Teaching from a distance

Features

SCREEN TIME Instead of face-to-face lecturers, GMIT social care lecturer Dr Mark Garavan has had to teach online for the past year.

Castlebar
Oisín McGovern

THERE is an awful lot more to college than lectures and assignments. That much is clear from talking to Dr Mark Garavan, who lectures in social care at the GMIT Mayo Campus in Castlebar.
A native of the town, Mark is one of numerous lecturers who had to adapt quickly to a ‘new normal’ when then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ordered colleges to close on that dark day in March 2020.
He admits that the initial learning curve was steep for students and teachers alike. While all parties have adapted to online learning, Mark insists that there is ‘no comparison’ between online learning and in-person tuition.
“You can deliver the content and get across the information, but what you’re missing out is the whole interpersonal interaction,” he tells The Mayo News.
“You’re missing out on the comments that people can make, the off-the-cuff remarks. You’re missing the whole feedback from people as you are speaking.
“A good teacher is able to see how this is going down, is it being received, are people reacting, are they following you or not, there’s a million cues that you are able to pick up when you are doing it live that you are not getting online.
“Online you are looking at a screen, you might have people on camera but for the most part students tend not put on their cameras, so you are looking at their static photographs or initials and the only face you are seeing coming back at you is yourself. It’s hard going, it’s not easy,” he says.
Mark notes that remote learning is inherently antithetical to the nature and practice of his discipline of social care. The pandemic has also disrupted some students’ work placement, forcing them to work more online and less with people.
However, as Mark frequently stresses during our conversation, students have missed out on many other vital life experiences by being confined to their laptops and bedrooms.
“There’s the social side of it for the students, the disconnection from their classmates, not being on campus. So much of the student experience is about interacting with each other, it’s about the broader life side of being a student, it’s about the canteen, it’s about the clubs and societies, it’s about interacting and talking to each other, and all that came to a halt very rapidly,” he says.
“From the students’ point of view it was very difficult I’d imagine,” he adds.
“There’s a lot of isolation when you’re at home and having to learn. Some people have very difficult domestic situations. If they’re young they are at home with their parents, they are in their bedroom, they are trying logging onto a computer, they are there all day long, they may not have great broadband, they’ve noise in the house, all kinds of extra stresses and strains, so it’s been very challenging overall.”

Benefits
For older students who have family or who live faraway, online has actually proved more workable than in-person learning.
While students and lecturers are longing to get back to some form of face-to-face interaction in the autumn, Mark believes that online learning will remain popular even after colleges fully reopen.
“It’s hard to know what will change and what won’t change. I’d imagine with so much online learning that a lot of that is going to stay,” he says.
“The whole year has been online, and we’ve gotten students through their courses the same as we’ve ever done. The fact that we can do it suggests that a good bit of it will continue.
“It will mean that geography and where you are located is going to be less relevant. That’s a good thing because if you live in an isolated part of the country and online is an offering to you, then it means you can access courses without having to up and leave and get accommodation in some city far away. That’s certainly an advantage.
“There will be a fundamental change in third level sector as a result [of the pandemic], there’s no doubt about that.”