Maura O'Shea

By Maura O'Shea

Posted: 11 March, 2021

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Challenges being turned into opportunities, HEA seminar hears. 

Challenges to access and support services for some higher education students posed by the COVID-19 pandemic are being turned into new opportunities to successfully communicate to and cater for those who rely on such supports, a Higher Education Authority event has heard. 

Supporting students with disabilities, meeting the needs of students from the Traveller Community and examining the remaining challenges ahead as we exit the COVID-19 pandemic were all key discussion points at an online event, Sharing Good Practice in Higher Education Access and Participation during COVID-19, organised by the HEA today. 

The half-day event – which was the first in a series – reflected on the challenges faced by access and support services over the past 12 months. The event was addressed by several higher education institutions on their experiences of adapting pre-and post-entry supports for underrepresented students in light of COVID-19, with a particular focus on students with disabilities and those from the Travelling Community. 

Among the issues discussed included what has worked well for access and support services, how well first year students have transitioned into higher education, what are the remaining challenges and what opportunities has COVID-19 brought for the future of access services. 

 HEA CEO Dr Alan Wall said delivering the objective of an inclusive higher education system is a core priority for the HEA. 

 “We know that COVID-19 has intensified many of the challenges faced by students from the national access target groups. The work of the access services has ensured that these challenges are addressed and that students can access the supports they need. I would like to thank everyone for their extraordinary commitment over the challenging period of the pandemic,” Dr Wall said. 

 HEA Head of Access PolicyCaitríona Ryan, said Access Offices have demonstrated great flexibility and creativity over the period of the pandemic in order to deliver both pre-entry and post-entry supports to vulnerable students. 

 “Today’s event was an opportunity to reflect on how services have adapted, to share experiences and examples of successful practices and to take on board new learnings for the further development of services,” said Ms Ryan. 

 Brian McGonagle, Lifelong Learning and Access Coordinator at The Curve at Letterkenny IT said COVID-19 has challenged the learning experience for everyone involved in Higher Education. 

 “The challenges have created unanticipated difficulties for students and these difficulties have been exacerbated for our disadvantaged students, those who, even in ‘normal’ times, have to overcome a range of obstacles to reach their full potential. Thankfully with challenge comes opportunity. The outstanding resolve of our dedicated staff ensured we were out of the blocks quickly, using the new platforms/media to deliver our support service as best we could as we embarked on what was a steep learning curve for everyone involved. One year on, we are delighted with the response we have had from our students, which has exceeded our expectations. 

 “There has been an overall increase in students now using our various support services and on a more regular basis. This challenge has certainly been the opportunity many sought. We now look forward to continuing these supports and everyone learning together as we move into the next stage of educating in the COVID era and wish our students continued success,” he said. 

 Access Officer with MTU Cork Campus, Deirdre Creedon, said the pandemic presented Access Services with many challenges in terms of engaging with prospective students and MTU Cork Campus students supported by the Access team. 

 “We were faced with having to move all our procedures online, which presented its own challenges at the beginning. Some of the practices have developed however and have provided for a better service in facilitating students and making processes more efficient,” she said. 

 MTU Cork Campus Traveller Education Coordinator, Leanne McDonagh, said by adapting and moving a lot of their services online, they were able to sign-post their supports and services to a greater number of prospective students. 

 “Events that were organised online had far-reaching capabilities, allowing us to link with young Traveller students across the country. By working collaboratively with other HEIs and inviting current Traveller students as well as graduates and prospective students to actively share their experiences, we were able to gain an understanding as to how we could potentially move forward while also acknowledging that there are many challenges ahead in meeting the needs of students from the Traveller Community,” she said. 

 Dr Anna Kelly of UCD’s Access and Lifelong Learning said that once COVID-19 hit last year, they realised that while there were undoubted challenges, there were also opportunities, adding that the pandemic increased the visibility of the needs of all students, including access students. 

 “Studying away from campus, students faced with learning and assessment challenges had the opportunity to liaise directly with faculty through our emphasis on inclusive practice, universal design and by creating awareness of some simple practical steps, students’ needs could be more easily met in the virtual learning environment. We also offered a series of live online academic skills and well-being workshops and we have seen increased attendance. This format allows students to interact with the material at their own pace and to review as often as needed. 

 “The lesson of COVID-19 is not to waste a crisis – we have found increased ways to be flexible and to reach out to students,” she said. 

 Declan Reilly of the Trinity Disability Service said its team adapted quickly in March 2020 when COVID-19 closed the university by continuing to meet with students via MS Teams, phone or email.  

 “As learning moved online, many accessibility issues required solutions to ensure accessibility needs were being met. Work got underway with Trinity IT Services to develop Blackboard Ally – a tool that helps content authors to ensure that the lecture materials that they upload into Blackboard meet accessibility standards, and Panopto – a cloud-based software that provides live streaming, lecture capture (recording) and post-processing facilities. 

 “Disability Services in universities are innovators and change agents. We do this daily when we adapt the learning and assessment environment for students with disabilities. Now we can do this at a systemic level leading to better inclusion for all,” he said. 







More: Access, covid-19, Higher Education

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