How online learning can offer greater flexibility – The Irish Times
Any college can put a course online, but can every college do it right? While flexibility is key for students choosing online or blended learning, what defines a high-quality online learning experience?
“The Covid-19 crisis has forced university staff and students to quickly find new ways of working in an incredibly short period of time,” says Dr Kieran Meade, Associate Professor at UCD School of Agriculture and Food Sciences .
“While we don’t tend to associate benefits with the pandemic, the change in working practices it has precipitated has been welcomed by many. Flexible arrangements are now very popular. The benefits are evident in enabling personalized planning of learning and work around family time and reduction of peak hour traffic and resulting stress.
Professor Martin Hayes, academic lead of the [email protected] program at the University of Limerick, says online learning enables learning at a pace and time that allows learners to develop their skills while continuing to work full-time or to manage other responsibilities.
“Online learning gives students the opportunity, if they wish, to build up their credits towards the next professional qualification required for their individual development journey,” he says.
“E-learning is moving away from the classic closed-book terminal exam form of assessment towards a more continuous, activity-based approach to assessment that better reflects everyday online work practices.”
Flexibility, however, is not necessarily the only consideration for potential online learning. Hayes says that students considering an online course should ask themselves a few key questions:
1. Is the program suitable for my development needs?
2. Will the program help me progress into this new job or role that I am considering, or may be interested in applying for, in the near future?
3. Has the program been developed with significant industry or corporate participation at the design stage? Is there strong industry evidence of this particular program meeting future skills needs?
4. Is the mix of live, recorded and forum-based content that is provided suitable for my particular learning style?
5. My time is valuable. Will I receive prompt, targeted, and personalized feedback so I know quickly that I’m on the right track?
6. Is there a moderated community of practice that will allow me to reach the learning outcomes (become an expert) faster?
7. Is the workload manageable and will studying on this program allow me the right work/life balance at this time?
8. In addition to the specific technical skills I want to acquire, will this experience provide me with the soft and powerful skills that are so valued by employers right now?
Even with all of this, however, how can a student be sure that their course is of high quality?
Kathy McLaughlin, a learning technologist, both working at King’s Inns, says their college uses technology not only to allow flexibility, but also to allow students to revisit learning material whenever they want.
“Whether through the use of lecture capture software to record course content for the learner to consume at their own pace, through the delivery of live group learning sessions using videoconferencing software or by making learning materials, including textbooks and courses, available online through our virtual learning environment (Moodle), King’s Inns can offer learning to students at a time, at a place and, most importantly, at a pace that suits them,” says McLaughlin.
“Such flexibility in the learning offer mainly serves people who need to adapt their studies to existing professional commitments or those who live far from [the college].”
Flexibility has particular advantages for students with disabilities or neurodiverse. Ellen McCabe is an instructional designer on the iNOTE project for Atlantic Technological University, which focuses on building digital capacity for flexible learning delivery in the West and Northwest region.
“While providing flexibility in terms of time and location, online and flexible learning also offers students the ability to customize learning materials and resources to suit their own needs and preferences,” she says. .
“At Atlantic TU this has been maximized with the introduction of Blackboard Ally. Ally is an accessibility service that allows students to engage with learning resources in the original format uploaded by their teacher or in an alternative format such as semantic HTML, audio, ePub, Braille electronically and the tagged PDF. In this way, it allows students to personalize their learning experience while improving accessibility throughout the university. »
For Nuala McGuinn, Director of the Center for Adult Learning and Professional Development at NUI Galway, traditional classroom modes or online learning both serve the same function: to meet the diverse learning needs of different students. This, she says, has always been the case.
“Supporting learners in the online environment is essential,” she says. “It cannot be assumed that all learners are doing well and are comfortable with the course material. Be sure to integrate student pastoral support opportunities or “online discussion threads” to check and see how students are coping with the online environment, [is] important.”
Dr Morag Munro, Maynooth University’s project manager for the Irish University Authority’s Digital Teaching and Learning Enhancement Project, agrees.
“An interesting consequence of the shift to remote learning and teaching during the pandemic is that, not only has it helped us think about what can work well when it comes to online and digital learning, but it has also helped remind us of what we value when it comes to face-to-face teaching and the on-campus experience,” she says.
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