The trick with all this ‘pivoting’ and ‘shifting’ is to not fall over…

At the start of 2020, in common with all such support units, I, along with the rest of the team in the Centre for Excellence in Learning & Teaching (CELT) in NUI Galway in Ireland, had been working away at improving our on-campus teaching and learning facilities, implementing a range of new and updated technologies in classrooms, and extending the scope for more blended and hybrid programmes in the future. Our professional development courses for academic staff and tutors on teaching, learning, and assessment, had been increasingly incorporating technologies both in terms of the course content and how we delivered such training.   Such developments had been gathering pace and increasing numbers of colleagues were becoming comfortable with technologies. We had joined an Erasmus+ project (CUTE-Competences for Universities – using Technology in Education) which aims to promote the use of the European Digital Competence Framework for Educators, and like all such collaborations it promised a mixture of professional development, practical outputs, and a bit of international travel thrown in. 

“Beware the Ides of March”, or more to the point, the 12th. That’s when Ireland went into Coronavirus lockdown and, to grab another literary quote: “All changed, changed utterly”!

The rapid and dramatic switch to purely online teaching meant so many colleagues swinging into action to provide a large-scale, intensive training programme to as many academic staff as possible across the institution. Straight from the basics of our Learning Management System (for those who may have largely used it as file-storage) to how to set up and run ‘live’ online classes for hundreds of students at a time.  Recording tools, interactivity, online assessment, discussion boards, collaborative platforms – everything came into play, though we tried our utmost to focus on the ‘keep it simple’ message.  

Screenshots of help pages provided for students and for academic teaching staff

That the technology held up (for the most part) and we could run 3,500 live online sessions per day was reassuring (and for some, quite remarkable). All those software licences we’d been lobbying for suddenly seemed like excellent value!   The exams, when they appeared on the horizon in April and May, brought a new set of challenges. Debate around academic integrity and security in online assessment led many to see the intrinsic merits of alternative forms of assessment, which were perhaps more ‘authentic’ and holistic than a traditional timed examination. Such exams did however happen, and everyone held their breath as the first one started at 9:30 one morning with 650 students nervously connecting to a Blackboard Test. As the clock ticked, the helpdesk remained quiet. An eerie calm. As the closing minutes drew near, 11:30 struck, and the online Grade Centre suddenly filled with 650 marks in the results column. The Eagle had landed!

After that, the tension remained each day, but as the weeks went past and more and more grades came in, whether on MCQs, essays, project reports, video assignments, or even scanned hand-written mathematics papers it was clear that we’d survived. Sure, the caffeine consumption was at record levels, but the main fuel of the whole enterprise was the extraordinary commitment shown by everyone, staff and students alike.

Images from Galway, photos by Dr. Chaosheng Zhang

As the summer rolled in preparations started being made for a return to campus in the autumn, albeit under restrictions of distancing, masks, and the like. But once again, at the last minute, on the Friday before the Semester was due to begin, the Irish Government announced that higher education was to go back to fully (or largely!) online. And here we still are. The trick with all this ‘pivoting’ and ‘shifting’ is to not fall over, and the trick to not falling over is to have the support of a community, and that’s what those at the digital chalkface have become, students, staff, family, friends.

Editor’s note: Iain’s talk at our recent Media & Learning Online Event on 18 November was really appreciated by participants, We asked Iain to provide us with samples of how he and his team support their academic staff in NUIG and he pointed us to this online lesson which they put together at the start of the pandemic. They also provided this guide to converting an existing module to an online module.


Dr. Iain MacLabhrainn, Director of the Centre for Excellence in Learning & Teaching (CELT), NUI Galway, Ireland