Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 3 December 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
Online Learning at University: Discussion
The subject of this meeting is studying at university through online learning, including massive open online courses, MOOCs. I draw to the attention of the witnesses the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
The opening statement submitted to the committee will be published on its website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Witnesses should turn off their mobile phones completely or switch them to flight or safe mode, as otherwise they interfere with the broadcasting equipment.
Third level education is facing a number of substantial challenges in all states, including the curtailment of public financial resources for the sector, pressure to accommodate an increased number of students and the need for greater specialisation in an increased range of rapidly changing disciplines. This committee has been investigating what can be done in education at all levels through the Internet and digital literacy. This meeting is part of our ongoing discussion on these topics. We are very interested in the emergence of massive open online courses, MOOCs, and we are aware of new developments in this regard by the three colleges whose representatives are appearing before us. For this reason, I welcome Professor Brian MacCraith, president of Dublin City University, Professor Mark Brown, director of the National Institute for Digital Learning, Mr. John D'Arcy, national director of the Open University, Professor Timothy Savage, associate dean for online education at Trinity College Dublin, and Mr. John Coman, secretary to that college. This meeting was originally scheduled for next week but we had to reschedule it as we are required to consider an Estimate next week. I appreciate that the witnesses were able to attend at short notice.
I invite Professor Mark Brown to make his opening presentation on behalf of DCU.
Professor Mark Brown:
I welcome the opportunity to share DCU's experiences of and perspectives on studying at university through online learning, including MOOCs. As Ireland's first professor of digital learning, I arrived in February to lead DCU's strategy and to establish the National Institute for Digital Learning. I was previously director of the National Centre for Teaching and Learning at Massey University in New Zealand, where I had strategic oversight for the university's multi-campus learning environment comprising 33,000 students, including 16,500 online distance learners. I also led the country's first enterprise-wide MOOC initiative and played a key role in establishing the Massey University worldwide brand.
In this brief presentation I propose to make three key points but, before doing so, I wish to comment on the hype and hope associated with MOOCs and their disruptive potential. MOOCs are primarily used for marketing purposes and few, if any, accredited degrees offered from reputable universities are done so in this manner. Moreover, as the recent Porto declaration on the European use of MOOCs points out, they have low completion rates, attract already well-educated participants and involve significant costs. While they offer a valuable innovation component or dimension, online learning is not new. DCU has been providing online learning for more than a decade. The digital world made possible by the Internet is transforming the way almost all human transactions are taking place, including teaching and learning. In this respect, the Internet is the disruptive force, not the MOOC per se.
It should also be acknowledged that many Irish universities are taking advantage of the digital world in which we now live. In DCU's case, our online learning environment has become an essential part of the student learning experience. Every week, thousands of students are routinely studying online. In our experience, successful online learning initiatives require vision and strategic leadership aligned with a clear institutional mission and supported by capable teachers who embed digital learning experiences throughout the curriculum. New technologies should not be simply bolted on to the existing curriculum. None the less, having the will and the skills to embrace new digital technologies only goes so far because very little can be achieved without access to modern infrastructure. Ireland urgently needs to invest in this infrastructure if it wants to remain competitive and take advantage of the opportunities presented by the new digital world.
In DCU's case, investing in more flexible models of online learning is a strategic priority in our mission of transforming lives and societies by extending access to higher education. This mission is not mutually exclusive with the goal of sustainability in generating income. DCU has a number of strategic partnerships around the world which make extensive use of online learning, including a significant relationship with Arizona State University, the largest in the United States. Last month we jointly launched an online MSc programme in biomedical diagnostics, and further joint initiatives are planned. In addition, through the global e-schools initiative, which is headquartered in Nairobi, we deliver blended programmes to masters level to 12 nations in the African Union. This type of collaborative model, which anchors funding from carefully selected partners, is an important strategy for building and sustaining global online learning initiatives which can generate revenue.
However, current funding models limit our ability to realise the benefits of online learning and flexible learning, particularly for part-time students. It is notable that fewer than 3% of Irish students currently study by distance learning. Several higher level reports have recommended a more inclusive funding model. The Hunt report recommended that: "All students, whether full-time or part-time, on-campus or off-campus, should be equally supported by the funding model used to allocate resources to and within Institutions."
The recent European high level report on the modernisation of higher education also recognised the need to address this fundamental barrier. It made a strong recommendation for full equality of provision for all students regardless of time, place or mode of study.
My third key point is as follows. Ireland needs to adopt a much more proactive rather than reactive strategy. A greater focus needs to be placed on the long-term horizon. The current preoccupation with MOOCs is far too narrow. It focuses our attention on a delivery mode rather than the outcomes and types of learning experience that we seek. We should think more broadly about the modernisation agenda for our universities.
To this end, the National Institute for Digital Learning has appointed an international advisory board of leading experts in the field. Also, we have commissioned the Horizon report to better understand the challenges, opportunity and future trends facing higher education. The report will be available in April.
There are also opportunities to be far more active and proactive in the European sphere. DCU is currently a member of the OpenupEd MOOC initiative funded by the European Commission. Since the National Institute for Digital Learning was established, we have secured funding from three major European projects. In March 2015, for example, with European funding, the National Institute for Digital Learning will host a national MOOC symposium.
In conclusion, Irish educators and policy makers, rather than being prophets of doom and purveyors of dreams, need to shape the digital transformation of higher education. The salient question that the digital learning roadmap asks is "Where are we going?", but the question should be "Where do we want to go?". Discussions on the future of online learning need to be framed around the question of what type of higher education system we want to create by 2030.
Mr. John D'Arcy:
I thank the committee for the invitation to attend today. We are delighted to be here.
The Open University has always been a distance learning provider. Open University will celebrate its 45th birthday this year, and throughout that time we have relied on various technological approaches to get to learners in far-flung places across the UK, Ireland and the globe. Earlier inceptions were television and radio, and with the development of PCs our world exploded and we moved into online learning.
Most of our courses are blended learning courses and are not all strictly conducted online. Learners still want face-to-face tuition at times; they want telephone and e-forum support, which we endeavour to provide. Increasingly, a lot of our learners use Twitter and Facebook to communicate with their tutors and peers in order to take their studies forward.
Open University is a MOOC provider and established a system called FutureLearn about two years ago. One of the reasons for doing so, as Professor Brown said in his presentation, is that MOOCs are allegedly a disruptive force in higher education. We felt that distance learning was something on which we had been a thought leader for a particular period and, therefore, we felt we should try to bring a degree of quality, standards and reputation to the MOOC environment. FutureLearn has been going for almost two years, with about 30 academic partners located largely across the UK but also on this island, including Trinity College Dublin and Queen's University, Belfast.
FutureLearn has been phenomenally successful in terms of student uptake. More than 750 million learners have signed up, and so far they have looked at well over 1 million courses. I am glad my colleagues from TCD are here today, because its MOOC has been one of the most successful in terms of student numbers, with well over 20,000 learners. Those learners have stayed with the course. That is down to the way Trinity has approached the pedagogy.
MOOCs are a bit unusual. People may wonder about free learning and wonder whether it is worthwhile. We have found that the partners we work with and our academics produce very high-quality courses of three hours learning per week for maybe 13 weeks. The retention figures show that around 22% of learners who start will finish their courses. That percentage sounds quite low, but in MOOC terms it is quite high, so we are very pleased with the results.
Aside from FutureLearn, which is a collaborative venture that is funded by the Open University, we also have an internal platform called OpenLearn. Since OpenLearn was set up in 2006, around 33 million unique visitors have used material from it. A lot of its content consists of previously run undergraduate and postgraduate material, so it is substantial learning. It is an area we are rapidly taking forward.
Over the next number of months we will introduce yet another acronym into the higher education environment, BOCs, or badged open courses. It will be a small attempt to put soft assessment into this free, informal and open-access learning option that any citizen in Ireland or across the UK and the globe can pick up. We will launch a series of ten or so courses between now and March of next year, including courses called Succeed with English, First Steps in HE and Digital Literacy.
One of the reasons we are keen to take forward online learning is that we think we owe it to students at whatever stage they are at. As educators, we feel it is imperative to get them into a digital lifestyle, because that is the way the world is moving. We would do a disservice to learners if we did not take them into that environment.
We have done some interesting pilot work on the badged open courses and discovered that students have found the initiative very useful. They can take the badge to things like LinkedIn. Some employers are also interested in the initiative because it could be useful for continuous professional development.
In the past year we have also introduced, as part of our online experience, an app that can be accessed by all of our students on registered courses. It is a mobile virtual learning environment called OU Anywhere, in which we have invested heavily in order to make sure it is as platform-free as possible. That means that whether one has an Apple iPad, an Android device or a Kindle Fire, one will be able to access material. Just by entering a student username, one will get all the course materials, which are portable. That means that if one is in Tralee or Cork or on a train travelling to Dublin one can access learning material. The app has already won two awards from The Guardiannewspaper in the UK. Last week we were fortunate to be awarded a higher education award by The Timesfor an initiative called the OpenScience Laboratory. It is part-funded by the Wilson Foundation and creates an online experience in which people can carry out real-time scientific experiments.
With MOOCs, OpenLearn, OU Anywhere and OpenScience Laboratory, we feel we are addressing the needs of students in a digital age. We are a very collaborative university and like to work closely with our sister universities on the island. We have demonstrated that with FutureLearn, which was done in collaboration with Trinity College and Queen's University.We are also keen to talk to other stakeholders on how to take digital learning forward.
MOOCs are part of a journey and they have gotten a lot of publicity over the past number of years. We see them as important at this time, but with the way assessment, learning and pedagogy will change over the next number of years, MOOCs are not the end of this particular story. I endorse what Professor Brown has said - that MOOCs are something that Irish education needs to get a handle on and fully buy into.
Perhaps members would like to experience some of these materials. Our office is on Holles Street and we would be happy to arrange an open day for members and colleagues if they felt it would be useful. Sometimes it is only when one touches a refreshingly designed beautiful app that one can see why people get excited about this latest stage of online learning.
I thank members for their time, and we are happy to enter into conversation with colleagues.
Professor Timothy Savage:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to attend its discussion on studying at university through online learning. We look forward to contributing in any way we can. I am the associate dean for online education at Trinity College. I am accompanied by Mr. John Coman, who is the secretary to the College. The Provost, Dr. Prendergast, who is unable to attend, sends his sincere apologies.
I shall outline my background. I have been a lecturer and assistant professor in the area of technology and learning at Trinity College since 2002, and was made an associate dean 15 months ago. That means my post is a relatively new appointment and a new college officership.
As Ireland's university on the world stage, Trinity is recognised for academic excellence and a transformative student experience. Trinity is embracing online education at a strategic level, through both formal accredited courses of study and MOOCs, as my colleagues have mentioned here. We see online education as a response to the important globalised higher education space. It also allows us to leverage the potential of these new educational forms and paradigms as part of our vision as a university of global consequence.
Specifically, online education allows us to increase access to and participation in higher education through the flexibility that online education offers; access new markets and students, both locally and globally; share and disseminate the excellence in research and teaching of our staff; and enhance and promote innovation in teaching and learning across all of our courses. This is one of the themes of our presentation. We do not regard online education as something that can be separated from the day-to-day activities of third level institutions. In 20 years' time, we will no longer speak of e-learning but simply of learning. That is a key issue.
I propose to address the specific matter of online education for accredited courses because this is a distinction we make. Our recently published strategic plan for 2014-19 states that we will increase online learners to 1,000 within five years and promote a diverse student community. This strategy builds on a pilot initiative that has been running under my leadership since 2013. Our online students are fully registered Trinity College students who take a fully accredited and wholly online course. The courses include the development of high quality online materials and a best practice instructional design model. The students interact with their peers in a vibrant learning community and with the course team via a range of synchronous and asynchronous technologies, including live whole class video conferences. We are trying to deliver a research-led online learning experience. As such, we go some way towards enhancing the student experience by keeping class sizes small and having a high level of interaction, discourse and dialogue. We are successfully extending this model into the online space.
This year, as part of the pilot initiative, we launched a postgraduate diploma in applied social studies and we will launch a further three postgraduate courses in 2015. These courses are targeted at areas of national and international demand that align with our areas of research-led expertise and strength. Our online course offerings will focus on the needs of the knowledge economy and lifelong learning by providing a high quality Trinity College educational experience to learners who require additional qualifications for progression in their existing career or to start a new career. The flexibility of online education allows students to study while maintaining their existing commitments to employment, family or social life.
Trinity College is committed to ensuring the online student experience matches the research-led Trinity College education based on academic rigour and built on the existing culture of scholarship, innovation and creativity, as well as an understanding of global best practice in online teaching and learning. In brief, quality is paramount in the online learning space. While brand recognition may allow one to attract learners in the first instance, the nature and form of the Internet means that if one makes low quality offerings, one's reputation will soon take a severe dive in the online global space. One cannot take short cuts with quality. To this end, we have established an online education unit and invested in experienced instructional design staff and multimedia developers. As I indicated, we have a specific instructional design model.
On massive open online courses or MOOCs, I do not have much more to offer to the comments of my colleagues on this issue. While MOOCs have been substantially over-hyped, they have a distinctive and crucial role to play. MOOCs are fundamentally different from formally accredited online courses. They provide a course of study, delivered free of charge over the Internet, to a large or massive group of learners. The learners, however, do not register as students of the institution offering the course and no formal accreditation is provided, although statements of participation and completion are commonly available.
Massive open online courses offer an opportunity to universities to disseminate their research and excellence in teaching to a wide global audience. A high-quality course raises the identity and profile of the institution and the academic staff delivering the course. It has a positive impact on the adoption of technology enhanced learning within the institution. MOOCs also have the potential to fulfil diverse learner needs in areas such as informal learning, unaccredited continuing professional development and the investigation of a potential area of study, and to experience the quality of teaching in a particular institution.
As has been noted, Trinity College has delivered its first massive open online course, Irish Lives in War and Revolution: Exploring Ireland's History 1912-1923, on the FutureLearn platform. Some 20,000 learners registered for the course, which was very well received by learners and generated substantial interest internationally. From my perspective as associate dean, the course has had a significant impact in the college's school of history. The academics involved, who may not have been the most up to speed in terms of technology enhanced learning, have not only embraced the course but are working with me on another project to gather archives of technological artefacts and develop a community of learners in Ireland in this area.
Studying at university through online learning is a rapidly changing and dynamic area and we must think globally in this regard. New players and technologies are constantly emerging. On the other side of the equation, however, it is important to recognise that learners who come to us in higher education are e-learners before they step through the door. We need to adapt, therefore, not only in terms of new entrants and online and informal education but also to align existing approaches to technology and learning with the new learners as they come through. Online education in all its guises will become a normal function of a leading university. Accordingly, online education in Trinity College is not viewed as a silo activity. Rather, it will be embedded within the institution to provide a high-quality educational experience to a wide and diverse community of learners while ensuring the adoption of innovative technology teaching and learning across all of our courses.
I thank our guests, all of whom have busy schedules, for taking time to come before the joint committee and facilitating the change in our timetable. Online learning is an exciting area.
On current Government policy and strategies, what action should the Government take in the next year or two to assist third level institutions in achieving their objectives of developing online learning? A number of established Irish universities have placed themselves at the cutting edge of online learning. In what areas will online learning reduce costs for educational institutions? Does it create challenges in terms of external competition from newer universities or international educational institutions which may have lower overheads than the established universities represented here? While the latter have strong track records, their starting position is one of providing in-house learning.
All the speakers noted that students arriving at university are already online learners. I do not believe online learning is being captured in the second level education system. As pioneers of online learning in third level institutions, I am interested in hearing the views of the witnesses on the strengths and weakness of second level education and what needs to be done at second level to make the most of the developing potential of online learning.
The witnesses are most welcome. It is wonderful that a conversation is commencing in Parliament on the learning revolution that is taking place globally, primarily through the use of technology. It is wonderful to have with us powerful exponents of the learning revolution in the third level sector.
Deputy O'Brien spoke a few moments ago about being able to access research that was available on junior certificate reform, learning for assessment and other issues. The problem, however, is that this research cannot be accessed in this room because the Wi-Fi service in this building is shamefully inadequate. It is disappointing and challenging for Members of the Oireachtas that while we have a world of knowledge on the Internet supposedly at our fingertips, we cannot access it right now. It would be helpful to have such access during this conversation. The problem, which is not confined to this room but extends across the entire building, is indicative of the extreme reticence on the part of somebody in the Oireachtas organisation - I do not know who it is - about allowing Members of the national Parliament access to information in a seamless fashion. My Wi-Fi access drops repeatedly and more often than not, I end up tethering my iPad to my phone. I should not have to do that. It is not rocket science and the gentlemen before us provide such access to the thousands of students who cross their portals every day. Why can it not be done in the Oireachtas?
One of the speakers used the phrase that the future lies somewhere between hope and hype. I agree wholeheartedly with that view. Much of the exciting work taking place in all of the institutions represented here can be attributed to our guests' firm belief in the power of technology to develop a whole new opportunity for learners to have a much deeper and more engaging learning experience and reach out to a whole new cohort of learners who may not otherwise have been able to engage with their institutions.
They are the two exceptionally powerful opportunities for the future, that is to deepen and have a far more engaging, rewarding and life-long learning experience for people and to allow people who would never have had the opportunity to gain access to have that access.
Currently in Ireland, we are seeing some exciting developments in that field. We have had Learnovate, springing out of Trinity College Dublin co-operating with Carlow Institute of Technology and An Cosán in Tallaght, doing exceptionally valuable work in creating a virtual, online, community college. Although it is delivering at this point in time a limited educational opportunity, because it is expensive to develop what they are developing, they have through their work, commitment and passion created a learning platform that is reaching out into seriously disadvantaged communities, not alone in this city but in Limerick, Cork and other locations. For the first time, this is offering communities that have had no tradition whatsoever of engaging with third-level education an opportunity to learn and acquire a third-level qualification. There is a serious cultural shift happening in those communities because of that initial engagement and we are only beginning to tap into the power of what is possible in that regard in the future. I am very interested to hear the witnesses' comments on how we do that.
Professor Mac Craith, Professor Brown and perhaps others are very familiar with the massive open online course provider, MOOC, based in Ireland, alison.com. Last January, Forbes magazine had an interview with its founder, Mike Feerick, and described ALISON as the world's first MOOC. It was, technically, the world's first MOOC. We have had conversations in other fora about how we move forward and what we can learn from the ALISON success story, because it is a success story. It is based in Ireland. It has 4,000,000 students and 600 courses online. It is the largest online educator on the African continent. There are questions that have been asked not alone of ALISON but of the MOOC substructure on how one can trust the quality of what is being delivered, whether there is an assessment and, if there is, how effective it is and if it can be trusted. However, we have a significant amount to learn from entities such as ALISON, Coursera and others who are doing this in a slightly different way, which is not the traditional academic model with which we are so familiar.
It is great to have this conversation beginning in our national Parliament, the Houses of the Oireachtas. Professor Brown alluded to this earlier on. However, it needs to extend not alone to third level but to post-primary and all the way down to primary level. There is a learning revolution going on right now in Irish schools. It is happening and not because of something we are doing in here; it is happening despite what we are doing in here. It is happening because we have exceptionally talented and passionate trailblazing teachers who have of their own volition sought out the research and materials and, in many instances, created their own learning content and materials. They are doing this on a daily basis. We have to find a way of reaching out to those teachers, embracing them and learning from their experience. There is so much that can be done. However, we need to acknowledge that we are not doing enough and we need to develop a road map on how we make this happen, and make it happen quite quickly. David Puttnam, last May, at an EXCITED learning festival, said we had at most three to four years to get this right or Irish children will be left behind for good.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I have a few questions to pick up, in a little more detail, on some of the issues others have raised. In the opening presentation, Professor Brown said 3% is the current figure on online earning. Does he have a breakdown of the number of those which are part-time and which are full-time courses?
One of the biggest difficulties with part-time education in general is part-time fees. The whole education structure is designed around people who have and can afford the time to be in college during the day. That is a general obstacle in part-time education. However, I have the impression that most part-time education is in-the-room education. This cannot be just about the funding model because part-time education is, in the main, paid for by companies or by the students themselves. There must be something more than State funding influencing this. State funding pushes people into full-time rather than part-time education at the undergraduate end. I am wondering what the other obstacles are apart from funding and the State funding model which I agree should be neutral as to the hours of delivery. It should be more concerned about content and what a person is getting out of a course than the hours. What are the other obstacles? What is stopping colleges from providing more part-time courses online?
The other questions are on the scope for online learning. I take the point Professor Savage made about not requiring all of our courses to be 100% online or 100% classroom based. It is about changing the way we deliver education and having courses that are a blend of each. I wonder if there is a difference in a first time undergraduate experience and a postgraduate experience. There is something good, from a student's point of view, to being on campus. I know from my education in Trinity and as a postgraduate student in DCU, doing the first undergraduate course, I learned more from being around the place, taking part in events and societies and things like that and from being in a learning community than from what was on the course. There is something to having that type of undergraduate experience, particularly in the first instance. It is different for people who are 40, 50 or 60 years of age and wish to get an educational qualification. They might not be able to afford to be on campus. However, I think there is something special for an 18, 19 or 20 year old student to actually be in a physical learning environment. Is the online option seen as a better one for adult learners and is there an undergraduate-postgraduate distinction?
The presentation on the Open University was interesting. It was mentioned that 30% of the undergraduates do not meet the typical higher education entry criteria. This is very interesting because the completion rates are said to be good. What supports are provided to ensure this is the case? Some of the universities have expressed concern about students who get on to certain courses with low points and then struggle, for instance in science courses in some colleges. These students struggle to keep up with the content. There is a lot of attrition in first year in some colleges because of this. How does the Open University manage to get students who do not have a Leaving Certificate level of education manage to support them and get them out at the other end?
I thank the witnesses for the presentation and I particularly welcome Professor Brian Mac Craith who is a colleague and friend of mine. We joined DCU together. He rose up the ranks far faster than I to become a very fine president. I am delighted to see him and a new colleague, Professor Mark Brown, here today.
It is not necessary to answer this specifically, but I would like to ask the witnesses how much the universities are in debt and what is the value of their buildings. The reason I ask this is I would like to find out if the debt in any way influences the rush into online learning development. "Rush" is probably the wrong word. However, in America, the debt for students is now at €1 trillion. It has become a kind of sub-prime mortgage brokerage. We know in Ireland that AIB closed down many postgraduate fees options and doubled the interest rate on fees when students had finished. This also happened with Bank of Ireland. The Government, in some way, has withdrawn from aspects of postgraduate education also and left it to the universities and students to fend for themselves. There has been a kind of feeding frenzy across the US and somewhat here in Ireland too in respect of outbuilding rivals. We all outbuild each other physically and in doing so we do not have enough money to educate the students. Does that have an affect?
What are the dangers of outsourcing. Is it happening? What are the dangers and what studies have been done which inform how these dangers might be undermined? What are the lessons learned there?
What subjects and disciplines lock more into online learning than others? Generally speaking, what disciplines of education answer online learning better than others? Is it a race? Is it a race to be acknowledged? Is the Open University in competition with MOOCs? Is there a tension? Are they in competition with each other?
Are MOOCs new to the game? Will the Open University be obliged to teach those involved in offering them or are the latter looking for it to learn from them? Do these courses suit graduates or postgraduates? Has any research been carried out in this regard? Does online learning suit postgraduates better? Who benefits most from online learning? Reference was made to MOOCs being free of charge and providing courses of study to a massive group. What is the standard of assessment which applies in respect of these courses? How do the universities maintain qualitative standards of assessment?
Professor Brown stated that he played a key role in the establishment of the Massey University Worldwide brand. I did some research into Massey University yesterday and discovered that it is involved in a significant partnership with the World Bank. When I think of the World Bank, I recall the numerous countries which were obliged to sign over their water rights to it in order to pay for their loans. Others might do so but I do not readily accept the involvement of the World Bank. That is just an observation, however.
I have asked a number of disparate questions but they all relate to major concerns regarding the rush to online learning and whether this is being prompted by financial considerations.
How does one follow that? I thank our guests for their excellent presentations. I am aware that they all have very busy schedules and I appreciate their taking the time to attend this meeting. I extend a special welcome to Professor Brian Mac Craith, who is a fellow native of Dundalk. We are always proud of those who come from the town.
I wholeheartedly agree with Deputy Cannon regarding WiFi access. I am glad it is not just me who experiences problems with regard to such access in the Houses. What has been the impact of the standard of WiFi access throughout the country on MOOCs? I was still teaching up to three and a half years ago when I was elected to the Seanad and difficulties with WiFi access were a constant source of infuriation for me. I accept that broadband services continue to be rolled out but up to three years ago, there was no Internet access in the classroom in which I taught. I returned to college to improve my Internet skills in order that I would not be outdone by my students. In that context, I was unbelievably restricted in terms of what I could do in the classroom as a result of the lack of WiFi access. I fought long and hard to get one of the first interactive white boards installed in my classroom but it proved to be of no use. We can put in place all the facilities we want but if there is no WiFi access, we cannot reach people. What is the current position with regard to such access? Are there hotspots throughout the country where it is possible for students to fully pursue online courses?
What is the position with regard to teaching or training lecturers in the context of the delivery of online courses? Is in-service training provided in order to upskill people and provide them with continuing professional development, CPD? Our guests referred to a lack of funding. Will they expand further on what they said in this regard?
I understand that the majority of those who participate on MOOCs are already well educated and live in developed countries. That is significant, particularly in the context of what can be done to reach other to others. Will our guests comment on the drop-out rate, which, according to the report, remains quite high? What can be done to reduce this rate?
I find it fascinating that DCU is providing a graduate business degree in partnership with Princess Nora Bint Abdul Rahman University in Saudi Arabia. Will Professor MacCraith expand on what the relevant course involves? I am also interested in the proposed partnership with the Khan Academy with a view to enhancing first-year student success in the area of mathematics. I was involved in launching an excellent report on mathematics in DCU and I am of the view that the proposed partnership could be very good for students.
I also thank our guests for attending. I am the product of a distance learning programme but, unfortunately, we did not have access to ICT when I was pursuing my studies. I engaged with WebCT in 1998 and moved on to Moodle in more recent years.
There are two issues in which I am interested. Reference was made to blended learning. I am of the view that e-learning and online learning are no substitutes for blended learning. In the context of the postgraduate versus undergraduate debate, it has been my experience - from attending various conferences - that the e-learning model fits very well into the postgraduate scenario. With regard to undergraduates, I refer to a study undertaken at a certain institute of technology - its location is of no real importance - whereby a lecturer embraced online learning to the ultimate. Whether it was video, audio or PowerPoint, you name it and he had it on his system. He ran two trials. The first was the placebo, so to speak, whereby the students involved had no access to the online learning programme and the second involved students having full access. The trials ran over two years and the lecturer noticed that the curves relating to both groups were exactly the same. He called in those from the group exposed to e-learning who had performed very badly and asked them to explain how this had happened in light of the level of resources available to them. Their reply was that they knew the information was available online and, therefore, they did not see the need to attend lectures. They then put off engaging with the programme. This fits with the scenario relating to attrition rates, a matter which is of some concern to me.
How do our guests measure and assure quality? I am also interested in how they deal with the issue of intellectual property rights in the context of their ICT developers. I am not sure how the august institutions represented here deal with such developers but it has generally been my experience that e-learning and other forms of ICT-based learning have come into being as a result of the goodwill and good work of the academic staff involved. These types of learning have developed organically and, as a result, no clear plan has been put in place. We are now in a position whereby lecturers are devoting significant time to developing online content. How are the institutions funding this? Do they have teams in place to develop and maintain the relevant software? I agree with what has already been stated in respect of CPD.
I understand that there has been something of a cooling off in the US with regard to MOOCs. Professor Brown indicated that online learning is not a panacea, that we are undergoing an evolution in the context of teaching and learning and that when we emerge from this process, ICT will be just another aspect of the overall picture.
I become disturbed when people refer to the markets in the context of discussions relating to education. Are we looking at the development of online content and the delivery of overseas programmes as a sort of "try-it-and-see" approach to attracting funding from abroad? It is clear that the London School of Economics and the Open University have tremendous track records in delivering programmes across the globe and I am sure they have made quite a lot of money from doing so. I do not intend this as a criticism and third level institutions should, by all means, be in a position to make money. Does that which we are discussing represent an opportunity for Ireland? I am not being critical, I just want to establish whether such an opportunity exists.
Professor Timothy Savage:
I thank members for the range of very sharp questions they have put to us. I am not really too sure where to start but I suppose I will do so by referring to some of the more specific operational aspects. Reference was made to the undergraduate versus postgraduate aspect and Senator Craughwell asked about how the model develops.
We in Trinity College made a clear strategic decision. The answer that I will give encompasses a great deal of what we do. In order that our internal standards ensure the quality of the online education that we provide, we had to take the strategic decision that it would be handled by a centralised unit. We have developed a strong instructional design mode, employing instructional designers and multimedia developers to ensure that it has been done to the highest possible quality. It is not just a question of the content, but also of the design of the interaction, activities, support and training as part of continuing professional development, CPD, and working with lecturers to ensure that they know how to run video conferences, moderate online discussions effectively and interact in an online space, which is fundamentally different from face-to-face teaching.
We have developed a range of teaching courses through which our lecturers are required to go. We find that this approach also means that lecturers are working with our instructional design teams. We are taking their expertise and translating it into an online paradigm. We are not making them re-invent the wheel. It is a focused, strategic approach that is primarily concerned with supporting the academics in making the transition, training them and ensuring quality and standards.
The issue of quality and standards arose in a number of other questions. There are no recognised qualities and standards for online education. All of our formal courses go through the standard course approval process within Trinity College. We have adapted it slightly, but they still go through the graduate studies committee, the university council and external review. They hit exactly the same quality bars as our internal courses. This is important. We are determining how to develop quality standards. Getting the quality right addresses issues of retention and damaging the brand. One of the first things I was told in my post was to do no harm. We put ourselves out on the global stage when we leave the campus. This is how we deal with quality internally.
The question on undergraduate versus postgraduate links into the questions on funding. For the next five years, we will focus primarily on postgraduate and CPD courses. There is a range of rationales for this decision, one of the most important being the global context. An Information Age society requires the constant upskilling of professionals who can leverage the opportunity that online education provides. They cannot afford a year out to do advance degrees. We have a specific target market - postgraduates in their 30s or 40s who have multiple commitments, are highly motivated and do not necessarily need the undergraduate experience, which can be seen as more formative, as Senator Power alluded.
In the medium to long-term, though, we view this as a broader transition towards flexible or hybridised and blended learning pathways. An undergraduate degree student might start doing one year on campus before taking some time off to do online courses. We are entering that space at postgraduate level, but we expect it all to start merging in the medium term to allow for these progression pathways for learners regardless of their levels and backgrounds and to focus on their needs.
Professor Brian MacCraith:
I thank colleagues for all their good wishes. I will address the issues as they were raised. Deputy McConalogue asked what we would recommend. First, there is still no national strategy for digital learning. Whatever way one views it, it is one of the largest evolutions in education globally, as every major country recognises. A digital schools strategy is in preparation. We must await its outcome, but the fact that it is digital schools only tells one that it does not consider the full continuum. Given the nature of Irish society, our commitment to education and the presence in this country of all of the world's major digital players, Ireland has a unique opportunity to do something special in this regard.
Second, the Deputy correctly raised the issue of the teacher. In this new digital learning world, the nature of the educator has changed dramatically. We must examine this matter across the education continuum. It is different at primary, secondary and third levels, although there are common issues. We must assist teachers to move into the new digital world, where the motivation is not finance, but enhancing the learning experience. The majority of DCU's new students are so-called digital natives or the Google generation. No student who entered first year this year has ever known a life without Google. It changes the way one accesses information, assesses its quality and distils it. All of the qualities one tries to impart to students changes in that world. As such, we are adjusting how we educate to recognise the new reality of younger people and the world in which they live. We must assist the teachers in this regard. DCU has been running programmes to educate our teachers to teach and assess in this new world. There has been a large voluntary take-up of the programmes. The prize is student engagement. It means that what happens in the classroom becomes a much richer engagement. To address Senator Craughwell's comment, if what happens in the classroom is the repetition of the content that students can already get online, they will vote with their feet, and correctly so. However, what is actually happening is the concept of the flipped classroom. What happens in the classroom or lecture hall at any level can be much richer because a great deal of information transfer can happen on digital platforms. This is important.
CPD for teachers at all levels - early childhood, primary, secondary and tertiary - is crucial for the enhancement of our education system. Members may know that DCU is working with St. Patrick's College in Drumcondra, the Mater Dei Institute of Education and the Church of Ireland College of Education to create a major new institute of education that will, for the first time, educate teachers at all levels in one location. An essential part of this will be the National Institute for Digital Learning so that all teachers can get exposure to the cutting edge of knowledge in this space and, therefore, transform the system.
Some questions were asked about costs. The notion that online learning in the mainstream system would be cost reducing is a fallacy. Doing this properly actually takes a significant investment. The prize is enhancement of the student learning experience and engagement.
Deputy Cannon referred to some of the affordances that go with digital learning, for example, flexible access and skills transfer. Mike Feerick's ALISON has been a major success worldwide, but it is not really about higher education. Rather, it is primarily about upskilling, reskilling, flexible access to learning and the democratisation of learning. While one cannot achieve in a blended situation the quality of a face-to-face education that one might want, one can still deliver high-quality education through online platforms. This is happening in sub-Saharan Africa and India. It is important where the growth in population is faster than the time it takes to build schools and universities. The affordability that one exploits or uses will vary from situation to situation, but it remains important.
I have many more answers, but I will let my colleagues address some of the other questions.
Mr. John D'Arcy:
I thank members for their questions, which were focused and sharp. I will address Senator Power's issue on open access. Open University has always been an open access provider. That was its mandate when it was set up by Harold Wilson's Labour Government in the late 1960s. One of the reasons we are comfortable with this is that our higher education entrant differs from Professor MacCraith and others'. The average age of an Open University student in Ireland is approximately 30 years. These students want to enter higher education for a particular reason. They are motivated to learn. We also have excellent staff at Holles Street who will advise on people's suitability for specific courses. If we believe that someone needs additional help before starting a higher level course, we will refer him or her to other providers or some of our free learning. I liked Senator Craughwell's phrase "try it and see". We find that approach to be helpful for people who want to get a sense of whether they are ready for higher education with Open University. Quite often, we recommend one of our OpenLearn programmes or massive open online courses, MOOCs, so that people can get a feel for what might be expected of them on a learning journey with us.
Our success rate with Republic of Ireland students is our highest globally. One of the reasons is that they pay high fees. We do not have the level of teaching grant support in the Republic that we have in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. England has a different system for funding part-time higher education, under which our students take out loans. That is a barrier in itself.
The people coming through our doors to sign up for a course are highly motivated and have invested in a university course. It is one of the reasons they are the highest performing across our demographic.
The figure of 22% is for FutureLearn courses. The success and completion rates for traditional degree programmes are much higher.
Some members asked how we encouraged secondary learners and others into higher education through the use of open resources. We take a multichannel approach, a lot of which is based on our formative experience with the BBC. We use the BBC for programmes such as "Life Story" with Sir David Attenborourgh, which encourages people to think about science. At the end of the programme there is always a call to action, which could be through a free poster or free learning, that will make a percentage of viewers sit forward on their sofas and think about taking a course.
"Frozen Planet" delivered 600 new undergraduate students across the United Kingdom and Ireland to us. In EU terms, 600 students is a not a large figure, but it is a significant number to enrol for a science course. We use such programmes to entice people in and in the past few years we have used resources such as YouTube. Ours is the largest European university channel on YouTube. Professor Mac Craith referred to the "Google generation"; there is also the "YouTube generation". The most frequent searches on YouTube involve requests on how to do something. People are learning how to fit plugs and do scientific things. We are using it as a wraparound.
For engagement, we use Twitter and Facebook. When we get people through to OpenLearn, which is free, about 12% of those taking such courses will click through to our mainstream site. It is a very high figure in terms of those who are thinking about taking a particular course. A lot of this is tied with our mission. Ours is a charitable university; therefore, whatever we gain we plough back into our learning materials. That is why we can afford to share so much free material. We have a lot of material on Google Play and iTunes University is very populated - we have had 64 million downloads since it started.
It is not all motherhood and apple pie; we do things for a reason. We want to get people into higher education, which is part of the mission for which we were set up. Our mission is to empower people who would not normally have a chance to engage in higher education.
We do not have comments on the funding system because we are not funded by the State. We have done some work with Springboard and do some work within the prison sector, but we operate in the private college sector. Having said that, 2,500 citizens choose to come our way and we think that is because of the support we give. In Northern Ireland a national student survey has shown that ours has been the most popular university in terms of student satisfaction for ten years on the trot. In England I understand it is the fifth most popular choice. We are generally in the same position as Oxford and Cambridge universities.
As my colleagues said, online learning is not about pressing buttons; rather, it is about the people behind it who provide support. We have a fantastic body of associate lecturers across the island, from County Kerry to County Derry, who are available to help people to reach their study goals.
Mr. John D'Arcy:
We are not separate because we are a MOOC provider. We own FutureLearn, into which we moved because the Open University was a disruptive force in 1969 in terms of how we approached higher education. The MOOC caused disruption. I agree with Mr. Brown that the Internet is a disruptive force. We considered we needed to be part of it, but we also believed we could bring to the space the quality and learning experience we had developed over 40 or 45 years in the distance learning sector. A lot of the other MOOC providers are not necessarily involved in that sector. It is a very different experience for learners and tutors. We are very supportive of the MOOC because it works for us, but I am not so sure it will be in existence in five years time. There will be a different form of online learning and if we are not there, we will do our communities a disservice.
Professor Mark Brown:
There has been a comprehensive range of questions and it will be difficult to cover all of them. I will start with an issue we all believe to be important, namely, quality.
New Zealand developed national guidelines for the quality of online delivery, something we do not have under way at this point. I chair the international council for open and distance learning, the peak professional body. I chair a group which is reviewing international quality standards, frameworks and guidelines and it is to be hoped something will come out of this work which will be published within the next two months.
On the question of data and the percentage of students officially studying at a distance or on a part-time basis, it is a murky one to which to give a clear answer. The data are not particularly trustworthy. The network I established in Ireland knows of a number of programmes being delivered in flexible ways which I would classify as distance learning, but I am sure they are not being captured at this time.
To try to break down some of the figures, of those students who are studying part-time in Ireland, in the third level sector at large, the level is around 16%. Of these, 95% are considered to be mature learners. The figures tell us a little about who is being attracted to more flexible forms of study. By contrast, in New Zealand over 50% are part-time learners. The funding model has something do with this, but the issue is complex. The ability of part-time, flexible, mature learners to fund their study is an issue and there are contrasts in the ways in which Ireland and New Zealand have approached the issue.
A question was asked about costs. In our assessment of the MOOC initiatives we are working within the European framework because there is some funding available to assist us. We must also consider opportunity costs. We are operating in a very tight financial environment and have to be very strategic about where we place our efforts. At this point, we are focusing our efforts on collaborative programmes which offer genuine benefits that link with our mission in transforming lives and societies such as biomedical diagnostics and working in Africa.
Ultimately, the question is who benefits, in respect of which I see the cost and the other side. Ireland, as a nation, benefits. There are public and private benefits for higher education and they are conclusive in terms of the research conducted. We have to understand the people who are studying in Trinity College Dublin or through the Open University on a part-time basis, in particular, those undertaking postgraduate programmes, are usually pursuing on-the-job professional development. It has an impact on productivity, whether the work is paid or unpaid, and has the ability to contribute to society. We also know that well educated people contribute more actively to society, have fewer health issues and cost society less. This is an investment and funding is crucial.
I have to return to the point on completions because it is one of the elephants in the room in regard to online learning. Completion rates are not good internationally and the MOOC quotes some of the figures. If we are celebrating a completion rate of 20% or 22%, we are not close to the targets. Completion rates for those in formal programmes are another problem. Through the efforts of the national forum for the enhancement of teaching and learning and in terms of the first round fund for building digital capacity, this year we have a project to the tune of approximately €250,000 to develop a flexible readiness toolbox to help to address the retention problem.
My opening comments were not anti-MOOC, but the data for completion rates in the MOOC are unclear. Clicking on a website is one thing but taking the next step is different. I shared figures from the University of London, which is involved in Coursera. There are four courses offered through the MOOC and of 212,000 students, 35 have continued. It may be an effective marketing strategy per student, but it is not be what we would do. There are better ways to use our funding.
On the question of what do we do, ultimately for me, that is the most important question which has been asked today and the value of this forum. There is a need for a more equitable fee model to enable all students to have the opportunity to benefit from higher education. We need also to address the issue, based on my experience down under, of what is termed infrastructure that in many cases is not "up to it". The challenge in this room was mentioned by way of example. In the university sector the only place in which I have real confidence is Dublin City University, DCU. We need infrastructure to meet our ambitions. It is extremely challenging to do what we are tying to do without that infrastructure.
To be really proactive, as I said, we will need to play a key role on the national stage in the area of online digital learning. Ireland, similar to new Zealand, actually plays a role as a very good global citizen in contributing to the deep-seated issues the world faces in that it is able to offer a unique Irish perspective to places that desperately need higher education services. We should not go about playing that role by dumping a western curriculum on the developing world; rather, similar to what is being done in Saudi Arabia, we should put in place a fund to support that international development relationship work around online learning.
I will end by reiterating my opening point. There would be a benefit for us in having some common guidelines and language to help us to understand what quality looks like in this space.
How do universities fund online learning programmes? Is the cost of doing so absorbed into the general costs of the college or is it an additional cost? My understanding is that a fee applies to certification of Massive Open Online Courses, MOOC. Does this generate much income?
On Professor Brown's point about changing the funding model, I am concerned that changing the funding model in the way described would result in the loss of money to undergraduates. A large proportion of those who engage in online education courses are already educated to undergraduate level. As such, they will have received their subsidy from the State. It would not be very fair to take money from such individuals if it meant undergraduates would also lose out. I am concerned about the implications of the change proposed.
Is there any collaboration with the organisations represented today and the institutes of technology in this area? I have a further question about the funding model. Professor Savage has said postgraduates form a large part of those who engage in online education programmes. What will online education do for people who, say, have not even completed second level education?
Professor Brian Mac Craith:
On funding, as in the case of Trinity College Dublin, online resources became an issue of strategic intent for the Open University. We had to prioritise this issue because it was about enhancing the learning experience for students.
In terms of the infrastructure needed, we have had to take out a loan for what is called the "digital campus" project. We are completely replacing the IT infrastructure of the university across two campuses, making it fit for purpose, not only for a modern organisation but, most importantly, also in an environment of learning which will be increasingly blended.
On the issue of fees, under the current funding model for undergraduates, a student only receives funding once. This does not apply to those undertaking an online programme. That is the difference to which Professor Brown was referring. In other words, where a person decides to take an undergraduate degree programme online, there is no fee payment in that regard.
I understand that. If a decision was made to provide money for online undergraduate programmes, would it result in money being taken from other undergraduates? My question is that in changing the funding model to provide for those taking online education courses would we be taking funding from somewhere else?
Professor Brian Mac Craith:
The Chairman is correct. It would have to be additional funding. There would be equity in making it additional, recognising the changing nature of society and the need for flexible access to education. The ultimate issue concerns blended learning.
On Senator Averil Power's question, "blended" means a customised combination of face-to-face and online education. It is not a one size fits all option. For the undergraduate, the learning experience has to be predominantly on campus. However, as one moves along the experience and, frequently, the age spectrum but not exclusively so, the nature of blended learning changes. One will find many individuals, particularly in the case of CPD, choosing to engage fully online.
Professor Timothy Savage:
I would also like to comment on the same issues.
On funding the initiative within Trinity College Dublin, we are coming to the end of our two year pilot programme, for which we had to find the money internally. This reverts to questions raised by Deputies and Senators about cost. This is not a cheap option. Done properly, with interaction and high quality content to provide a good educational experience for online or blended learners, it will not save anyone money; rather, it will be costly. We are not looking to make a profit; rather, we are striving to be viable, grow our postgraduate numbers and access new students, to whom we can provide for good participation in this type of education programme at postgraduate level. However, it must be viable for us to do so. We put the money up-front to cover the cost of production.
In regard to MOOC costs, we have received a small amount from the statements on participation and completion. However, we still have not received our moneys from the Open University, but we do not expect them to be substantial.
On foundation courses and access for those who have not had an undergraduate education, we see this very much as a broad initiative, both on campus and working closely with the Trinity access programme and the postgraduate certificate process in STEM education which is being run in conjunction with the Bridge21 initiative in Trinity College Dublin. We are trying to develop new models of technology enhanced learning in STEM subjects with secondary and primary school teachers through the school sector, as well as providing clear pathways.
I have had discussions about the potential of online education programmes to provide pre-foundation and foundation courses for those who want to attend Trinity College Dublin. It is an issue on my agenda, although a little down the line. In the first instance, we have to get up and running. We need to get our models in place before looking at where the additional opportunities lie.
Mr. John D'Arcy:
On the Chairman's point about the degree of education MOOC learners already have received, we have conducted some research in terms of our badged open courses which indicates that 36% of those who took the badged open course already had an undergraduate qualification. This compared with a figure of 56% for those who were accessing our website earlier. This was being pushed down somewhat because they were obtaining a degree of accreditation from us. There is a sense that this can be marketed to those who do not have a university education. The Futurelearn figures are much higher. Those concerned are generally well educated. We are getting to some of these learners in our social missions through the new badged open courses, but there is work still to be done in that regard. Interestingly - this was a surprising figure - 31% of those accessing the badged open courses had a disability, which is a much higher percentage than for those taking some of our additional routes. As stated by Professor Savage, the revenue coming through in terms of certificates of participation and assessment is very low, particular in the case of Futurelearn. Some of the other providers have probably being doing it for a year or so. A certificate of participation will bring in revenue in the case of Futurelearn of approximately £29 sterling per person, which is not huge. The number going down that route is not very extensive. Revenue is not in a specific space.
Mr. John Coman:
I would like to add a further point about funding which might be helpful to committee members. The model requires funding be front-loaded because the content must be completed before a student registers. This means that one has to start at least one year in advance and invest funds up-front before any income is received.
One needs to prime the pump for all the courses. One cannot just leave the existing courses online. They have a certain lifespan and some course content must be renewed while demand for other courses will peter out. Trinity College is discussing developing three or four new courses every year over the next five years. There is constant re-investment. Any funds generated from student fees will be ploughed back in.
Professor Brian MacCraith:
A question was asked about collaboration with institutes of technology on the development of the new regional clusters, which is starting to happen. With our colleagues in Dundalk Institute of Technology and NUI Maynooth, we have particularly focused on investing in technology in lecture rooms whereby one can capture and broadcast lectures in real time or store them and pass them on. This allows us to avoid duplication and get more efficiency from the system. Students in one location can take lecture courses in real time from many other locations in the cluster, and this is an important development.
An important point that was not made is the vast array of open educational resources, OERs, particularly the Khan Academy, which is being piloted in Ireland. One of the major challenge for students, especially regarding retention, is mathematics. This is applicable at primary, secondary and third level, as Deputy Cannon is very aware. It comprises freely available, ten-minute videos dealing with all the concepts of mathematics from 1+1 up to complex calculus. We are mapping those resources onto the primary school and junior cycle curricula as a resource for teachers, parents and students, and because it is a social enterprise, it is all free. The space of open educational resources, properly mediated to teachers across all levels, will be a major advantage in this broader digital learning space.
I disagree with Deputy Cannon. I am delighted we have not got computers in front of us here because we can pay attention with our ears and meet people who are passionate about what they are doing. It is very important that computers do not take over completely and that we are not always looking at them and tapping away. I am a great believer in the human voice and ear and human interaction, and it is important the witnesses are here. My background is in the arts and literature. Which subjects are more conducive to online learning? Is there more take up of post-graduate online learning in certain areas in the experience of the witnesses?
Mr. John D'Arcy:
Although the figures in my short submission highlighted a strong preponderance of maths, computing and technology courses, it does not reflect a pattern over the years. Arts is a very high performing area for us in Ireland. One of the first e-books we had on the Apple iTunes store was about Schubert's Lieder. It brought the high musical art to life because students could flick a page and click on an audio file, and the music jumped out at them. Because students could follow the score, it was almost like karaoke.
Mr. John D'Arcy:
Yes, it really switches people on. While much investment is done at the beginning to generate our books, they can really excite learners. Tablet devices are becoming much cheaper. We had a lot of content on Apple iTunes, but realised there was a barrier because students had to buy an iPad. We have transferred all the material to Google Play, making it very accessible.
We should hear more about the area because when I think of digital learning, I tend to think of mathematics and biomedical studies rather than the arts, music and theatre. It could be a wonderful way of educating and informing people about all the trajectories of digital learning.
Professor Brown spoke about common guidelines rather than standards. Does he see this as something the academic world should work on or which the Government should lay down? He also mentioned the infrastructure around the country. During my time with the London School of Economics, we delivered programmes in places such as Cavan and north Mayo by holding weekend top ups. Recently, a television programme featured a progressive young farmer who wanted to study animal husbandry over the Internet, but the broadband was not good enough to support it. Is the infrastructure in the country limiting the scope of developing online learning platforms?
I have worked with some development programmes in Trinity College over the years and I know the system is very good. However, I return to the core content, the academic staff and their time. Developing the programme and putting the core content online is one thing; supporting the learners is another. In my own time, I remember learners raising questions with me on Christmas Day. God help them, they had little to do. Could Professor Savage comment on this?
Professor MacCraith mentioned the clusters, and I have a major interest in this, given the development of technological universities and academic clusters or centres of excellence. Professor MacCraith mentioned co-operation with DkIT and NUI Maynooth, and that it will be possible to deliver a lecture in DCU and transmit it to both those centres. This raises the fact that the lecturer is delivering three lectures for the price of one, while the colleges are charging for three. I am not sure how it is costed and funded, not that I would dream of bringing my trade union credentials in here.
Professor Mark Brown:
Regarding guidelines, standards and quality, I come very much from the philosophy that we must work with people and bring them with us. The importance of building the capabilities and capacities of our teachers has already been acknowledged. This needs to be driven from within the profession. It is a common framework or language we can use in a constructive, positive way and the process is probably just as important as the outcome. Given that the field of online learning is very dynamic, we must be very careful not to lock ourselves in in a rigid way.
I have made a very strong case on infrastructure, drawing from experience in a small country very similar to Ireland which I thought was lacking in infrastructure. We are being filmed today. It is a challenge at DCU to scale that up on an enterprise-wide basis for our entire campuses. We aspire to provide our students with rich media learning, not lecture capture, as some have done, because that is just taking an old technology and using it to continue old-fashioned ways. Our investment aims to have all our staff easily able to record brief videos at their desktops to add a personal touch for students, whether campus based or distance. The literature tells us that teacher presence is crucial and in the online world we can feel very connected. DCU has introduced the brand DCU Connected to describe our flexible offerings and we see it as a metaphor.
The last kilometre or mile is an issue because much of the argument to invest in this is to serve those who are not accessing universities. Whether they are undergraduate or postgraduate students, and putting the fee issue to one side, part of the reason for this is to give people in the regions the opportunity to take advantage of being connected. This is a worldwide problem. Small regions in the western world are suffering.
Professor Brian MacCraith:
I thank the Senator for his retrospective question. What is happening here is that the same number of staff is delivering the same number of modules, but it just means the menu of offerings for a student in any given location becomes broader. It is about the range of electives. This is one of the affordances of digital technology. The cost model is not very different - it is the same number of students and so on - but all of this must be focused on the student learning experience. Having an expert in College X and student in University Y and being able to access that is very significant and one of the benefits of this technology.
Professor Brian MacCraith:
While I have the microphone in front of me, I will return to Senator O'Donnell's comments. The strength of digital technology is discipline-agnostic. It comes down to the creativity of the educator and the learner. If I could promote a university that is not represented here, just to show our ecumenical approach, UCD developed an outstanding model last year around James Joyce's "The Dead", which captured spoken voice, music, video, archives and one just saw on an app the strength of digital technologies to impart something so exciting. We are developing a new module for secondary schools around the contested histories from 1910 to 1922, the North and South perspectives, right through to 1916. It is remarkable what one can draw on for that to engage students. It is a completely new learning experience. It straddles the arts and the humanities, right across all the disciplines.
Following on from Professor Mac Craith's contribution, which was fascinating, I saw a teacher presenting at a conference recently on that very subject matter, extending digital learning beyond what one would normally consider the traditional areas of digital - maths, science, physics and so on. He is the principal of a national school in the south east where all the children from day 1, junior infants, use iPads. About a week before they began to study the Irish Famine, he told them they were about to study an area they had never studied before. He asked them to make a three minute video on the Irish Famine for the next week and put it up on Youtube. These third class pupils had the skills to do this and he saw all the videos and the various interpretations the following week. They had all gone and researched this - they had pulled content from Youtube, Wikipedia and other locations, and created their own three minute film on the Irish Famine. The engagement, discussion and debate those third class children had about the Famine was so much enhanced and enriched by their own research preceding that intervention. At the end of that class, the teacher said, it dawned upon him that he was no longer teaching history, he was developing historians. That is the subtlety and power of what is possible when one uses technology properly in a classroom. Following on from the resources Professor Mac Craith and others are making available, that is what is possible if we get this right in the future.
Professor Timorthy Savage:
I must answer for myself Senator Craughwell's question about supporting the lecturers. As I outlined earlier, when I was talking about the design process, and as the committee is hopefully getting from our shared view, it is about interactions and quality of the experience. Only about half of that is content. We train the lecturing staff in online interaction - how to moderate discussion boards and work with online interactions in a whole-class video conference. In every one of our courses, every week, there is a whole-class video conference. This is not for the delivery of a lecture - that is already done with media-rich content - but to run a seminar-style engagement. This is where the students interact with their peers and with the teaching staff. Not only that, but we must provide technical support staff for those live sessions. If there is a student whose technology is not working, they contact, through a back channel, our technical support person, rather than having to disrupt the lecturer and rather than the lecturer having to become an IT support person as well. There is, therefore, training beforehand, support during that, and we are also developing reflection afterwards, where the staff start to develop their own practice. This is very important to us because this is a cascade model. We have started to see these academics going back to other courses - traditional on-campus courses - and starting, for example, to use the online discussion boards for development of critical thinking as they now know how to moderate them. It is very much part of blending in the online aspect to enhance all of our educational experience in college.
It does extend the working week if one is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to one's students. I have seen people become so engrossed in it that it has almost led to divorce or the breakdown of relationships - "Go away, dear, I've got to actually engage with my students here."
Professor Timorthy Savage:
I must confess that I told the students I would deal with it on Monday, not on Saturday evening. We provide a quality contract with the online students, because it is different from face-to-face. If they submit an email, the lecturer commits to replying to it within four working days, whereas one would not normally get those guarantees on the face-to-face campus, and the same is true of the number of views on the discussion boards. It is a very different paradigm, there are very different needs and we train and support staff to fulfil those.
It probably also makes the teachers prepare their materials better. When I was in college, some lecturers were very prepared and some were less so. The fact that they have to do that probably transfers-----
Professor Brian MacCraith:
The whole nature of the teacher changes and there is much greater pressure on them because the old situation of just giving the same lecture notes for twenty years is completely gone. It must be a rich learning experience and, to take Senator Craughwell's point, it puts much greater pressure on the educator in every sense. That must be recognised and that is why continuing professional development, CPD, is so important.
That is what I was bringing up as well about the CPD. What was the reaction to that? Did lecturers embrace that change and the additional time they had to spend? Did the witnesses find there was a great willingness to do that?
Professor Timorthy Savage:
That is a very interesting question. Part of my job is engagement across the whole college about online education and I was expecting there to be a great deal of pushback, but I found - surprisingly, according to the literature that states that faculty will not like this approach - that there is a general recognition that to be a global university they must do this. They might not know how, so they want me and others to come and tell them how, but they know it needs to be done. On a micro level, we did brief the people I work with who are currently delivering. We told them it would take a bit more time. Through the first three or four weeks of delivering their first course, they found it very overwhelming and we gave them a great deal of support, but now we are finding we can fade from the support role because it is now becoming a normal part of the practice. I know there are many educators on this committee. If they remember the first few times they were in front of a class, it took a great deal of time and energy, but after a while one develops one's practice and it smooths over. Support is certainly crucial in that.
Professor Mark Brown:
We also need to be very strategic about how we address CPD. The old model where we would be preaching to the converted and the same old people would come along to sessions, will not get us to where we need to go. A much more strategic approach is to couple professional learning with the developments we are making at a programme level, so that as we are choosing key programmes we want to take, whether it be with Arizona State or something for a more blended delivery, we are working with the whole group of staff, not individuals. It is also important that there is a collective whole which is driven by the graduate profiles - what we say about the students we want to produce - and that we map back down there to each of the individual models, so that we have a comprehensive whole for them. Simply working with individual modules and teachers will not get us where we need to go.
I would be interested to hear the witnesses' opinion on whether or not we should go in this direction in Ireland in particular. We earn roughly €1 billion a year from international students coming to study, work and live with us.
Both Trinity College and DCU have been exceptionally successful in marketing Ireland abroad as a wonderful destination for education.
Yesterday, Estonia allowed international businesses to base themselves on a cloud basis in Estonia. They could become e-residents of Estonia in a matter of 24 hours and essentially have a base in the cloud that is aligned with Estonia as a state. What it is doing is very innovative and creative. Is there any opportunity in the future for us to create an Ireland MOOC or e-learning platform where all of the witnesses, given the exciting things they are doing, could plug their provision into that single portal? Therefore, if I am a student in Malaysia, Singapore or wherever, I will know that this is where I can go to access high quality online learning, because it is coming from Ireland and is perhaps marked under the education in Ireland brand through Enterprise Ireland. Perhaps a student might do their first two or three years through this portal and finally arrive in Ireland for the last year or even their postgraduate education. Is there an opportunity for that type of collaboration to happen in the future? Do the witnesses believe we should we do it, and how might we go about it?
Professor Brian MacCraith:
I will give a brief answer and let my colleagues add to it. There are three things happening in this space already. Uversity has been set up. It is a common platform looking at education in the arts, particularly the performing arts, and creativity. It is a collective to which all universities, North and South, have signed up, as well as almost all of the institutes of technology and a number of other colleges. That concept is there already and people have bought into it. Brand Ireland is the thing.
Second, the Deputy might have seen a report in the newspapers, which was not described or reported very accurately, that Tata Consultancy Services, one of the world's global companies, visited us last week and talked to the universities and other colleges about this concept. It is not fully defined yet, but there might well be a market there. That is in play.
Third, Lord David Puttnam has said to us a number of times that one could use almost a taster set of modules for Irish universities and colleges in the international space, so that when a student in China, India, Indonesia or Malaysia is making a decision perhaps the first year could be an engagement online. We would get a sense of the student and the student gets a sense of Ireland. That could be an important dimension, which is a type of hybrid approach to this. A number of us are exploring that option at present.
Professor MacCraith would probably know my feelings about this. I am not resistant to it. It is highly creative and imaginative and it is something we must do. I agree with everything Deputy Cannon and all the participants said about this. However, in doing this we must always uphold the arts within it. We have decimated them in primary and secondary schools and at third level. They are integrated subjects, not independent subjects. We give points for mathematics but not for music. They are equally important. The development of online learning must consider the arts to be paramount in how they progress as well. It does not only apply to subjects such as physics, mathematics and biotechnology. That would be my wish. It is also my wish that the arts be reinstated for what they are on secondary and primary school curricula. It happens in the universities anyway because there are student societies. They also have music, drama and dance departments. However, somehow in the secondary schools they have ceased to be the most important educators, which I believe they are, along with all the other learning. The marrying of that is terribly important for the future.
I have long argued for the importance of the arts in secondary schools and at all levels of education. That is a huge issue. When the leaving certificate examination in music changed in 1999 music technology was introduced. Music was one of the first subjects in which we could use technology for the leaving certificate. Basically, it must be said that the music technology on the leaving certificate curriculum at present is just copy and paste. It has no bearing on music at all. I studied it in conjunction with what is happening in the North. There are nine miles between Dundalk and Newry but there is a difference in the music education there. It allows pupils the scope to do exactly what we want to do with education, which is to give them the opportunity to be able to develop their minds and produce what they want, rather than the regurgitated rote learning here. That is an area where we are talking about digital learning, promoting Schubert's lieder and so forth, which is brilliant. However, let us bring that back down even into second level schooling and do it there. There is huge scope. The students are actually far more capable of doing it than adults are, and some of the music based digital programmes that are available are fantastic.
Professor Mark Brown:
I have a final comment. My perspective is still quite fresh, so my apologies if I am not quite accurate in the interpretation of what I am seeing. Hopefully, my accent has not been difficult to follow. A little known fact about New Zealand, and it is distasteful for me to use these words, is that export education is the third largest income earner for the country. It is a huge, multi-billion dollar activity. It must be done with real purpose and mission. Hopefully, the sense of mission has come through from what DCU is involved in. There are distinct and definite opportunities for us. The challenge will be how we do it as a sector working collaboratively. In DCU's case, we have activities under way with global partners, so it is quite complex to be able to uncouple those and sometimes they might get in the way. However, there are certainly more opportunities for working collaboratively to present the brand Ireland.
Professor Timothy Savage:
It is timely that the committee asked for this discussion today. Online learning is here and it is not going away. I suspect that 15 years hence we will not use the term "e-learning" anymore, it will just be learning. Similarly, we no longer talk about projector-based learning or chalk board based learning. What we must do, however, is have a strategic approach. We must be cautious and reasoned, and we must focus on the quality of the higher education. It is one of the things for which Ireland is known and we must protect that, but we must engage for the sake of our learners.
It has been a very good discussion. I thank our guests and the members of the committee for their contribution to it. We will certainly return to this area because we have been looking at it on an ongoing basis. We might invite our guests back again in the future for an update.
The select sub-committee will meet next Wednesday at 1 p.m. The joint committee will meet again on 17 December, but there might be another meeting as well.