Writes Matthew Hanrahan
After a summer of uncertainty for students and staff as to what University learning would look like, for many once the 2020/21 academic year began, that uncertainty remained. On Friday 25th September, the Minister for Higher and Further Education announced that all third level colleges would not open for at least 3 weeks. Later, UCC extended this for the remainder of semester one.
The announcement caused consternation for both staff and students, coming the weekend before the start of the academic term, after preparation primarily for a blended learning teaching model.
Over the course of that weekend, timetables were changed, and lecture content had to be reorganized. Student experience of remote learning varied greatly. For some, it was an inconvenience. While for others, it was wholly inadequate.
It led second year Commerce student, Michael Hand to write to the Commerce course coordinators to express his disappointment at the delivery of a number of his modules. Hand told University Express that “there was no clarification whether certain lectures would be delivered live or by recording” and “other modules where they [the pre-recorded lectures] were not uploaded according to the timetabled lecture.” Second year Commerce class rep, Andrew Heafey also chimed in, saying that for certain modules with pre-recorded lectures, it was “difficult to plan because it was hard to predict when a lecture was going to be uploaded.”
Both Hand and Heafey said that pre-recorded lectures did not work as well for certain subjects. Hand said for some Economics modules “it is important to wrap your head around one thing to understand the next. [In a pre-recorded lecture] you can’t turn around and ask a question. If you miss one jump, everything after it is lost. If you have a question it might be three or four days before a live meeting with the lecturer.” While Heafey said “understanding it might be harder because you need that live talk to convey certain ideas.” UCC SU President, Naoise Crowley described reports he received of cases where “all lectures [were] uploaded at once, or some modules where only lecture slides were uploaded.”
While it’s clear that Hand and Heafey both felt as though remote learning impacted their ability to keep up with the curriculum, it’s worth pondering what other parts of the college experience were lost in this move to online learning. No more casual chats between classes, no meeting for coffee, no studying in the library or eating in Main Rest. Studying from home can certainly be a solitary experience for some students who find themselves confined to their bedroom desk for hours at a time.
SU President Crowley acknowledged the current reality for some students, saying “What is the college experience? It’s all isolation at the moment.” When asked how this issue could be tackled, he said “Departments need to organise events […] there’s more to online learning than lectures.” It’s also important to note that the benefits of online learning, in terms of flexibility and access, are undeniable. Students suffering from mental health difficulties feel as though their prayers have been answered with the new remote learning model. Classroom environments can be very stressful for some students and the move online caters to that, allowing them to take lectures from the comfort and familiarity of their own home.
A number of questions on remote learning and remote learning policy were put to the Cork University Business School UCC. They had not responded to these questions, at the time of publication.
The question then turns to why has this happened? Why do some students feel that their courses were not adequately prepared for online learning? Could there have been a lack of coordination between UCC and individual schools? Was the preparation inadequate?
On whether there was sufficient preparation for online learning, Head of School of Society, Politics, and Ethics, Dr Don Ross said “The University required each School to prepare a plan for each of three contingencies, to be driven by Government decision: blended teaching with 1 metre minimum distancing between students required; blended teaching with 2 metre minimum distancing between students required; or all teaching online. [Option] three is of course the contingency we actually got, at the last minute.”
So, if both schools and the University were aware and instructed to prepare for the possibility for online learning, then the question is in the detail.
Guidelines for the delivery of online learning exist at both a University level and at a school level. These include recording lectures in short segments interspersed with activities to allow students to respond to prompts in the lecture; promote student engagement and collaboration by employing group work tactics; and keeping all reading materials for lectures phone-friendly. A UCC spokesperson wrote “The welfare and needs of our students are central to all our efforts in UCC, and with that in mind the Office of the Vice-President for Learning & Teaching (OVPLT) has provided an online resource for educators to help them adapt to delivering teaching remotely and to maintain the high standard of lecture delivery.” This resource contains “a combination of pre-recorded (asynchronous) and live (synchronous) teaching is strongly recommended. Ideally, pre-recorded content is created for your students followed by a live session where possible.”
There is a question here to be raised as to whether this is an acknowledgment by the University that pre-recorded lecture-delivery is inferior to the live teaching model. Indeed, had the 2nd year Commerce module delivery been entirely in real-time, Hand and Heafey may not have been so disappointed.
The broad picture of the move to remote learning is complex, and the variance in student experience of online learning can be explained by the fact that individual departments will have to apply online policies differently to suit the module and the type of teaching. According to Digital Engagement Officer with the School of English, Miranda Corcoran, “there are some university guidelines. However, the delivery of modules online is mostly up to the discretion of each department.”
The problems with online teaching are not found with the discretion that schools have to set policy to their own circumstances. The School of English, the School of History as well as the Schools of Society, Politics and Ethics all provided information on detailed policies on the mode of delivery for lectures, tutorials including when and when not recording was appropriate. Dr Ross emphasised that within his School there has been “close coordination on all modules. At no level – University, School, or Department – were lecturers simply left to “make the best of it” on the basis of such resources as they had.” Further, Dr Ross said that “Heads of Schools have held regular meetings throughout the Covid-19 crisis to make sure that best practices are shared.”
Despite this, gaps exist in the application of policies. For example, whether pre-recorded lectures are released at the time or before the scheduled lectures was mentioned as a specific guideline of the English department, however, was not mentioned by other departments contacted for this article. This was one of the issues faced by Commerce students.
Similarly, whether lectures can be replaced entirely with links to other online content is not addressed in most departmental guidelines.
However, the guidelines themselves are not the only issue. SpunOut Senior Content Producer, Hannah Byrne said that the problem may lie with the application of guidelines. “It took a long time for Universities to decide their policies. So, there are inconsistencies within remote learning. One lecturer might have a different approach from another, which can add challenges for students.”
It is clear that departments planned for blended learning, it is not that they had no plans, rather they had to change their method of delivery over the course of the weekend before the start of term.
In an email obtained under a Freedom of Information request, dated 28th of August 2020 sent by the Learning, Teaching and Academic Affairs Director at the Irish Universities Association, Lewis Purser to the Head of Higher Education and Further Education and Training Policy at Department of Education and Skills, William Beausang stated “[T]he Universities are working to ensure that students have as much on campus experience as possible. […] High-level working groups have been established in each University to oversee planning and communication of important information to students […].” However, it concludes that “all timetables will be subject to change in light of Covid-19 and public health guidelines development.”
Just over a month from the beginning of term, the IUA was set for a blended learning approach, however, the IUA was at least cognisant of the fact that their ability to deliver on this was based on Covid-19 and prevailing public health guidelines.
While it is clear that a level of contingency planning happened, the problem laid with the fact that the adjustment to wholly online learning happened over one weekend. With the announcement that UCC will continue offering remote learning until at least the end of semester one, when can UCC students’ and staff expect an answer about semester two?