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.

Three New NIDL Research Projects Investigating Online Education in Response to Covid-19

The NIDL team is looking forward to leading and contributing to three new research projects over the next few months investigating how the higher education sector has responded to the Covid-19 global health crisis. Two of the following projects come under the umbrella of Dublin City University’s new dedicated Covid-19 Research and Innovation Hub established in response to the global pandemic. The Hub is leveraging DCU’s research expertise, in collaboration with national and international stakeholders, with a view to developing solutions that can be implemented and deployed within a three to six months time frame.

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Beyond the Covid Pivot: Towards Transformative Online Learning

The first project led by the NIDL involving a team from the Ideas Lab and Open Education Unit, with the DCU Student Union as an Associate Partner, along with discussions underway with other stakeholders, focuses on the student online learning experience. The basic tenet of the research is that learning online is not the same as learning in a traditional classroom, it requires a different set of skills to master. With the recent pivot to online learning in response to Covid-19, the ability to learn effectively online has never been more important.

UNESCO Covid-19Looking forward we need to develop the capacity of students to become effective online learners. We also need to look back to understand and learn from the experience of students so far. This project will, therefore, develop and conduct research on a ‘Learning How to Learn Online’ MOOC on a major platform to support students as they adapt to a greater focus on learning online in higher education settings.

The study will research students’ experiences and perceptions of barriers to learning online in response to COVID-19. These insights from the key-face of the student learning experience will inform future institutional decision-making, help the sector to better harness the potential of online education, and most importantly provide improved online learning experiences for students.

Moving Large, Face-to-Face Classes Online 

This project led by Dr Ann Marie Farrel in DCU’s Institute of Education, with a significant NIDL contribution from members of the Teaching Enhancement Unit, investigates online teaching in large classes. Since March, teaching usually carried out in the face-to-face context has moved very suddenly online. This has been a particular challenge for those teaching large class cohorts and for the students comprising those cohorts.

photo-1566683777581-1a8051f226c9The overall aim of this project is to inform the practice of (i) academics teaching large groups and (ii) those supporting academics in the large class teaching/learning context as we move forward into the next phase of our response to the requirements for social distancing and more creative and innovation forms of teaching online. 

The move to the online environment since March will be evaluated; data from supports provided since March will be analysed (e.g. support requests, PD workshops and seminars since campus closure) and surveys will be used to gather data on the student and staff experience. The intended outcomes of this project will provide guidance for designing learning experiences in the online context, taking diversity of large classes into account.

An Investigation of Affect in Online Teaching during COVID-19

We Need Your HelpThis internationally focused NIDL project asks how have you been feeling while teaching online? It calls on all higher education educators in Ireland, Europe and globally to share their affective experiences of teaching online in response to the Covid-19 crisis. The research seeks to better understand affective and, in particular, educators’ emotions  during their experiences of teaching online in order to learn valuable lessons and help inform support strategies moving forward.  

As this study has already been approved by the DCU Ethics Committee, we would really value your participation and wider promotion of the research. We are aware that everyone is extremely busy at the moment but understanding educators’ experiences during these challenging times is more important than ever as we plan for the upcoming semester, and beyond. Therefore, please have your say by taking around 5 minutes to share your insights and valuable experiences through our anonymous survey.

You can read more about this research and complete the online survey after giving your informed consent by clicking on these embedded  links.