Blended learning in HE: why we need to emphasise student success – and not just tech

Dr John Couperthwaite, former online learning specialist and current consultant at Echo360, shares successful strategies from UK and overseas universities to help the class of 2020/21

While COVID-19 is a new phenomenon, the higher education (HE) sector has tackled global pandemics before.

The plague of 1665 sparked the mass closure of universities across the world, which culminated in one young student, Isaac Newton, going into a year of quarantine.

Newton later claimed this period was among his most productive, giving way to his theories on light, calculus, gravity and motion.

So, students can succeed in a pandemic. The question is, are universities striking the right balance when it comes to the social distancing required to prevent the virus from spreading? Are HE providers helping students make the best possible progress in a world where not all of their learning will be face-to-face?

“So, students can succeed in a pandemic. The question is, are universities striking the right balance when it comes to the social distancing required to prevent the virus from spreading?”

Below are some great examples from institutions across the world that have found effective ways of using technology to deliver blended learning initiatives that encourage students to embrace new routines and help them develop.

  1. Make every session count

Many institutions are live-streaming online lessons to give their students the sense that they are in the room with their tutor.

You can shift this up a gear by incorporating quizzing and polling activities, which are used at University College London (UCL) in both face-to-face and online lessons to keep students engaged. The added advantage is that these tools help the tutor assess students’ understanding of the topics being covered during a tutorial. This means that any issues with specific topics can be revisited in the lesson to help keep learning on track.

You may also want to consider opening online sessions earlier and closing them later than the scheduled time. This gives students the chance to chat or ask questions – just as they can when they attend sessions in person.

  1. Get creative with technology

Think about new ways to use technology to help your students learn. Conferencing tools have been used at UCL to give students learning online the opportunity to work together to solve a problem or answer a question. Students often value these group sessions in face-to-face tutorials, so replicating them online can support progress.

UCL records both live online and group sessions, making them available to all students. This allows students to revisit what they have learned or catch up if they couldn’t make it for whatever reason. It also gives students the chance to hear a range of ideas and opinions shared between the different groups to broaden their learning.

  1. Add captions to support accessibility

Adding captions to recorded lectures and other audio content improves the accessibility of content for students with hearing impairments and other special needs. Tutors can save time by using automatic speech recognition technology to create captions and searchable transcripts of the resources.

Interestingly, McMaster University in Canada has found that all students retain far more knowledge from a video with closed captions than they do from one without, whether or not they have additional educational needs. So, this could have a positive impact on all your students’ achievement.

  1. Reach more students

Delivering short online classes by email to people at home might be a great way to reach more students. This has been successfully tried and tested at Southern Illinois University in the USA, which had been delivering face-to-face courses to students aged 40 to 90 in local churches and switched tack when lockdown hit and churches closed.

The initiative meant that students could simply open an email to access some advance reading, then click on a link to a video recording of the tutor delivering the lesson. After watching, students could ask any questions they might have by email and get a response from the tutor quickly.

This could provide a short-term solution for supporting students who experience a change in circumstances, due to COVID-19 or any other issue, that might otherwise prevent them from continuing in higher education.

Encourage success

The technology the HE sector needs to deliver blended learning already exists.

The focus should now be on using it in creative ways to provide students with engaging and flexible learning experiences that help them succeed, this academic year and beyond.

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