The perfect blend

As universities prepare to offer at least some of their teaching online, Nicola Yeeles looks at what the benefits might be, how the technology might work in practice and what institutions need to do to equip staff now

Blended learning. It used to be an option for making courses more flexible and appealing to a wider student base. Suddenly, it has become the new norm – but how appealing is it and what are the challenges?

The most recent evidence from the University and College Union suggests a 17% deferral rate among domestic first-year students, which equates to a loss of around 1,800 students per institution. Students are evidently struggling with the lack of certainty, but with blended education on offer already, perhaps more needs to be done to convince them of the benefits.

Flexible learning

Tech experts are clear that there are real wins for students. Alexandra Parlour, marketing communications manager at tech giant Sony, says, “Blended learning can offer a healthy balance of solo work and face-to-face group sessions. Online learning is a brilliant tool for independent study and, in a blended learning setting, preparing before a class.”

Chris Rothwell, director of education at Microsoft, sees that for students who are also acting as key workers, volunteers or have part-time jobs, being able to watch lessons in their own time means they can fit their education around their working schedules. In addition, for those who have special educational needs and disabilities, blended learning can make education more accessible.

He says, “Tools like Immersive Reader and Stream (Microsoft’s video service for education) can help pupils to hear, see and speak, unlocking the true potential of students with disabilities. Through this way of learning, all students can have a voice in the classroom which can change the entire learning experience and make it more collaborative and enjoyable.”

At ITS Learning platform, the team sees a future of learning whereby the students themselves take a greater ownership of learning key concepts, while the teacher’s role will be to guide and follow up.

“Understanding the difference between web-enhanced learning and blended learning is vital for educators when they are planning their courses for their year” – Sophie McGown, customer success, D2L

Mix of interactions

The ‘healthy balance’ offered by blended learning may be partly social as students get to know their peers better than through a solely online approach. It can also offer educators opportunities to motivate students in person to help boost their online efforts.

Variety is at the heart of this approach. Simone Hammer, marketing manager at Barco, which develops visualisation and collaboration solutions, says, “It is important in the learning journey to have different kinds of interactions: live sessions in the virtual classroom, breakouts, blended courses that you can do whenever you want in preparation for a live session, individual coaching sessions… it all makes a great learning journey. It has to be a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning.”

While it is inevitable and right that staff will reuse teaching material, students will also want to know that theirs is a tailored experience, which is where secure online meetings with lecturers and peers come in. Having staff respond swiftly through virtual learning environments will build relationships and ensure that students’ academic needs are being met.

This is not without its complexity, though. Blended learning requires students to have the self-discipline to fully participate in and take ownership of their education journey. Rothwell says, “The pace of change for universities in recent weeks has helped accelerate and foster digital skills in students as they’ve adapted to new ways of working. As we continue to see technology transforming industries and employment right before our eyes, students are also harnessing these skills during full-time education, preparing them for futures in the digital workplace.”

In order to bridge the gap, Hammer sees that as students encounter this hybrid world for the first time, there will be a new role for a skilled learning coach who can use analytics to help the student review their progress and plan ahead.

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While blended learning is likely to be on the cards for thousands of students in the autumn as institutions factor in social distancing regulations and students who are self-isolating and unable to travel, many organisations have been using this approach during lockdown.

Hugh Baird College is one of the largest providers of education and training in Liverpool and Merseyside and is already taking a blended learning approach, recording its lessons in Microsoft Teams so students can re-watch classes and go over topics they didn’t immediately understand.

David Rigby, vice-principal, says, “We see significant improvement in student engagement, and with that comes improvements in behaviour, improvements in attendance and getting higher grades.” He adds, “One can’t underestimate the level of engagement that’s come from the way that technology has been introduced into the college.”

A mixed approach

Universities investing in technology clearly need to choose solutions that will be useful in both a blended and face-to-face teaching scenario as the future remains so uncertain. Parlour from Sony explains the importance, too, of intuitive technology that teaching staff can use without leaning on the IT team: “We have seen many interactive projectors never used by edtech leaders because of difficulty in set-up, and so we have worked hard on providing technology that adapts to the way our educators like to work. The great thing about our solution is that educators can record sessions for the students to view in their own time, or live stream lectures using the same materials. The educators are able to speak without needing to attach a microphone to themselves and automatically start and stream a lecture at the press of a button.”

As well as investing in technology, the challenge for educational organisations is to invest in people. Many lecturers and teachers have never been officially trained in delivering teaching online or designing online learning experiences, which severely limits the opportunities they can offer.

“The pace of change for universities has helped accelerate and foster digital skills in students” – Chris Rothwell, director of education at Microsoft

Sophie McGown, customer success, D2L, says, “This lack of instructional design knowledge means that beginning to create a structured online space can be challenging. Understanding the difference between web-enhanced learning, where supporting documents are kept online for ease of access, and blended learning, where structured learning activities are moved from the classroom to online, is vital for educators when they are planning their courses for their year.”

Of course, it’s also crucial that staff really understand the online tools at their disposal to help them translate live activities into fully immersive online experiences. McGown says that for such learning to be ‘seamless’, educators need to consider the whole process.

She comments, “It must include ‘backwards and forwards’ references. Where you have live events and teaching happening, you can see that reflected in the online element, and when you are synchronously interacting, you talk and reference the online activities to create a connected learning experience.”

But, she says, the most important topic to include in any staff training on technology enhanced learning is the concept of online learning itself. McGown explains, “Staff must be educated on the power and impact of online activities, the benefits of blended learning and how they can measure the impact of this change. Without this crucial element, you risk stifling innovation in education and make it much more difficult to create an engaging and varied learning experience.”

The message is: train the teachers in the principles, and the learning will follow.


You might also like: 91% of teachers expect teaching to remain online into 2021


 

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