2020 was no doubt a strange academic year, with the pandemic pushing universities, institutes of technology and private colleges online. Suddenly, thousands of students across Ireland were faced with the challenge of navigating the world of remote learning.
While there might have been scepticism about the quality of fully online lectures, there were positive findings in a recent report by Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), an independent state agency responsible for qualifications and quality assurance in both further and higher education and training in Ireland.
Mairéad Boland, Senior Quality Officer for Higher Education Monitoring and Reviews at QQI, says, “The report (titled The Impact of Covid-19 Modifications to Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Irish Further Education and Training and Higher Education) details the third-level education system's response to public health restrictions necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The report was conducted during summer 2020; it considered how education providers ensured that quality was maintained from March to June 2020 after face-to-face teaching and learning ended. And QQI was able to conclude that providers were doing very well."
Mairéad said that, for the most part, providers were able to ensure that programmes continued as normal and were not delayed, “There was evidence of institutions going above and beyond to keep in touch with their students, to make sure that everyone could manage the technology and stay engaged. Many institutions surveyed students to understand what their needs were and provided additional assistive technology to those students who needed it. We were pleased to see that providers used a broad variety of communications channels to make sure that everybody was kept informed and felt supported if they needed help."
Mairéad continues, “One of the really valuable insights in the report was the output of a survey conducted by the Union of Students in Ireland. The survey showed that more than half of students were satisfied with the quality of their remote teaching and learning experience."
Improving the student experience
Established in 2012, QQI sets out expectations for education providers and each provider is then responsible for ensuring the quality of their teaching, learning, assessment and research. They do this by putting policies and procedures in place.
“Each of the Higher Education Institutions submits an Annual Quality Report (AQR) to QQI," explains Mairéad. “We then publish an annual report on the AQRs - Quality in Irish Higher Education - to identify themes arising across the sector and to facilitate the sharing of good practice among providers. Much of the report focuses on how institutions are improving the student experience and their teaching and learning activities."
Mairéad advises, “For students or parents, I would recommend checking out our annual report, Quality in Irish Higher Education, on the QQI website. It contains relevant examples and case studies that demonstrate the institutions' quality actions and initiatives. There's also a really helpful companion document that contains a collection of case studies from each institution on various different areas – for example, how institutions have enhanced the learner experience."
According to Mairéad, flexible and remote learning had been on the rise even prior to Covid-19's arrival, and developments in this area across the sector stood providers in good stead when pivoting to online teaching and learning during lockdown. Remote learning has brought increased flexibility for students who might not be able to travel for whatever reason – for example, due to work commitments or caring responsibilities, flexible learning is becoming more and more important across the sector.
“One of the insights arising from our work last year is that social distancing will continue to impact on teaching, learning and assessment this year, and providers need to consider how best to divide provision between on-site and online learning. Certain activities can work very well online, while others, such as lab work, need to occur on campus. Choosing how to use on-site activity to best effect will be critical."
Mairéad adds, “Incoming college students can play a vital part in the quality of education in the future. Students' unions and class representatives have an important role to play in their institution; this partnership between students and management, in terms of communicating students' needs, worked well during the pandemic.
“As institutions strive to achieve enhanced quality each year, students can use their voice to get the very best from their education experience."
First published in the Irish Independent Going to College CAO supplement, 11/01/2021