Learning How to Learn Online: DCU Launches a New Course for Online Learners

While there has been a steady growth in demand for online courses in the last decade, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the uptake of online education across the globe. With millions of people starting or continuing their higher education online this year, there has never been a greater need for a course that teaches the essentials of being an online learner. DCU’s latest online course developed by a team in the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) in partnership with FutureLearn addresses just that – the fundamentals of being an effective online learner.

A Digital Edge: Essentials for the Online Learner is a two-week course designed and facilitated by experienced online educators and digital education researchers at DCU working in collaboration with the DCU Students’ Union and the Irish Universities Association (IUA). Funded as part of DCU’s Covid-19 Research and Innovation Hub, this free online course is available to people worldwide.

While there are a handful of similar courses already available online, DCU’s course is unique as it was co-designed to be ‘for students, by students’. This means that while the facilitators are seasoned online educators in the NIDL, the course has been reviewed by IUA student interns from 7 Irish universities and is being co-facilitated by a team of DCU Student Ambassadors. These students will be sharing their own tips, advice and valuable first-hand experiences throughout the course to enable participants to optimise their own online learning journey.

Based on contemporary theory and research along with DCU’s considerable experience in designing online education, the course aims to help students thrive in the new digital-era. It promotes healthy online learning habits and the concept of digital well-being to flourish as online learners for the new digital future. The course helps learners to understand how to truly harness digital tools and resources to maximise their learning and to develop online support networks. Learning to work effectively online in collaboration with peers is a important theme throughout the course. Another key area discussed towards the end of the course is the need to establish and manage a professional online identity.

Led by Professor Mark Brown, NIDL, Director, Professor Mairéad Nic Giolla Mhichíl, Head of the Ideas Lab, and Dr Eamon Costello, Head of the Open Education Unit, the course draws on UNESCO’s Learning Compass 2030 and is anchored in the European LifeComp Framework. It is structured around four key themes and builds on DCU’s strategic collaboration with FutureLearn following the launch of a pioneering new micro-credentialing initiative earlier in the year.

Mark Brown says,

“Online learning is now an important life skill. Even before Covid-19 the level of demand for online education was growing exponentially, worldwide. We hope this course will make a valuable contribution to students starting their online learning journey at university for the first time.”

The course should also be of value to existing students and help people irrespective of age take advantage of new digitally-enabled models of life-long learning.

DCU is a proud pioneer of digital education in Ireland having hosted last year’s ICDE World Conference on Online Learning and has established a strong footprint on the FutureLearn platform, with a series of free courses on Irish Language and Culture, along with a suite of new micro-credentials currently in development. A Digital Edge: Essentials for the Online Learner is a continuation of DCU’s role in leading the digital transformation of teaching and learning in today’s brave new world of higher education.

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. 

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.


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.