by Michele Dully, Bio Materials Cluster, Bernal Institute, Department of Chemical Sciences.

This article was written for the YESBernal Writing Competition, July 2020.

COVID-19 came upon us, imperceptible to begin, but gaining momentum to bring our world to a brusque intermission. Routine, intentions, and the unremarkable quotidian all abruptly ousted and swiftly replaced by a resounding sense of fear, unease, and uncertainty for what lay, and still lies ahead. Not only is the world facing a pandemic, but our societies and businesses are undergoing mass digitization at unprecedented rates. Amid the distress and anxiety, what may be classed as an ‘digital educational revolution’ has begun. Innovation, creativity and institutional renewal are emerging with necessary haste as we acquiescently welcome a new and unparalleled reality. Traditional teaching models are rapidly evolving and adapting in an experiment into digital learning at scale with the sole aim of keeping our nation’s students engaged and learning effectively (albeit from a new location). Across the world, more than a billion students have left preschools, schools and higher education settings as we tackle, and try to contain Covid-19. Sitting rooms, bedrooms, and garden sheds replace familiar classrooms, with parents, grandparents, and caregivers taking on the role of assistant educator to lessen the impact of the pandemic on our scholars.

Uncertainty, expectations, accessibility, upskilling, lack of clarity, student engagement; these are just some of the concerns raised by teaching staff surrounding the future of education post-COVID-19 according to a survey carried out by the Irish Universities Association (IUA). It highlights the trepidation and unease felt across the country about what our future will look like. Our higher educational settings saw an unforeseen shift, rapidly pivoting from in situ learning to remote teaching almost overnight. Our educators were suddenly responsible for applying various digital augmentations, substitutions and remote pedagogical approaches and digital technologies to minimize the disruption on curriculums.

Digital learning is by no means a new concept; although it has historically been more closely associated with poorly-resourced education centres or as a technology utilized solely in distance learning. Recent research however suggests that the education system is undergoing a transformation from face-to-face courses, whose ethos centres around teacher-mediated pedagogy, to blended learning courses, that utilize digital resources to supplement traditional in situ learning on the road to more collaborative pedagogy [1, 2]; a transformation that has undeniably been catalysed by the current global health crisis. Already, many universities and HEIs (higher education institutions) across the globe are taking advantage of asynchronous learning approaches (i.e. Learning that does not occur at the same time or place) to supplement and continue synchronous (students learning at the same time) academic discussions beyond the campus setting.

While many of us will hopefully return to our campuses as things regain some semblance of normality in the coming months, it is reasonable to expect that the innovative technologies that students and educators have worked tirelessly on implementing over recent months will be successfully carried forward. Where HEIs may have historically focused more on the administrative support surrounding remote learning, more attention should now be focused on developing these contemporary teaching technologies further for a more blended and well-rounded learning experience. Distance and face-to-face components of courses previously regarded as separate sections, will likely see an amalgamation in the future such that no difference in the material, assignments, or student engagement/participation should be obvious even as far as the administrative side is concerned. Integration and expansion of computer-mediated tools including blogs, virtual chatrooms, and Dynamic Delphi systems [3] should be integrated to allow for a tailorable design to direct an approach for a particular group or lesson.

Although prior research suggests that up to 1/5 of students would still prefer traditional face-to-face experiences [4], the vast majority of students rate the success of carefully structured blended learning that merges online and classroom based learning over more traditional approaches. It goes without saying that face-to-face learning should not, where possible, be replaced entirely with online technologies, as relationships forged within educational settings are cornerstone to personal development. Research has highlighted exceptionally high drop-out rates of students in self-guided distance learning programmes [5, 6]. Individual support and a healthy level of peer pressure drive student participation and engagement in a classroom environment and so distance learning is not likely to entirely supplant face-to-face learning post-Covid-19 despite what some may suggest. However, once the traditional methodologies begin to converge with digital technologies, these innovations should become mainstream in the education community across all levels. These systemic changes will eliminate geographical roadblocks to education at all levels, where blended learning will provide both students and teachers alike with the flexibility and ability to function in a world where education and the demands of family and work can coexist symbiotically. In a society where social media is integral to all industries, being digitally connected is more important than ever and educational communication protocol should be structured so as to avoid discrimination and to promote participation of all parties [7]. To this end, considerations into internet and device access must be acknowledged. The transformation is fully in the hands of the educators and the students. Both must adapt their approach, with educators now required to serve the role of facilitator in guiding students through the new way of teaching, while students must harvest the resilience and determination they have shown over this pandemic to drive forward their learning and interact both outside and inside the classroom.

Indeed this shift in the educational approach raises further questions in terms of the most appropriate business model for the new system. For one, should the ability to provide off-campus learning reduce the need for campus infrastructure, and thus deflate the cost of education? Maybe that’s a topic best left for another day. For now, I think we can all agree that the ‘new normal’ as it has been not-so-affectionately called, is anything but normal. In truth, the exigent revolutionary potential of modern technology has been tacitly understood in educational spheres for quite some time and simply could not go on ignored indefinitely. The sea change we’re experiencing, though occurring at a rate and in circumstances none could quite have predicted, has brought with it a resigned feeling of inevitability. However, I do still like to think that this ill wind can blow some good. When our world starts to open up again and the dust finally settles, our COVID-19 reality may serve as a microcosm of what the future of education will be.

1. Hiltz, S.R. and M. Turoff, Education goes digital: The evolution of online learning and the revolution in higher education. Communications of the ACM, 2005. 48(10): p. 59-64.
2. Burdick, A. and H. Willis, Digital learning, digital scholarship and design thinking. Design Studies, 2011. 32(6): p. 546-556.
3. Green, R. and S. Birch, Ensuring quality in EPs’ use of dynamic assessment: a Delphi study. Educational Psychology in Practice, 2019. 35(1): p. 82-98.
4. Hiltz, S.R. and R. Goldman, Learning together online: Research on asynchronous learning networks. 2004: Routledge.
5. Barbour, M. and D. Mulcahy, Student performance in virtual schooling: Looking beyond the numbers. 2009.
6. Lee, Y. and J. Choi, A review of online course dropout research: Implications for practice and future research. Educational Technology Research and Development, 2011. 59(5): p. 593-618.
7. Allen, I.E. and J. Seaman, Entering the Mainstream: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2003 and 2004. 2004: ERIC.