What to expect: We're in a pandemic. Expect the unexpected and approach your new experience as a third-level student day by day.
Depending on your institution, you can expect to be in-class some days and studying from home or your accommodation on other days - at least initially. Expect a learning curve in terms of the technology that you will be required to use. It's likely that you'll have to access and submit assignments online, and take exams and quizzes online. You will have to learn how to navigate Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), manage multiple logins, and figure out how to use a library remotely.
The most important piece of advice we would give incoming students is to sharpen their time management skills. With the move to blended learning, time management is even more of a challenge for students. Noisy households, distractions at your fingertips, cats that need petting, dogs that need walking, laundry that needs to be sorted, difficulties in setting up a dedicated study space - these are just a few of the challenges a student studying from home faces.
Studying from home, in other words, requires discipline. Cerys O'Neill, a Critical Skills and Biotechnology student at Maynooth University (MU), says: "Give yourself a strict timetable as if you were on the physical campus. Treat online lectures the same as you would in person." The writer Cory Doctorow recommends working in 20-minute blocks. His rationale is that no matter how unpredictable your day is, or how chaotic your house is, you can always make a 20-minute block to get a piece of work done.
Microsoft Office, Apple, and Google offer a suite of time management tools alongside word processing, presentation, and other software packages. Find out which one your university uses and install it everywhere: your phone and computer. The next step is to enter your class schedule and other commitments while being realistic. Leave time to exercise, to go for coffee with friends, to watch episodes of your favourite show. Setting up an extreme schedule - no matter how well-intentioned - is not a recipe for either success or happiness.
Speaking of computers, if you haven't mastered the Cloud yet, then you'll have to learn it. Chances are that you will be going back and forth between university and home. Cloud storage is your friend. Chromebooks are a great option for students on a budget. You can still access Microsoft Office or Google Docs through a browser. Their price and specs are much less than a PC or Mac, and it's easier to stay focused on work because there are not as many games available for them! If you have unreliable internet then you have to factor that into your time management: block off 'analogue' tasks for when you have poor internet and prioritise emails and webinar watching for when you have good internet.
Ask for help
The Critical Skills programme at MU has been successful because we try to care for and teach the whole person not just 'the student'. Your teachers are the most important resource you have. If an assignment is unclear, ask for help in understanding what is expected; if you are overwhelmed by VLEs, timetables or assignments, ask your instructor for advice on getting a grip. We love it when students ask for help, especially about specific tasks. We call this 'aggressive self-rescue' in the business. When you ask for help it shows that you care and that you are trying to master the complexities of a new setting.
Colleges have spent the last few months scaling up their electronic and off-campus supports for students. Make use of them. Examples include Maynooth University's Counselling Service, which is now offering phone sessions, and our Top 10 Online Learning Hints and Tips social media resource developed as a collaboration between our educational development staff and Maynooth Students' Union. Our library staff have also been busy providing online advice and clinics for students. The university has even set up a 'What to do if…' one-stop page for students: https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/studenthelp
Being 'Future Ready'
If students can master remote learning then they will develop skills - time and project management - that are also valuable to employers.
Dr Brian McKenzie is a Lecturer in Critical Skills at Maynooth University; Dr Alison Hood is Dean of Teaching and Learning, MU and Steering Committee Member of the Irish Universities Association Enhancing Digital Teaching and Learning (EDTL) project
Synchronous learning: Online learning that meets like a regularly scheduled class at the same times every week.
Asynchronous learning: Online learning that students can complete at any time, or within a set period.
Blended (or hybrid) learning: Learning that combines in-person and online elements. The idea is that the in-person classes maximise the value of things that should be done in the classroom and the online classes address content that can be mastered without being physically present.
VLE (virtual learning environment): The software a university uses to host classes.
Remote access: The ability of a student to login to a university library to access resources from off campus. Moodle and Blackboard are commonly used in Ireland.
Database: A collection of information resources (primarily newspapers and scholarly) that students can access using an institutional subscription.