Blended learning: now let’s fix the flaws

Universities are at a crossroads, and must now embrace further digital transformation as we emerge from the pandemic

Digital transformation – already a buzzword in business well before the world had heard of Covid-19, the phrase has now seeped into the everyday lexicon of organisations across all industries. Education is no exception.

The closure of schools and universities forced educators to consider how they could use different technologies to enable remote learning. For some institutions, the digital infrastructure was already in place; others were fully reliant on in-person learning, resulting in a mad scramble to establish entirely new systems and processes.

When analysing how well the education sector has responded to the pandemic, it is important we take a fair, compassionate stance. With little warning and limited resources, the rapid migration to digital solutions to empower at-home learning was always going to be a difficult task, one that teachers and education leaders have largely responded to admirably.

We are now at an interesting crossroads. Primary and secondary school classrooms have re-opened, and universities will be following suit in the months to come, which begs the question of whether digital transformation is kicked into the proverbial long grass, or if organisations continue on the journeys that were kickstarted by the pandemic.

In my opinion, educators at all levels must focus their efforts on the latter.

Tackling the issue of social inequality

The relationship between social inequality and educational performance – namely that students from poorer backgrounds perform worse than their wealthier peers – is well known. Decades of studies have highlighted the issue time and time again.

Covid-19 has, however, brought the topic into sharper focus, which can only be a good thing. A recent report from the British Academy, for instance, found that “Covid-19 and the government response to it have impacted different people in different ways, often amplifying existing structural inequalities in income and poverty, socioeconomic inequalities in education and skills, and intergenerational inequalities”.

This is no surprise. After all, home learning environments (HLEs) sit at the heart of the relationship between socioeconomic status and attainment. Students that have ample resources, technology and family (or community) support networks – in other words, have superior HLEs – are naturally at an advantage during primary and secondary education. And as remote learning became the norm, this problem was exacerbated significantly, with universities far from exempt when it comes to the need to address this issue.

Positively, progress has inevitably been made in enabling remote learning over the past 12 months – as mentioned above, establishments for primary, secondary and tertiary education have had no choice but to invest in software and hardware so their students can access the curriculum and complete assessments from their own homes.

Continuing this trend is now the key challenge; systems should be refined further, with new layers of technology added to complement on-site teaching. By doing so, educators will create more unified remote learning experiences, ensuring all students have access to the same materials and information, thereby creating a greater balance within their HLEs.

Exposing flaws in the system

There is another important reason for not abandoning digital transformation, nor dismissing the benefits of blended learning: the improvement of digital skills.

Let us consider the technology that universities (like society at large) have had to rely on during the pandemic. Video conferencing and live streaming have become commonplace; cloud-based platforms have been used for students to download and upload documents; instant messaging tools have enabled real-time conversations between different stakeholders; and a variety of software has been deployed to effectively monitor students’ performance and customise their learning experience.

Those working within universities will have seen over the past 12 months that not everyone possesses the digital skills to properly use such technology. This includes the academics, students and administrators. To that end, Covid-19 has been a welcome reminder that we must not take digital skills for granted – to many, using certain devices or software will be completely alien, thereby inhibiting the effectiveness of remote learning, as well as potentially causing issues in other areas of their lives.

In the months ahead, universities, like the education sector as a whole, ought to invest more effort into addressing the digital skills gap. Moreover, they should continue to strive towards a more blended approach, where there is greater emphasis on how educators can best support students’ home learning as well as on-site, thus offer a more rounded experience.

Dr Paul Armstrong is a senior lecturer within the Manchester Institute for Education at The University of Manchester. The university is currently accepting applicants for its blended online MA Educational Leadership in Practice. Covering education policy, leadership of international schools, digital technologies and education research. The two-year part-time Masters is designed to help educators looking to take their career to the next level and move into a leadership role.

You might also like: Pandemic teaching: dispatches from the frontline

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