When the Covid-19 pandemic burst onto the world stage at the start of 2020, millions of learners around the world were left unable to use their respective educational institutions in the way that they had before.
Suddenly, teachers and other faculty members had to adapt to a whole new learning paradigm: one in which they do not necessarily have direct physical contact with the people they are teaching, and must instead rely on remote learning tools.
One year after the first UK lockdown, it’s not just the efforts to fight Covid-19 that have advanced and developed, however. Twelve months of trial and error, with successes and failures along the way, have helped illuminate what could very well be the future of education.
Even after Covid-19 is over, it seems likely that some type of ‘blended learning’ will exist, combining the positives of the digital landscape with those of face-to-face teaching.
Things have likely been disrupted on a permanent basis. But when it comes to technology, disruption can mean new opportunities to tweak existing systems for the better.
Could this be the kickstart we need to rethink education for the 2020s?
Changing things up
James Clay, head of higher education and student experience at Jisc, the not-for-profit organisation that supports institutions of higher education and research, told University Business that requirements for blended learning will very likely vary from establishment to establishment, and course to course.
There’s no single model that is going to suit every subject, cohort, academic staff and student body. While certain subjects can easily switch to cater to a more digitised approach to teaching and learning, others – such as the performing or creative arts, and STEM fields requiring lab work – have found online to be a real challenge.
“What works well in-person for one cohort of students may not necessarily be the best option for another cohort, for whom online is a better choice,” Clay says.
Zoom and Microsoft Teams have been two standout tools during the pandemic
“Circumstances such as location, commuting, care responsibilities, employment and cost of living can all have an impact. We know that at one university with a large proportion of commuting students, they are looking at designing a future curriculum which requires less physical time on campus and much more delivered remotely online, to reduce the amount of travelling. This will potentially have an impact not just on the student experience but also student wellbeing, and reduced transport could have a positive impact on the environment.”
Clay says that Zoom and Microsoft Teams, respectively offering video teleconferencing and text-based chat, have been two standout tools during the pandemic.
Both have seen usage and adoption skyrocket during the past year. In an educational context, this pairing has allowed for the live streaming of lectures and seminars, along with disseminating additional materials and handling questions and interactions. Existing platforms, such as the virtual learning environment (VLE) or the learning management system (LMS), have also been widely used for delivering materials and assessments.
Reimagining learning and teaching
In a recent report, as part of the large collaborative project ‘Learning and Teaching Reimagined,’ Jisc worked alongside 14 vice-chancellors around the UK and other sector bodies, to identify challenges and make recommendations relating to the future of teaching.
The resulting report highlights the importance of embedding digital at the heart of university culture, redesigning curricula to embrace digital learning, expanding the digital skills and confidence of students and staff, addressing issues involving digital poverty, and more.
As is often the case when it comes to what the technology critic Evgeny Morozov has called “solutionism” – the tech industry’s belief that every problem can be solved with the right algorithm – blended learning is going to present challenges. Issues like digital poverty are not easily solved, although efforts to do so have increased during 2020 and into 2021.
Nonetheless, the last year has seen some impressive demonstrations of how digitised learning can work. For example, the University of Brighton’s medical students received lessons in human dissection via livestream, representing the digitisation of something that previously would have required in-person teaching. Meanwhile, the University of London galvanised its resources to enable 40,000 students to sit 500 exams in 160 countries in a dazzling showcase of what’s possible when it comes to remote digital testing.
The best of both worlds
“Blended learning offers students the best of both worlds: face-to-face collaboration to share ideas, and the ability to work together globally via digital means,” Alex Parlour of Sony Professional Solutions Europe, tells University Business.
“The merging of the relationship between digital and traditional has been evolving across every sector for a long time, and has been rapidly accelerated by the pandemic, especially in the education sector. Universities and higher education institutions have had to provide their teachers and students with interactive learning tools and content that will support them in a future where home learning and collaboration will likely be the norm.”
Parlour agreed that, even after the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems unlikely that the higher education sector will return to exactly the way that it was before. Instead, it’s possible that courses will offer both physical teaching on-site, along with immersive sessions designed for students who are working remotely.
The University of London enabled 40,000 students to sit 500 exams in 160 countries
This could capitalise on some of the infrastructure laid down and honed during the lockdown periods in a way that could prove beneficial for HE institutions and the changing habits of learners. Parlour, for example, pointed to technology that makes it easier for students to clearly see both the lecturer and characters written on a whiteboard, even when watching online. These lesson offerings could be a far cry from the technologically cobbled-together video calls that marked a lot of the online learning when lockdowns first began.
“The potential benefits of digital learning are vast,” Parlour says. “For the students, once these new technologies are properly implemented and processes perfected, universities can ensure students are well supported throughout their education no matter where they need to learn from. For universities, utilising a proper digital scheme could mean attracting more students from around the world to attend their institution. It makes it possible for many more hopeful students to enrol on their preferred courses, without having to physically attend the university and incur the costs of travel and accommodation.”
There is also, Parlour adds, a wider benefit for society, since hybrid and remote learning could help make higher education more widely accessible across the board.
Get the right blend
Establishing the right blend for blended learning is going to take some work. Now that the world is, hopefully, moving beyond the immediate, necessity-driven response to pandemic-induced teaching, it’s possible to use this as an opportunity to rethink teaching to embrace the tools – and new opportunities – that have been developed and rolled out during this period.
Long-term thinking and strategies can now be deployed.
The advantage of any blend is that it allows the creators to alter the exact ratios and mixture as required. That will hopefully prove to be the case here, as universities are able to proactively cherrypick the parts of in-person and digital teaching that work best for them and apply them to different courses.
“Thinking about what you want that learning experience to achieve and what you want the students to learn, means you can do different things,” said James Clay.
“Taking advantage of what digital and online can offer over in-person, such as a more agile and flexible education delivery, will allow for a positive student experience.”
Hopefully it’ll give us a newfound respect for the importance of in-person teaching as well.
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