Donal Nugent, journalist

The undermining of education has been among the most corrosive aspects of Covid-19, with an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report issued in September provided a sobering assessment of the damage done to date.

It states that ‘significant learning losses…will follow students into the labour market’, with a potentially negative impact on income for the rest of their lives.

While the most intensive education focus in the latter half of 2020 has been on the reopening of primary and secondary schools, the challenges posed for third-tier institutions and the more than quarter of a million students they serve in Ireland are equally significant.

Blended approach

As a new academic year began, colleges and universities were able to draw on the lessons of March to June when teaching went fully online. It wasn’t an entirely new experience, given that lecturers have for many years made study materials available online.

‘We were on this path anyway,’ says Ronnie Patton FCCA, ACCA Council member and senior lecturer in professional accounting practice at Ulster University.

‘When you look at the building design of the new Ulster University campus in Belfast, for example, you can see it’s designed to accommodate a blended approach of classroom and online learning.

‘Technology was going this way, but events served to drop us in the deep end.’

Prior to the pandemic, blended learning was also a cornerstone of Dublin-based, which recognised that ‘the days of one course type suiting everyone have long gone’, according to managing director and lecturer Dave O’Donoghue FCCA.

‘When Covid-19 hit we moved everyone online, and the lecturers delivered courses from home rather than college,’ he says.

As to what kind of online learning works best, O’Donoghue says that while access to recorded lectures is expected, ‘students prefer a camera on the lecturer, with the lecture streamed live and a chat box allowing them to communicate with the lecturer during the class’.

‘Students have emerged more resilient, adaptive and resourceful, and that is something they can bring to their future employers and work situations’

Permanently virtual?

Government guidelines will steer the sector’s approach in the year ahead: a maximum two-hour limit on classes and lectures; two-metre physical distancing across campus; face-to-face meetings kept to a minimum; and face coverings used in situations such as lab work, where distance is impossible to maintain.

Accountancy lectures are unlikely to require personal proximity. Does that make a complete move to virtual learning inevitable for the foreseeable future?

While most students quickly adapted to the move online in March, Patton says that students feel the approach has limitations. ‘What has come out of our conversations with students is that recorded lectures are a useful backup but they don’t replace the interaction you get in a classroom.

‘As we moved into a new academic year, the question for us is how we create that interaction with the constraints we have. It is really important we all focus on improvement, in terms of understanding what works and doesn’t, and using the tools we have the best way we can.’

At, where classroom learning resumed in September in a Covid-secure manner, there has been similar feedback from students. The return to the classroom was short-lived as Dublin went into Level 3, quickly followed by a move to Level 5 for all of Ireland.

‘We have been surprised at the number of ACCA students who strongly prefer the classroom option over any online option. It seems that the traditional classroom is not yet dead even during these strange times,’ O’Donoghue says.

Greater resilience

The scale of the challenge facing education is perhaps most evident in the area of exams. ACCA’s trial of remote ‘proctored’ exams in July offers an innovative response to that.

‘Students sit the exam at home or in their office under the remote supervision of an invigilator,’ O’Donoghue explains. ‘One hundred students from were the only Irish participants in this trial, and ACCA now has this option in its armoury for December 2020 or in the future.’

While many students will be frustrated by the limitations of the current situation, Patton says the experience has provided an object lesson in adaptability.

‘One of the issues we look at, when we talk about the skills and traits employers want, is resilience. Our experience through the pandemic has been of students rising to meet a serious challenge.

‘They have emerged from it more resilient, adaptive and resourceful, and that is something they can bring to their future employers and work situations.’

‘Technology was going this way, but events served to drop us in the deep end’

Positive learning experience

For ACCA members, the experience of continuing education is also being affected by the pandemic.

Scotland-based ACCA Council member Liz Blackburn FCCA says that the uncertainty caused by Covid-19 was key to her undertaking a number of virtual courses this year. These ranged from a short four-hour course in robotics in finance to the entire ACCA Ethics and Professional Skills module, as well as the Certificate in Public Financial Management (Cert PFM), ACCA’s new and latest public sector qualification.

Blackburn’s experience has been that a mix of online delivery methods works well. ‘I enjoyed the longer interactive courses, which combine reading on screen with embedded videos and external links, as well as the shorter classroom style.’

She positively contrasts virtual learning to her experience as an accountancy student in the late 1980s ‘in a huge lecture theatre with hundreds of other students and a lot of background noise. I have single-sided deafness and this environment didn’t suit me – there was no replay functionality so the ACCA study texts suited me better then.

‘Now, with technology, there’s a lot more that will help those in a similar situation.’

For ACCA students and members who may be about to undertake study online for the first time, Blackburn’s advice is to ‘think about using the study and wellness resources available to you via as well as the community support available via Instagram, LinkedIn and so on.’

Above all, she says, it’s important ‘to look after yourself. It’s not easy working from home, then studying in the same space.

‘But remember you are not on your own: you are part of a huge network.’