Online learning is the next test for university students

Loop was down for two days as the system was overwhelmed.

The summer of strange and unprecedented times, staycations and contact tracing begins to draw to a close. The start of an academic year like no other is no longer a far off deadline in the future, leaving students with far more questions than answers.

DCU has adopted a policy of ‘blending learning’ for Semester 1. The traditional large lecture hall of old now brings a sense of nostalgia, a longing for the days where an overcrowded O’Reilly library at exam time would not be a health hazard.

Zoom remains a staple in all aspects of our new normal with Loop holding more significance than ever before.

Some students have already begun to mourn the “real” college experience but does this really have to be the case? Online learning is not a new concept nor a specific bi-product of NPHET health restrictions.

A huge number of graduates across the country have opted to complete their Bachelor and Masters qualifications online.

Hibernia College in particular have been trailblazers in the online learning scene, providing convenient courses for remote students for the last twenty years.

Áine McGuirk, a former undergraduate student at St. Patrick’s College, DCU chose to complete her Masters with Hibernia. The extreme change from in person to online learning that she experienced, may resonate with many students this semester.

“The content is presented online through session material, which can be worked through by students at times of their discretion and webinars which are scheduled in the evening time” said McGuirk.

Conferences at regional education centres, every second Saturday contribute to the “blended learning” side of things and allow students to meet their peers outside of the constricts of a webcam.

The degree is mainly based on continuous assessment, however the workload was something that initially took McGuirk by surprise.

“In DCU, I would have been used to 12 hour weeks where some days, I may have had only maybe one lecture which does not even begin to compare with Hibernia – where a 37 hour week of study is anticipated by the college” McGuirk explains.

University education is always advertised as independent, self-directed learning. However, many students find independent learning far easier when motivated by their friends and when they possess the ability to remain informed of impending deadlines via a reliable group chat.

McGuirk said that although she always believed herself to be a highly motivated person  she found it difficult to stay focused when the course was so flexible.

“At first I found the self-directed learning aspect of the online course quite challenging and hard to get used to. In traditional colleges, you have lecturers in front of you where you can ask questions and get immediate answers.”

The ability to “talk and flesh out whatever it is that you’re having difficulty with” is something that many DCU students fear missing out on this year.

Former Hibernia student, Eoin Kavanagh believes that online learning is not suited to all personalities. “[I] feel I wouldn’t have managed online learning for my undergrad. I needed to attend lectures, tutorials to get more concrete instruction… [It] removes a lot of the social aspect of learning, which didn’t suit me.”

Lack of self-motivation may not be the only issue plaguing the minds of students especially those from rural areas. Completing exams and assignments during lockdown, further highlighted the poor infrastructure of rural areas of Ireland leading some DCU students to feel extremely isolated.

McGuirk started her Hibernia degree while living in a country village in Carlow. “I also experienced and continue to experience difficulties with the internet which is not ideal when completing an online Master’s degree. I suppose this just comes with living in the countryside but it definitely does have an impact on anyone completing a course online. I have often been logged out of Zoom meetings because the internet connection is so weak, so there is always the fear that you are missing out on important information.”

Amy Sweeney embarked on her online Hibernia experience after completing an undergrad at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

Sweeney feels that the advantage of online learning for student teachers is the ability to work full time and learn from invaluable experience within the classroom environment.

“The experience we’ve gotten over the two years was definitely more than any placement or onsite college could have given” said Sweeney.

Online learning provides students with the ability to adequately balance their studies with a part-time job.

It also means that a master’s degree becomes more accessible to parents caring for children and other students whose responsibilities may have prevented them from returning to the more traditional education route.

Many of Sweeney’s classmates were balancing their master’s with other commitments. Some were pregnant while completing the online course.

“Online education was the only option and they still managed to complete the MA with new-borns”, Sweeney explained.

However, Sweeney believes that what she describes as an “impersonal” experience may not be for everyone.

“I think there’s a place for everyone on a campus but online learning certainly doesn’t cater for all types of learners. You have to really apply yourself and be willing to learn without the encouragement of anyone.”

Students largely had to find information themselves due to a lack of face to face support and social interaction with other students. This led to a far more competitive learning experience, according to Sweeney.

“We felt as though other colleges and courses were spoon fed in comparison to online students.”

An online Hibernia master’s can be an expensive document to obtain leading some students to wonder if they are getting their money’s worth.

DCU student, Conall Molloy felt that the expense of his TEFL degree may have outweighed its convenience.

According to Molloy, “it doesn’t seem to be an adequate teaching experience compared to in person teaching, especially given the price of it.”

DCU Students’ Union President, Fergal Lynch addressed students’ concerns that DCU registration fees were remaining the same for a full semester of blended learning.

“We are acutely aware of the pressures that this puts many of you under and know that much work needs to be done behind the scenes to rectify this… For a start, DCU Students’ Union will be liaising with the University to know and understand how every penny of your €3,000 is allocated to ensure transparency for DCU students” said Lynch.

Many students may be anxious about what the next few months may hold, fearing the disappearance of what used to be a constant in their lives.

DCUSU Vice President for Academic Affairs, Lucien Waugh-Daly assured The College View that DCUSU will remain a constant in students’ lives.

They are already working behind the scenes to assure that students can get the most out of their blending learning experience.

“The SU team is currently planning how to ensure students, especially first years are as engaged with the DCU peer community as possible this coming semester. We’re going to be harnessing the potential of Clubs& Socs, class reps and all the great facilities on campus to the maximum possible potential under the restraints we’re faced with” said Waugh-Daly.

Students who are worried about the coming semester can contact the SU at any time, as the DCU community continues to navigate what is continuously described as the ominous “new normal.”

“Students living at home can reach out to myself and my fellow officers at any time:  we’re available by phone or Zoom for informal chats about the issues concerning them, or just offer guidance for the college experience in general” said Waugh-Daly.

Róisín Cullen

Image Credit: App Sliced