Let’s talk about…Online education post-pandemic

The need for online educational resources hasn’t gone away with the restrictions

A study carried out recently by NUI Galway has highlighted the bleak reality of student accommodation prices across the country, with Irish third-level students paying increasingly steep prices to live on-campus, on average shelling out more than students in other European places such as Britain.

Anecdotally, evidence of the poor state of accommodation options for students is not hard to come by. We’ve all been witness to the housing crisis (or ‘disaster’ as our president dubbed it the other week) that Ireland has been reckoning with the past while – especially when it comes to the urbanised areas in which universities and colleges are found, where exorbitantly high rent prices are the norm, not the exception.

Presumably however, where private housing is not a realistic option for students, purpose-built student accommodation would be the solution. But, as NUIG’s recent report outlines, such accommodation is often way out of budget, with the development of private, investor-led student housing resulting in unaffordable rents, as well as lowering both space and accommodation standards.

It was always inevitable that as restrictions lifted and in-person third-level education returned, that there would be a surge in the number of students moving into university cities and towns. It was inevitable too that this surge would put a strain on the availability of affordable student accommodation. If you then take the ongoing housing crisis into consideration, it’s no wonder that finding campus-convenient accommodation that doesn’t break the bank is proving to be a mammoth task at the moment.

Ultimately however, the prohibitive costliness associated with pursuing in-person courses at the moment is proving to be a significant barrier when it comes to education access. Surely this begs the question – why are we so eager to do away with online education resources just because Covid-19 restrictions are gone?

In the last few years, resources for online education grew exponentially, a process sparked by necessity as a result of the pandemic. And it goes without saying that in many different ways, there were aspects of online education under Covid that left a lot to be desired, and it became obvious very quickly the areas in which online education was failing to live up to in-person learning. But as the pandemic progressed, we got better at navigating online teaching, and succeeded in establishing a framework for carrying out education online.

So why, with this framework now in place and students being unable to afford places near their in-person course, is there no push being made towards continuing to provide online resources? Even offering blended learning would alleviate a number of students’ issues when it comes to this problem, by making commuting a more realistic option for them. NUIG’s report offers some really good long-term solutions for Ireland’s student accommodation problem, but for students facing into the next academic year, a more immediate fix is needed, and perhaps this is where online learning could be of benefit.

To me, the eagerness to return to an education system that’s largely reliant on in-person learning never really made sense. Again, that is not to say online education has always been perfectly executed, but in so many ways, prioritising online resources the past couple of years has served to make third-level education radically more accessible. Not just for those for whom the rent and cost of living in college towns and cities was unaffordable, but also for immunocompromised, and for neurotypical people, who benefited from learning materials being offered in different formats and from being able to learn from home, away from sensory disruptions. For anyone who missed a handful of lectures due to their mental health, all the resources to catch up on their own time were already there. For any students studying for exams, the ability to go back and sit through a lecture from any point in the semester was a huge help. The list goes on.

Online education wasn’t a perfect system by any means, but neither is in-person education; the standard of both differ from institution to institution, and the question of which one is more suitable differs from student to student. Offering more flexibility and more blended learning options would do a world of good when it comes to improving education access, especially considering the lack of affordable student accommodation at the moment.

With all the talk that’s had about ‘learning from the pandemic’, I find it genuinely surprising that there hasn’t been more of a push towards continuing to develop and provide online educational resources. The pandemic restrictions may have been what instigated our need for online education, but that need hasn’t gone away with them. Online resources need to form part of how education is delivered in Ireland, because it is a sure-fire way to make third-level education more accessible for a variety of students.