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University College Dublin on Distance Learning and Student Experience

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The University College Dublin has made a unique contribution to the creation of modern Ireland, based on successful engagement with Irish society


As part of our University of the Future series, we spoke to leading institutions from across Europe to understand their vision for the future, and how they plan to realise these ambitions.

In this selection of interviews, we hear from our contributors about what’s on the horizon for higher education.

These are extended interviews that were conducted as part of the research for our University of the Future whitepaper. Download the whitepaper – What’s driving the vision for the University of the Future? – to explore how universities can embrace the opportunity to reimagine the university of the future.

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Introducing Jason Last, Dean of Students, University College Dublin (UCD).

UCD is one of Europe’s leading research-intensive universities; an environment where undergraduate education, masters and PhD training, research, innovation and community engagement form a dynamic spectrum of activity.

Since its foundation, the University has made a unique contribution to the creation of modern Ireland, based on successful engagement with Irish society on every level and across every sphere of activity. The international standing of UCD has grown in recent years; it is currently ranked within the top 1% of higher education institutions worldwide. UCD is also Ireland’s most globally engaged university with over 30,000 students drawn from 136 countries, including almost 4,000 students based at locations outside of Ireland.

How has the UCD managed through the coronavirus pandemic?

Covid-19 has been both a journey and a challenge. I’m incredibly proud that we managed to deliver a quality education throughout, including managing remote assessments. I think it should be a moment of pride for any institution that they have managed to continue during these times. From a UCD perspective, staff have done their utmost to ensure that learning is as strong as it can be, and that the integrity of our qualification is maintained.

We’re now taking stock and analysing what we’ve learnt and what opportunities this has given us.

Overall, I felt everyone adapted to the new environment of distance learning quickly – both staff and students. If anything, it has shown that we are able to deal with dramatic change, fast.

What’s your vision for the University of the future?

Our vision has always been to provide an excellent student experience, and that hasn’t changed. But we see education as just one part of this. University is a journey of self-actualisation, so the experience has to take in all aspects of university life, including societies and clubs etc.

The academic environment has changed dramatically, however, as have the expectations of students. There’s a big focus on the personalised learner journey, giving all students the opportunity to maximise their potential. We have always felt that every student has an individual journey to make so their learning experience should support that.

I expect we’ll see a growing demand for distance learning, particularly for people in the workplace who are looking to upskill part-time. And, although the majority of our students are campus-based, technology is changing the way we teach and assess across all learning models. Personal and face to face contact will be maintained, of course, but we can use technology to provide better feedback to students and to monitor their progress and engagement more closely.

Universities will also need to demonstrate a policy of zero tolerance for transgressions of dignity and respect. There’s a growing realisation of the role that universities play in shaping society around issues such as bullying, harassment and sexual assault. We are finding ways to deal with this through initiatives such as bystander education programmes and anonymous reporting. We know that these transgressions can happen in both the virtual and physical learning environments, so we must find ways to prevent these issues from happening and supporting people if they do.

How can you help to bridge the skills gap between university and the workplace?

As part of providing that excellent student experience, universities must provide a fully rounded education so that students are acquiring the knowledge and competencies they will need when they graduate.

We’re spending a lot of time consulting with employers on the skills they require. We’re also looking at how we can develop students so they’re ready for the nuances of the workplace. We need to teach them how to take on constructive feedback, for example. It’s something we have to encounter all the time at work, but it can be hard for students to accept it initially. We need to get better at delivering feedback and we’re developing systems that can do this in a positive way.

We know how important it is for our students to have opportunities outside of learning, and ways of testing themselves in wider roles. The role of the university is broader than just knowledge acquisition.

What needs to happen to realise this vision?

You need to have staff on board to make big changes, but you also need to acknowledge that this will happen in different ways. There will always be those who are quick to embrace change – the ambassadors – but most are in the middle and will only engage with what is most useful to them. Inevitably, you will face some resistance to change. But it’s vital that all are bought into the vision eventually.

In fact, if you move too fast then you may end up making changes for the wrong reasons. Education needs to keep pace with changes in society. We need to strike a balance between drawing on our decades, sometimes centuries, of knowledge and experience and combining that with an ability to flex and adapt.

Jason Last

Professor Jason Last is University Dean of Students at University College Dublin.  A medical graduate, he began teaching in the UCD School of Medicine in 2000. In 2008, he was appointed Director of Pre-clinical Education, leading the development of the UCD Graduate Entry to Medicine programme before becoming Associate Dean for Programmes & Educational Innovation.

Professor Last now has responsibility for the student experience at UCD and is committed to the continued enhancement of UCD’s programmes and educational environment so that every student may be fully supported in reaching their potential. In that capacity, he recently guided the University-wide transition to a new virtual learning environment.

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Table of Contents

  1. How has the UCD managed through the coronavirus pandemic?
  2. What’s your vision for the University of the future?
  3. How can you help to bridge the skills gap between university and the workplace?
  4. What needs to happen to realise this vision?