When it comes to online teaching, we’ve heard a lot of positive talk from Ireland’s university heads in recent times.
Almost all of it has seen colleges going out of their way to laud the work of academics forced in the blink of an eye to confront a new pedagogical reality.
You can’t blame the institutes – good news, and good PR, are more important than ever in a pandemic, and most teaching staff deserve the plaudits they’re getting.
But there’s been a sense throughout that all is not as rosy as third-level presidents would have you believe. With whispers in some quarters of a technological deficit, it’s been difficult to avoid the feeling that academics have been sprinting just to stand still.
Until last week, though, nobody had raised serious doubts over the viability of online teaching in the medium – or long – term. (Universities, in the meantime, have looked hard at the “opportunities” remote learning affords.)
So interested onlookers would surely have sat up in their chairs on Friday when one of the sector’s experts – the chair of Science Foundation Ireland, Peter Clinch – warned universities aren’t equipped to provide online teaching that stacks up against universities around the world.
If an illusion was developing about the efficacy of online teaching in Ireland, then Clinch shattered it. At a webinar with the presidents of University College Cork (UCC) and GMIT, he poured cold water on a fast-developing idea: that “blended learning” – a combination of online and in-person teaching – could represent a positive future for colleges.
His warning – that colleges don’t have the supports in place to allow staff to effectively move teaching online – was stark. It was also worrying: Patrick O’Shea, the president of UCC, conceded at the same webinar that online teaching could be here “potentially long term”.
Irish universities have many strengths but, as Clinch demonstrated, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where online teaching is among them.
College presidents, and the government, should listen to him. Of course we’re going to have to move some lectures online next year – and possibly beyond, in the absence of a vaccine. But we’re far from ready to implement it as a realistic alternative to universities’ current educational model.