A Sanctuary Online: DCU’s Commitment to Learning for all…

This World Refugee Day, 20th June, DCU is pleased to announce a further 30 scholarships for Irish-based asylum seekers and refugees. This blog post reflects on the success of the scholarship programme so far, with a particular focus on the student online learning experience. 

world-refugee-day-photos-download-1-1080x6752As we recognise World Refugee Day this year, many people welcome the proposed end to Direct Provision, Ireland’s system of accommodating asylum seekers instituted 20-years ago in 1999. The difficult living conditions of people in the Irish asylum seeking community are well documented, but little has been done over the past decade to improve the system of direct provision.

As of January 2018, there were 5,096 men, women and children, including 801 families, living in the 34 direct provision centres across 17 counties in Ireland. Residents spent an average of 23 months in direct provision, while 432 people had been in this system for 5 years or more. 

refugees
Direct provision centre in Lissywollen, Athlone in 2013 |Image by Braca Karicption

In 2016, DCU became the first Irish university to be designated as a ‘University of Sanctuary’ for its commitment to welcome asylum seekers and refugees into the university community. Since then, the University has offered multiple scholarships to Irish-based asylum seekers and refugees at the third level. In particular, the DCU Connected Scholarships for online study have been well received in part due to the geographically spread location of the direct provision centres. 

Generally, Irish-based asylum seekers are not entitled to free higher education, including the opportunity to access Springboard+ courses. Problems faced by those who want to enter third level education in Ireland include lack of access to logistical requirements, financial difficulties, digital competence, recognition of their previous accreditations, and difficulty in finding a sense of community.

james_brunton_001These challenges are illustrated by a team of DCU researchers in the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) who have documented the student experiences of asylum seekers studying under the University of Sanctuary scheme. A recent article appearing in Open Praxis reports a stark divide between their dual identities of being ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘online learners’. According to Dr James Brunton, it was found that identification with the university community was contrasted with ‘disidentification’ with the ‘asylum world’. Importantly, a more connected approach to supporting refugees transition into higher education was found to have a positive impact on their overall online learning experience.

stages

Table 1: Supports provided for online University of Sanctuary scholars

Supports for University of Sanctuary scholars include pre-entry and on-entry actions such as online socialisation courses through the VLE and other targeted services, such as on-campus orientations, logistical aids such as provisions for laptops and broadband, and dedicated academic support throughout the year. Some of these supports and services are outlined in Table 1. 

The NIDL research demonstrated the importance of flexible, online, open study routes at higher education levels for underrepresented groups, such as those in direct provision, as a means to reducing some of the major structural, financial, digital, and social barriers typically associated with students in their circumstances. As one research participant said, 

“The asylum world is very, very depressing, you’re constantly anxious, you’re constantly in limbo… But again when I flashed back to the support that DCU is giving me, I tell myself no, I cannot let this happen. And so when I think of the support that the DCU family has given me, it’s like a voice talking to me”.

orna_farrell_002A more recent publication appearing in Research in Learning Technology reports, according to Dr Orna Farrell, that “one of the challenges of the University of Sanctuary scholarship scheme, particularly for online students, was to ensure the scholars felt a sense of community during their studies”. When asked what made them feel part of the DCU community, one of the participants said:

“I think the services that are offered by DCU. Like it’s like the community within a community that I belong to my own community but then I have the DCU community. Everybody’s welcoming, you are at home.”

The NIDL research team concludes that our qualitative research strengthens the idea that access programmes such as the University of Sanctuary scholarships can facilitate participation in higher education for refugees, and a sense of community, provided the necessary support is in place.

On a personal level, the transformative impact of the DCU Connected Scholarships were vividly illustrated during the Opening Ceremony of last year’s ICDE World Conference on Online Learning. Olufunke Olarinoye, a University of Sanctuary scholar, shared her own brave and emotional story giving a unique insight into the real impact that online education can have on life and the hopes and aspirations of learners beyond the virtual classroom.  

This year, DCU is continuing its online study scholarship programme for Irish-based asylum seekers and refugees with 5 DCU Connected and 10 DCU FutureLearn scholarships. Applications are now open and the deadline for submissions is 10th August, 2020.

Further reading

  1. Brunton, J., Farrell, O., Costello, E., Delaney, L., Foley, C., & Brown, M. (2019). Duelling identities in refugees learning through open, online higher education. Open Praxis, 11(4), 397.
  2. Farrell, O., Brunton, J., Costello, E., Delaney, L., Brown, M., & Foley, C. (2020). ‘This is two different worlds, you have the asylum world and you have the study world’: an exploration of refugee participation in online Irish higher education. Research in Learning Technology, 20, 1-15.

Schools Out: Diary on an Incredible Week that Changed Irish Education

A lot can happen in a week! This time last week we were still coming to terms with the dramatic news from the previous day that all schools and college campuses across Ireland were to close at 6:00pm on Thursday March 12th. At the time few people could have predicted the impact of this decision as the Government adopted a serious response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Taking a little time out, this post briefly reflects on events of the past week and in particular the incredible response from Irish educators. Drawing on DCU’s response it offers a diary of insights and selected highlights from the experiences of the NIDL team.

DDD.jpg

Our preparations in the NIDL for the prospect of restricted campus access began in earnest on Sunday, March 8th, when we first produced our “Keep Teaching” guidelines for DCU staff. On Tuesday, March 10th, we produced a similar “Keep Learning” guide for DCU students. Over the next few days we developed and facilitated a series of additional online professional development events for staff, including two workshops on “The ABC of Teaching Online” and several “Using Zoom for Teaching” sessions. There was a large response to these workshops and no doubt they contributed, coupled with our considerable experience of online education through DCU Connected, to the relative smooth pivot on Monday, March 16th, to fully teaching online.

Unknown.jpegAlthough we developed a plan as early as the previous Monday to increase our frontline services to cope with a significant increase in demand for online teaching support, by the end of Monday, March 16th, only 5 ticket requests were waiting to be resolved. And as the week continued our Loop support team managed with a huge effort to stay largely on top of requests for assistance. By close of business of Friday, therefore, only 14 tickets remained to be opened and most of these are likely to be responded to by the end of the evening. A big thanks goes to the commitment of this small team who notably received a personal message of thanks from DCU’s President.

111But the real story and success of the first full week of teaching fully online at DCU needs to be attributed to the incredible efforts of those who teach across all of our five faculties. There are some amazing stories that will hopefully get told when the time is right. For example, Loop was being used in particularly creative ways and on Monday alone there were over 700 separate live sessions in Zoom. This number had doubled by the end of the week with over 1,400 separate live events on Friday. The incredible response from educators in the face of such challenging and unprecedented circumstances appears to be a standout theme right across Ireland. Perhaps we only really learn about ourselves, and the values we hold, in times of adversity.

The NIDL team has also spoken throughout the week about our wider responsibility to the Irish education community. On Saturday March 14th, we launched the first version of a dedicated webpage designed to support educators moving to teaching online in a hurry. Our “Swiftly Moving to Teaching Online: Resource Bank” now contains a wealth of resources, including quality checklists, tips for online teaching, suggestions for alternative assessments and student learning guides. This resource continues to be updated on a daily basis.

padlet_wall.jpg

On Monday, March 16th, we hosted in partnership with the European Association for Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) and the European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN) a webinar on swiftly moving to teaching online which attracted several hundred participants.

IMG_6718 Coincidently, a team in the NIDL was already scheduled to launch a free online course on Teaching Online as part of the #OpenTeach project. This course developed with funding from the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education starts this coming Monday with over 450 participants. However, over the last week to help meet the demand for resources on teaching online the team shared a number of video lessons from the keyface on relevant topics. The full suite of videos can be found on the Resource Bank along with a number of other useful guides on getting started with teaching online.

fl_course.jpg

Also, on Monday, we first engaged with FutureLearn about the development of a new free online course for educators affected by Covid-19. After a rapid design and development process, this course was ready for its official launch on Thursday March 19th and in the first 24 hours attracted over 2000 participants from 125 countries. At the time of writing over 150 Irish educators have registered for the course. The FutureLearn course, ‘How to Teach Online: Providing Continuity for Students’ aims at providing evidence-based, just-enough, just-in-time and just-in-case practical learning for educators new to online teaching.

mark_head_2015_small4.jpgAs part of the course and DCU’s support for this initiative, Professor Mark Brown was asked to provide his responses to 7 key questions about teaching online. Although there have been many lists of top tips for teaching online published over the past week, we share Mark’s response to these questions below as another small contribution to supporting the education community at this challenging time.

7 Key Questions About Teaching Online

  1. What three key considerations should educators make when moving from face to face to online?

Firstly, take time to decide what type of online teacher you want to be. Don’t leave this to chance. Draw on your educational philosophy to identify a term or metaphor that best encapsulates how you would want your students to describe your approach to online teaching. For example, are you going to be a manager, guide, coach, facilitator, gardener, time traveller or something else more akin to your teaching philosophy?

Secondly, think about your online learners. Who are they? What needs are they likely to have? What skills and knowledge gaps are they likely to have? What prior experiences do they bring and how can you draw on them as a valuable online learning resource? Ask yourself, if I was doing this course as an online learner why would I be excited and even delighted to engage in the variety of learning experiences?

Thirdly, be creative in how you intentionally design for learning. What innovative online learning experiences can you embed in your course that might not be possible in a traditional classroom? With the luxury of more time avoid merely replacing one traditional method or technology with another in your online environment without any clear transformative advantage. Remember if you want to develop creative, innovative and highly imaginative learners, then we need teachers willing to apply these dispositions or “habits of mind” in the design of their online courses.

  1. What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learnt when teaching online?

Adding too much “stuff” to my online course. Although with the best intentions of helping my students by giving them access to lots of links and additional resources, I discovered that inadvertently I was actually increasing their workload. Indeed, I was even placing their success at risk as a clear flag was needed to differentiate between essential and non-essential information.

  1. What practical steps can set your learners up for success for learning online?

Make sure they have enough time. Set clear expectations in terms of the amount of time required for both directed and self-directed learning activities each week. Ensure your students understand whether they have enough time to continue their online study on top of existing commitments, particularly in light of changing circumstances. To this end, invite your learners to complete this “Do I Have Enough Time” calculator. And plan for the unfortunate fact that other life commitments may get in their way, including getting sick. So be flexible and show compassion to your learners.

  1. What’s the biggest wrong assumption you’ve made when teaching online?

When I first started teaching online over 20-years ago I assumed that all you needed to do was put your lecture notes on the internet and open a bulletin board for discussion. With the benefit of hindsight, it was hardly surprising that very few students responded, posted comments or even asked questions. What I discovered is that you have to design for interaction and help your students learn how to ask the right questions. I would even go so far as to say more often than not the question is the answer!

  1. What’s your best time saving tip for teachers?

Don’t waste your time creating lots of new content as your students are one of your best resources to help locate and co-construct the knowledge required to meet your learning intentions. In many respects, you are better to think of your students as the co-authors rather than the audience of your content. More to the point, embrace emptiness! For example, if you really want to be creative, then consider developing an asynchronous online role play where students drive interactivity in their assigned roles over a defined period, as they debate and try to resolve an authentic problem.

  1. What’s your best time saving tip for students?

Don’t wait until you think you will have a block of long, uninterrupted, quiet, rested perfect time. You may be procrastinating. You do need some longer spaces of time but do also use shorter intervals when you can. Keep your train of thought going by refocusing on your learning in smaller slices of time. During that break, that queue, journey, or any other short space of free time you have. Develop new habits of how you use those in-between moments. Keep your focus on your learning, and remember why you are doing it and what your goal is.

  1. What’s the one thing you’d recommend to educators new to teaching online?

Design your course as if you’re a learner. Think very carefully about the workload and new technical demands you’re placing on your students. From this learner’s perspective also consider the inherent value proposition in different types of activities you ask them to complete. When you’re done ask yourself: Is this a great looking course that I you would really like to take? Will it really grab my learners? While the best online courses have an X factor the main thing is your willingness to learn, innovate and remain open to trying new ideas. Hence, good online education begins with having the right mindset rather than depending on a strong technical skillset.

If you would like to hear more from Mark and other experienced online educators, or share your own lessons with people keen to learn, then we highly recommend that you register for the FutureLearn course.

CCCC.jpgFinally, as recently as November 2019, when the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) at DCU hosted last year’s World Conference on Online Learning, few could have predicted in the space of just a few months that online education would become so crucial to the continuity of Irish education. Arguably, online education will never be the same. However, responding to a crisis is one thing but the challenge over the weeks ahead, and beyond, is to better understand and embrace the opportunities that new digital technologies offer for a more transformative model of education which prepares students for tomorrow’s world, today.

img_6709.jpg