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Opinion: New technology is opening access to education, but also presenting new challenges

Open, flexible and accessible education has the potential to open up education to those who cannot access traditional higher education courses.

John D'Arcy

EACH AUGUST, tens of thousands of Irish students take the next step in their education by progressing to institution-based third level study. Higher education is a well-worn path in Ireland and according to Eurostat in 2012, 51.1% of Irish people aged 30-34 have completed third level – the highest percentage in the EU.

The value placed on education here and the level of educational attainment is always cited as a major calling card for foreign direct investment into Ireland – but fundamental changes are now taking place in how education is accessed.

Change

In the traditional third level setting, desks in lecture theatres are now dominated by laptops and tablets while course work is increasingly conducted and submitted online. A more fundamental change is also happening as technology opens up access to higher education to more people. E-learning now means that anybody with an internet connection and a laptop or tablet can study with a host of online education providers for almost any qualification.

This includes qualifications that require a quota of vocational practice. In teaching, for example – hundreds of Irish students now graduate each year with teaching qualifications from Hibernia College, an online provider, having balanced the theory with the practical application in a formal teaching setting.

The increasing availability of massive open online courses (MOOCs) allows students from across the world to access courses in Europe and the US – in many cases for free. In addition, some online universities in the US don’t follow the traditional university calendar, with courses starting whenever there is enough student demand.

The Open University has introduced a number of technological innovations and learning methods such as apps and online tutorials that have changed our offering as a distance learning provider to an e-learning provider. Technology has been both a motivator and facilitator of our transformation – as well as allowing us to award over 17,000 qualifications to students in Ireland since 1971.

Policy implications

The reasons people have traditionally chosen distance learning are manifold, including the ability to studying flexibly and cost-effectively from their chosen location, and at times that work around other lifestyle commitments such as childcare and employment. In addition, the cost of attending university – from fees and course materials to travel and rent – can present a significant barrier to entry for many people. The effect of recent rent price increases in Dublin, for instance, will only add to this challenge for students and their families.

A Higher Education Authority report last year highlighted research by Dublin City University into the role online distance learning can play in extending access to education in the future for individuals from diverse backgrounds, who often cannot access higher education any other way. This underlines my belief that the changes we are seeing in how education is accessed have yet to reach their limits either internationally or in Ireland.

There is also recognition by the Government in Ireland of the importance of lifelong learning in order to develop flexible workforces. The ability of employees to up-skill or retrain flexibly in response to changing job requirements is now an economic necessity.

Technology is the enabler of this process yet a barrier to entry exists as Irish students do not have access to third level grants if they choose a part-time online course. Furthermore, accreditation is a major issue for students and there is a need to consider how we review and rank online course offerings – to maintain full public trust in new providers. These are issues we will have to look at if we are to realise the potential this technological change is bringing to education.

Democratic dividend

With this increased access, there are opportunities to promote active citizenry and engagement. Last year for example, we launched FutureLearn – to bring together a range of open, online courses from leading universities across the world. These include Trinity College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast as well as The Open University in the same place.

The courses are clear, simple to use and completely free. Trinity College Dublin’s first FutureLearn course “Irish Lives in War and Revolution: Exploring Ireland’s History 1912-1923” starts in September 2014.

Ireland is currently the fifth largest market in terms of registered learners on FutureLearn – indicating the potential that exists from such collaborations and the opportunities they provide for students.

The education landscape in Ireland is therefore changing dramatically. Peoples’ ability to engage with formal education is expanding as technology brings down the barriers to entry. This presents its own challenges but, fundamentally, this is about meeting peoples’ needs and wants from education – so it’s to be welcomed. Open, flexible and accessible education is in all our interests so let’s embrace the change and the potential it brings.

John D’Arcy is the National Director of The Open University in Ireland.

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John D'Arcy

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