marie Blaschke from the University of Oldenburg and Dr. Alfredo Soeiro from the University of Porto. I started my presentation with a quotation from Winston Churchill:

“Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge”.

I felt this quote was appropriate for the current educational context because although it is a very uncertain time, there could be potential to reimagine our approaches to assessment. For example, we could take this opportunity to clear out some of the deadwood or kill a few sacred cows in the educational system. The sacred cow I focused on was the campus-based examination system.

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Photo by Biel Morro on Unsplash

In the literature on assessment, exams are considered to be a poor measure of student learning which emphasizes knowledge reproduction rather than critical thinking. For example:

“they tend to measure lower order thinking skills in a decontextualized manner at a time when the literature frequently argues for the benefits of a richer, authentic approach to assessment” (Villarroel, Boud, Bloxham, Bruna, 2020, p. 38)

If the literature indicates that richer authentic approaches to assessment can benefit student learning, why are higher education institutions so attached to exams? Face-to-face campus-based exams are surrounded by ritual, bureaucracy and awe in higher education. I think we should take advantage of the opportunity that the pivot online created by the Coronavirus pandemic and kill the sacred cow of closed book campus based exams permanently.

Replicating campus-based exams online through timed proctored online exams is not the solution. In her recent presentation at #Gastagoesglobal, Sheila McNeill talked about how online proctored exams promote a culture of distrust and surveillance and how we should instead be creating a culture of support, trust and development for our students.

Student Engagement and Covid-19

When designing alternative emergency assessments for our students we need to think about student engagement in the context of Covid-19 pandemic. Adapting Kahu’s (2013) model of student engagement to encompass the Covid19 pandemic context is a useful lens to help us understand how our students can engage and learn successfully during this crisis.

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Important factors that we should consider are lifeload, course and assessment design, access to adequate broadband and computing equipment, the availability and accessibility of institutional remote online supports. Kahu (2013, p. 767) describes lifeload as “the sum of all the pressures a student has in their life, including university”, and is seen as being a critical factor influencing student engagement. Everyone including students and staff are experiencing increased lifeload pressures due to the pandemic, such as illness, caring responsibilities, home schooling, and remote working. Time management and organisational skills are key skills for student success (Farrell & Brunton, 2020). In addition, students are experiencing difficulties with broadband, access to computers, finding quiet study space and sufficient time to study. These pressures are impacting on our students well-being, their time, and their ability to learn successfully.

Our Approach to Crisis Assessment

In Dublin City University (DCU), the institution identified four key principles for crisis assessment:

  1. Validity

  2. Equivalence

  3. Proportionality

  4. Academic Integrity

These principles were applied across the University coupled with coupled advice for choosing alternative assessments to adapt exams into more appropriate alternative assessments. In our DCU Connected Humanities programmes, for example, which are modular online degrees we applied these four principles and adapted our exams into openbook take home assessments. Openbook take home assessments adhered to these principles and were a flexible, low bandwidth asynchronous assessment approach.

Alternative Assessment Ideas

In the webinar, we discussed a number of alternative assessment ideas, such as:

    • Eportfolio

    • Collaborative wiki

    • Asynchronous online debate

    • Vlog

    • Blog

    • Podcast

    • Online presentation

    • Asynchronous group project-Gdocs

    • Video creation

    • Reflective journal

    • Peer assessment

My colleagues from the NIDL, Suzanne Stone and Rob Lowney have created an edited open access resource called Exemplars and Case Studies of Technology Enhanced Assessment in HE and FE which has more details on these alternative assessment ideas. For more resources on alternative assessment and the pivot online, check out the NIDL Teaching Online Resource Bank.

Academic Integrity

The issue of academic integrity came up frequently in the discussion at the webinar. Our approach to academic integrity involves creative design of authentic assessment, moderation of marking, text matching software, clear guidelines to students about our expectations around referencing and the use of vivas to verify student academic work. These are detailed further in the resource below, and our Academic Integrity Self-Assessment Checklist.

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DCU (2018) Academic Integrity Principles

Final thoughts

In these unprecedented times, it is important that we support the well-being of our students, while addressing the need to have quality assessment. In the context of student engagement and Covid-19, using low bandwidth, flexible and asynchronous assessments may enable our students to succeed at completing their studies and #keeplearning.

References

DCU Teaching Enhancement Unit (2018). Academic Integrity Principles. Retrieved from Academic Integrity for Quality Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (INTEGRITY Project): https://teuintegrityproject.wordpress.com/

EDEN Webinar resources and recording https://www.eden-online.org/how-to-design-and-manage-assessments-for-online-learning/

Farrell, O. (2020) “Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge.”: Assessment and the pivot online. Presentation at EDEN NAP Webinar.

Farrell, O., Brunton, J. (2020). A balancing act: a window into online student engagement experiences. Int J Educ Technol High Educ 17, 25. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41239-020-00199-x

Kahu, E. R. (2013). Framing student engagement in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 38(5), 758–773. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2011.598505.

NIDL Resource bank https://www.dcu.ie/nidl/resources/Swiftly-Moving-Online-Coronavirus.shtml#Assessment

Villarroel, V., Boud, D., Bloxham, S., Bruna, D., & Bruna, C. (2020;2019). Using principles of authentic assessment to redesign written examinations and tests. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 57(1), 38-49. doi:10.1080/14703297.2018.1564882

Stone, S. Lowney, R. (2020). Exemplars and Case Studies of Technology Enhanced Assessment in HE and FE

Note: This blog post originally appeared as a guest commentary on this Portuguese site established to support teaching online in response to the Covid-19 crisis.