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20 October 2020

The Impact of COVID-19 Modifications to Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Irish Further Education and Training and Higher Education


Peter Cullen
Head of the Policy, Research and Statistics Unit at QQI


Karena Maguire
Head of the Stakeholder Engagement and Communications Division at QQI




QQI (Quality and Qualifications Ireland) is the State agency responsible for promoting quality and accountability in higher and further education and training in Ireland. In response to COVID-19 related social restrictions, institutions of further education and training (FET) and higher education (HE) rapidly transitioned to remote teaching, learning and assessment starting around March 2020 to enable students where feasible to complete the academic year. During the summer, QQI conducted an evaluation of the modifications made and reported its findings on 24 August 2020. In this blog post for QAA, we emphasise the higher education aspects.


What is the report about?


The early-stage preliminary report contextualises and outlines how further education and higher education institutions responded to COVID-19 between March and June 2020 and identifies the things that worked well and those that did not. The perceptions of institutions, their students and staff on the impact of the changes are also covered in the report.


The report primarily focuses on the impact on teaching, learning and assessment, and related services and support, creating a clear picture of the challenges that students and staff faced at many levels.


What were we trying to achieve by doing this work?


The main objective for doing this work was to provide an early, authoritative and impartial account of the impact of COVID-19 on teaching, learning and assessment in FET and HE. We hoped that the findings would help identify opportunities for improvement and effective practice examples that would be of interest to FET and HE institutions and other stakeholders in preparations for the 2020-21 academic year.


Learning from our experience, and the experiences of other countries’ FET and HE systems, we also hoped to support confidence in qualifications awarded in 2020 and help protect their reputation nationally and internationally.


How did we approach the work?


We decided that we would not commission any surveys but instead rely on data gathered by participating organisations primarily for their own purposes in order to minimise additional work for institutions during the crisis. The broad range of data structures complicated the analysis but provided a rich return of data.

An accelerated sectoral consultation took place at the start of the project to encourage maximum collaboration. In total, 56 organisations and institutions made voluntary contributions following an intensive series of meetings arranged by QQI’s stakeholder engagement unit. This was a crucial part of the project. Contributions were received from a wide range of organisations including our student representative organisations.

In broad terms, the preliminary analysis aimed to determine, as best we could in the time available given the available data, while recognising that matters were still evolving

  • what was done
  • what worked well
  • what did not.

What did we learn from the evaluation?


The report offers detailed findings relevant to higher education.

  • Overall, the transition to online teaching, learning and assessment succeeded, but not for everybody as some individuals lacked access to suitable devices or broadband at home. These findings suggest that some marginalised and vulnerable groups were particularly disadvantaged by the experience of remote teaching and learning.
  • Programmes with substantial practical elements (e.g. practice placements) were especially challenged by the restrictions.
  • Higher education stepped up to the plate. Learning outcomes were critical. Institutional quality assurance processes adapted quickly to support change management, proving them agile and flexible and providing confidence in the changes. Strong coherent collaboration between higher education institutions and their stakeholders also helped.
  • Students proved to be an especially influential group. They received a remarkable level of support from each other. Data from the Union of Students of Ireland Survey was one of the most useful single inputs to our evaluation for higher education.
  • Information and Communications Technology was key to enabling the transition.
  • The emergency transition may have opened eyes to new possibilities and challenged the necessity of some ingrained practices that may have been considered sacrosanct until COVID-19 struck.
  • With many institutions replacing invigilated unseen in-person written examinations with online exams that were frequently non-proctored, there were greater opportunities for cheating in the second semester of the 2019-20 academic year than normal. HE institutions raised the awareness of expectations regarding academic integrity. It was also fortunate that there has been an increased focus nationally on academic integrity in higher education during the past year or so with legislation  in 2019 that creates new offences and the launch of the QQI-sponsored and provider-led National Academic Integrity Network.
  • We were impressed by the support and system-wide collaboration we received from the outset of this global pandemic with other state agencies, representative bodies and other organisations involved with the FET and HE education systems.