The collapse of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ era of the Irish economy in 2008 had serious repercussions for higher education. Staff in educational institutions had a 20% pay cut and all institutions and public bodies had to reduce staff by 20%. Overall, according to the Irish Times of March 10, 2016, state funding for higher education dropped almost 40%, from €1.4 billion in 2007-2008 to €860 million in 2015-2016. The consequences of this reduction include larger class sizes, less access to labs and tutorials, and outdated facilities and software. Union regulations restrict restructuring and lay-offs, thus reducing institutional options.
At the same time, the number of higher education students in Ireland has continued to grow, with numbers expected to rise from 165,000 in 2013 to 212,000 by 2028. A high-level panel is reviewing options for continued funding of higher education. Undergraduate students currently do not pay course fees, but registrations fees, which they do pay, have been rising steadily. With a few exceptions, part-time and off-campus students, including online students, are not funded by the government and so must pay full course and registration fees.
At Dublin City University (DCU), enrolment growth has been in double digits for the past few years, putting enormous pressure on the institution. DCU is also going through an ‘Incorporation Project’ involving the merger with several Colleges of Education, which will see it grow by another 4,000 students by the end of 2016.
Mark Brown, Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) at DCU, sees flexible, online learning as a crucial component of the response to this challenge.
The National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) is focused on becoming a world leader in the design, implementation, and evaluation of contemporary models of teaching and learning, with numerous institutional and collaborative initiatives underway to reach this goal. Mark Brown points out the paradox of the incredible innovation happening in a system under intense pressure – innovation arising out of necessity. The activities of NIDL include:
DCU Connected: The name DCU Connected was carefully chosen to signify a brand that goes beyond online learning to connections essential to the experience of the learners – to knowledge, teachers, the institution, experts, and the world. Students are offered a choice of studying for a Diploma or an Honours Degree in areas such as Humanities and Information Technologies. These programs are aimed at the Irish market, with face-to-face components. Master’s Degrees and Graduate Diplomas are offered online in various business, information technology and management specialties, as well education.
DCU Open Academy: A series of three Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) will be launched in 2016. The introductory course in the Irish language is aimed at not only learners in Ireland, but also the global Irish Diaspora. It will use an active approach to language learning, encouraging simple interactions among participants. Students will link with the content, facilitator and other students in both synchronous and asynchronous sessions. A second MOOC on Contemporary Irish Studies will examine the phenomenon of the economic Celtic Tiger, music, literature, women in Ireland from the Easter Rising to contemporary times, and sports. The third course will deal with issues of conflict resolution. A new platform, known as Academy, has been developed by Moodle HQ and DCU will be the first university in the world to pilot this system to offer MOOCs.
Digital Learning Research Network: This inter-disciplinary network brings together over 40 people with a strong research and development interest in technology-enhanced learning; academics from faculties throughout DCU participate in, and lead, projects, along with colleagues in affiliated colleges and other organizations. Among the more than 20 research projects currently underway are:
- What Works and Why: The project, What Works & Why, funded by the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, aims to build digital literacy and engagement for students and teachers. Faculty members apply for grants that allow them to, as expressed by project leader Dr. Mark Glynn, “bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality concerning practice with learning technologies”. Projects are led by faculty teams within disciplines, as they ask and answer the questions they have concerning effective applications of technology for classroom-based and, potentially, online learning. Rather than offering decontextualized workshops, learning technology specialists work in partnership with faculty to develop possible solutions to real problems.
- PredictEd: In a study on the level of first-year student engagement, analytics from LOOP, the virtual learning environment, were used, looking at the co-relation between clicks by students and their results. When it is apparent students are falling behind their peers, even as early as after the first two weeks of class, they are sent a message on a weekly basis, which also includes information on resources that other students found useful.
- Y1Feedback: This project entails a number of studies aimed at enhancing assessment feedback using digital technologies, specifically aimed at first-year students to support their transition to higher education. Four institutions, Maynooth University, Athlone Institute of Technology, Dublin City University, and Dundalk Institute of Technology are involved. The first two reports include: Feedback in First Year: A Landscape Snapshot across Four Irish Higher Education Institutions and Technology-Enabled Feedback in the First Year: A Synthesis of the Literature. Both are available from http://y1feedback.ie/
Benefits and Outcomes
The MOOCs are being used as a way of fostering a rich innovation ecology and bringing what is learned back into programs. As Dr. Eamon Costello, DCU’s leader of two major European funded MOOC projects (HOME and SCORE2020), says, “through technical, pedagogical and institutional aspects of online learning, we are discovering the opportunities and challenges and sharing these internationally”. Accreditation possibilities, such as badges and alternative certifications using the European Credit Transfer System, will be considered.
The faculty-embedded approach of projects such as What Works and Why is helping to promote more sustainable, long-term results, supporting the re-development of programs, professional development of instructors, and careful integration of technologies that respond to teaching and learning needs.
Early stages of learning analytics pilots are helping to better understand how data can be interpreted and acted on to support student engagement. They have shown the potential and pitfalls of this new line of research, which now includes a collaborative study with the Centre for Big Data in Education at Beijing Normal University. The focus at DCU is on using digital technologies and what is known about new models of teaching and learning to encourage student self-regulation.
Online learning is making the learning design process far more evident – leading to more purposeful designs and improvements in course delivery. For example, student engagement is critical for online learning and a focus on promoting the teacher’s presence coupled with effective use of new digital media is supporting more active learning.
Challenges and Enhancements
The ability of DCU to grow its online learner base in Ireland is limited by the funding model, requiring the registrants to pay full course fees. Nationally only about 3% of students currently study online and in order to increase these numbers, it is hoped the favoured higher education funding model being proposed by the high-level panel, will be extended to part-time and off-campus students.
Mark Brown sees the future of the National Institute for Digital Learning linked to working more collaboratively within DCU but also across Ireland to assist with harnessing new models of technology-enhanced teaching and learning. This implies what he describes as “a role of strategic thought leadership, targeted research and professional development services, and demonstrating the contribution that technology can make to teaching and learning when used appropriately”.
In a twist on the current discussion of unbundling of teaching and learning – which he reports in a recent keynote address to the Irish Higher Education Authority (HEA) is driven by economic imperatives – Professor Brown would like to see “an unbundling of the clock to give students more flexibility”. Libraries have already successfully unbundled their services to become effective learning spaces, able to curate sources of information and much more.
In a broad consideration of the future of higher education, Mark Brown highlights the danger of online learning being seen as a money maker and so moving forward with little concern for pedagogy or quality. As governments struggle with funding for higher education, private online companies seem to offer lower cost solutions, as it seems more efficient to teach just one maths course. “Education can be broken into sellable chunks – micro credentials, one-off skills, and tradable segments of information – sinister components of learning under a monetary model.” Rather than being implemented as an ill-considered and ineffective economic solution, he believes online education can be used for achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and, in the words of the DCU motto, Transforming Lives and Societies.
For Further Information
Professor Mark Brown
National Institute for Digital Learning
Dublin City University