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Saved by Technology: An Inside Look at UCD’s Online Learning Platform

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After a two weeks break, on March 23rd classes have restarted for all UCD students through the online learning platform made available by the university. This is as a result of the nationwide university shutdown aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. 

The system employed is Virtual Classroom (VC), facilitated by Collaborate Ultra, which is a live conference tool that can be accessed via Brightspace, UCD’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). In order to simplify a comprehensive understanding of the platform and how it functions, the Tribune interviewed a spokesperson from UCD Educational Technology Services (ETS) team.

All teaching material is going to be available through the system and lectures will either be livestreamed at regular lecture times or podcasted and saved on the platform. Employing VC has several advantages as it not only allows professors to teach remotely, it also allows students to interact virtually using the chat or the “raise hand” function, to simulate physical classes. In addition, virtual meetings between students and professors can be delivered via VC, as well as via other common applications such as Skype or Zoom. The UCD spokesperson said, “these activities will be spread across different platforms, and we will continue to work with our suppliers to ensure the best possible experience for all under these very challenging circumstances”. ETS are continually cooperating with vendors to monitor the ongoing situation in the university’s online environment reporting all “planned changes to teaching and assessment delivery”. 

Since all teaching activities have now been brought online, security and technical issues may emerge. However, ETS has reassured that the breaching of sensitive data is unlikely because of “significant due diligence” that has taken place regarding cybersecurity and is always executed “prior to the implementation of any University wide system”. In addition to that, in order to avoid any sudden disruption of the platform, representatives of the team have made clear that “the uptime is monitored 24/7 by the [system] provider and reported to nominated UCD contacts if and when issues arise”. This is possible because the teaching solutions offered by the university are either “cloud based or SaaS solutions” (software as service) so that they are easily supervised. 

At-distance teaching may be new for most students and academic staff but UCD has published guidelines to follow with the intention of guaranteeing a good experience of internet tools. The “Teaching and Assessment FAQs for Students” and the IT Services web pages on educational technologies and virtual learning are a useful source to consult. Finally, the ETS team recommends students to actively engage with the learning materials available and to contact module coordinators should any specific learning issue arise in the process. 

So far, students have responded relatively positively to the platform, saying: Its functions are easy and straightforward to use, and the chat facility is much appreciated as it allows communication without interrupting the lecture. According to one student, having the lecture recorded and stored is “a great advantage for us.” However, according to some interviewees, at the moment one disturbing technical issue encountered happens when professors’ voices are disrupted for a few seconds. Nevertheless, in this instance it is possible that the problem is one of Internet connection rather than the system itself. 

The measures taken by UCD to continue academic teaching are likely to have a positive impact. Despite the spread and growth of COVID-19 in Ireland, the restrictive measures taken by the Irish government to ensure the safety of its citizens may affect the ‘flattening of the curve’. 

On March 13th, all schools and universities closed down to safeguard students and staff, with institutions currently set to close until April 19th. Outdoor gatherings have also been limited to a maximum of four people unless individuals belong to the same household. Non-essential businesses are also now closed.

UCD President Andrew Deeks has said in his President’s Bulletin last week that the potential long-term impacts of COVID-19 for UCD could be “very serious” and have a severe impact on the university’s commercial activities. The President has appealed to recruitment staff to ensure international students, who make up over 20% of UCD’s annual income, attend the university next year. Deeks has also postponed the appointment of new academic staff under the Ad Astra Fellow scheme.

Earlier this week, the student group Fix Our Education UCD submitted an open letter to the university governing authority amid Deeks’ warnings of potential financial difficulties arising from the current COVID-19 pandemic. The group is calling for a reversal of the more than 12% rent increase on campus, a protection on funding for mental health and disability services, a protection on staff pay rates and a re-evaluation of university spending protocols.

The UCD campus is currently operating under “out-of-office” protocols, resulting in heightened restrictions on staff and student present on campus. The university’s libraries are also closed until further notice.

Updates on the COVID-19 university shutdown will continue over the coming weeks…

 

Alessia Mennitto – Reporter

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