Institute of Technology Sligo moved quickly from being a typical campus-based college to being a global innovator in online learning without being particularly aware of it, writes Brian Mulligan. 

In 2002, based on demand from manufacturing employers in Ireland, we started an online add-on degree in Quality Management with five students.  In the intervening years online learning at IT Sligo has grown to about 4,600 students, more than half the total enrolment in the college. 

Stuck in existing innovations

All innovators suffer from getting stuck in their existing innovations and indeed most of the distance learning providers at that time were operating using a printed content approach developed in the 1960s or an electronic media approach developed in the 1990s. 

Both these approaches required significant investment in content development and high enrolment levels to break even and so were just not feasible for a small college in the west of Ireland. But, like many innovators, with no existing practices, IT Sligo had the opportunity to leapfrog the existing approaches.

At that time, broadband was becoming more widespread and live conferencing tools were becoming more affordable and reliable. 

This enabled IT Sligo to take a 'lean startup' approach to developing distance learning which not only reduced development costs but, more importantly, reduced risk. 

Live conferencing tools allowed lecturers to teach much as they had always done, broadcasting slides and audio, and even a chalkboard over the web, taking questions from students, in what might be described as 'evening classes online'. 

Better learning experience

Other web-based tools such as lecture recording, group email discussion and electronic assignment submission and feedback, facilitated good communication between the lecturer and the students and between the students themselves and it might be argued that these students had a better learning experience than campus-based evening classes.

The core teaching approach we used then, and continue to use now, is what has become known in the intervening years as the 'webinar'. 

Like a face-to-face class, with a little skill, this can be highly interactive and engaging and unlike a face-to-face class generates a very useful recording. 

Because learners access the content through the web. This does, of course, give us the opportunity to add various additional features that cannot be easily achieved in traditional evening classes, such as continued communication between classes, automated assessment with online quizzes, plagiarism detection, and data analytics to identify learners falling behind.

Mechatronic engineering programme

We were aware when designing a mechatronic engineering programme in 2004 that travelling to Sligo for laboratory work was a significant challenge for working adults. 

But, as engineers, we realised that this was a practical challenge that was amenable to an engineering solution. 

Fortunately, as engineers, we also knew the potential for remote access to automation equipment, we set about designing a set of rigs that could be remotely accessed over the web, thus significantly reducing attendance requirements and increasing the numbers of people who could practically access these courses. 

Like the live online lectures that also could be accessed as recordings, the remote access rigs had the added advantage of being always available allowing more time for practice, leading to campus students complaining that the distance learners had better resources than they had. 

We were unaware, at that time, that we were one of the few in the world implementing remote access to labs and one of the few institutions providing online education in the more challenging domain of engineering.

Very happy with experiences

Many people ask us if this form of learning is as good as face-to-face classes. Our normal response would be that, by and large, our learners are very happy with their experiences. 

However, this answer may not reveal as much as it should. There are three reasons for putting courses online: to enhance quality, to improve access and to reduce cost. 

The primary aim of this initiative was to improve access. Initially it was accepted that it might not be as good as in-person classes but that was to be tolerated as many just had no other access options. 

As it happened we found that within three years of delivery our part-time learners were achieving higher grades than our full-time students in the same examinations.

But even if that had not proved to be the case, even a slight reduction in outcomes may have been justified by the significant improvement in access.

Success in using technology to improve access to part-time courses certainly begs the question as to how learning technologies can be used to enhance campus-based learning, particularly now in this Covid crisis where we may need to reduce contact with and between students who want to come to campus, serve students who may not be able to come at all, and be agile enough to deal with any changes. 

HyFlex model

One model being encouraged internationally is the HyFlex model which simultaneously allows a lecturer to teach a group in front of them and remote students as well. 

However this method does not, in itself, reduce contact time, and it can be quite difficult to deal with two audiences simultaneously. 

We, in the Centre for Online Learning, are taking the opportunity to encourage what we believe may be a better model of campus teaching anyway; the Flipped Classroom model, where students cover the content before coming to class, and carry out exercises, or 'homework', in the classroom. 

The lecturers can record their content in a simple way, similar to what many have been doing since March, and students will watch this before coming to a tutorial session where they may do example problems or even take part in discussions. 

To ensure that students have covered the content before the tutorial, they should be required to take a quiz or submit a simple assignment beforehand.  Separate tutorials may be held for campus and remote students or a hybrid approach may be considered.

Online access to practical experiences

Which brings us back to engineering labs. Whether the challenge is to protect compromised people who cannot come to campus, improve further the convenience to learners in the workplace, or to internationalise our programmes so that we can reach the scale required to compete against international competition in online education,for engineering education, we need to increase online access to practical experiences. 

Remote access to physical equipment is not the only solution. Among many other solutions are: high-quality simulations, combining simulations with real data to replicate typical measurement errors and kits for home use. 

However, the number of practical lessons that a typical lecturer requires is too large for them to design themselves. Lecturers need to connect with their peers around the world and share the solutions they are developing. 

Share solutions

With that in mind an international group has been set up by IT Sligo on LinkedIn ( where lecturers can share solutions and also discuss other issues on practical engineering education.

Many programmes of study around the world have moved completely online because this is the only option for learners who cannot afford to leave their jobs. 

However, for many working adults who wish to become engineers, suitable courses are not available. IT Sligo is constantly being contacted by prospective students from around the world (including developed countries) who cannot find online courses in their own countries. 

For us, remote access to practical exercises is the last piece of the puzzle. This has the potential for us to serve these people and unlock access to engineering education to people no matter where they are.

Author: Brian Mulligan, BE, MEng Design, head of online learning innovation, Centre for Online Learning, Institute of Technology Sligo