Blended learning: when edtech meets pedagogy

How have universities adapted their teaching during the pandemic and what will it mean for next year? James Higgins speaks to four experts in online teaching and pedagogy

On 2 June, reporters gathered in front of their screens for a press conference with the president of Universities UK. Armed with ‘high-level’ guidance on re-opening campuses, Prof Julia Buckingham had come to offer reassurances about the forthcoming academic year.

“It is going to be different,” Prof Buckingham conceded, “We’d all like to be back where we were last autumn, but we’re not. I think this is a very exciting time for students to go to university. They will have, I think, an excellent learning experience.” Some in the media, Prof Buckingham added, appeared “fazed” by the term ‘online learning’, a style of education quite familiar to most modern-day students.

And yet, the most recent polling evidence suggests many current students are far from content.

According to a YouthSight survey in June, less than half (42%) of undergraduates are ‘satisfied’ with the quality of teaching during lockdown and a third (33%) are unsatisfied. The survey, undertaken on behalf of the Higher Education Policy Institute, also suggests less than half of students have received clear information from their university about what to expect when semesters restart this autumn.

Meanwhile, the House of Commons Petitions Committee recommended that the government shake-up the rules on tuition fee refunds to make it easier to seek compensation. According to the committee’s survey of more than 28,000 learners, just 7% described themselves as satisfied with the quality of education and support during the lockdown. The committee recommended extending Covid-era compensation rules to students in the 2020/21 academic year.

The sector is diverse, and it is learning all the time. Lockdown restrictions are easing and most are optimistic about the potential for some face-to-face teaching. University Business has asked many universities about their published plans to return to campus, but most are unable to put a figure on quite how much teaching might be delivered digitally. Off-the-record conversations with staff in diverse institutions across the country indicate in-person delivery will be between 20% to 45% of timetabled contact time.

Latest figures from Ucas suggest UK-domiciled applicants are applying in larger numbers than ever – so what awaits them?

What happens next?

The clock is now ticking. Developing an entirely online course takes the Open University “around two years”, notes Sue Folley, academic developer at the University of Huddersfield, so implementing a university-wide online strategy with “time-poor” staff is no small undertaking. And the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warns of a second wave of Covid-19 this December.

Dr David Walker, head of technology-enhanced learning at the University of Sussex, says the university is preparing for an online-only scenario, but will pursue face-to-face teaching as far as it is feasible. How can universities plan for such uncertainty?

Resequencing the curriculum – or, as Folley laconically puts it: “short, fat modules, rather than long, thin modules” – is one off-the-shelf solution. Frontloading the autumn term with theoretical modules could help universities overcome the social distancing challenges in the autumn. Although simulation-based software and augmented and virtual reality are “helpful” and “exciting” propositions, Dr Walker says, “they are still at the emerging stage”.

Instead, he says universities will need “a creative approach to learning design rather than a technology-based solution”.

It’s been Dr Walker’s job to help prepare academics at Sussex for this uncertainty. The university has conducted surveys of staff and students to understand their experiences of online teaching. “It’s pointed to specific areas where colleagues would like greater pedagogical guidance,” Dr Walker discloses. His message to lecturers is simple: try to make the implicit explicit.

For the last few years, Folley has led a course at Huddersfield to help academic teams reconfigure their modules for VLE, and repurposed her materials into a short, six-stage course. Folley offers each member of the teaching staff a flowchart to follow this summer.

It prompts academics to think about the big questions: how do they want to communicate online and what is the most valuable activity to undertake in what face-to-face contact the timetable will permit.
Folley is keen to convey to staff the importance of a social presence: “In an online setting you can appear absent. We encourage staff to introduce themselves by video rather than text and record regular updates outlining their thoughts for the week.” Once staff choose the route that suits them, Folley’s flowchart signposts them to the digital tools Huddersfield supports.

Derby University boasts a Gold TEF-rated Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, which offers academics access to learning technologists. Paula Shaw is an academic manager for healthcare and education in the university’s long-established department of online learning.

Through her department, Shaw has helped launch a facilitated course for academics. “We insisted it was facilitated and wasn’t delivered in a single day, because that’s not what flexible learning is about. The whole point of it is to immerse academics, so they experience what it feels like to be an online student.
The majority of academics have never studied that way, so how can they be expected to instinctively understand it?” she says.

There are many practical considerations for staff to learn, says Shaw, but “90% of good online pedagogy is the same as good teaching”. The course encourages academics to break lectures into ‘micro-lectures’ and forums, and structure the course around different activities.

“We want our academics to learn how to lesson-plan technically, for their coming trimesters. Through this short course, they’re going to be working with our team, who are acting as facilitators, and our learning designers, to help them plan and design for September.

“The best of blend, really, is a course you can start online and translate on to campus, while remembering those students that can’t come on campus,” Shaw says. By designing for a worst-case scenario, Derby is planning for “those on the margins”, who have additional needs and requirements. Shaw says the university’s student satisfaction scores demonstrate that a partly online approach works. Derby, which has been at the vanguard of hybrid teaching, hits all the same benchmarks as other providers, she affirms.

The National Student Survey (NSS) bears that fact out – Derby has met or exceeded every single NSS benchmark, including overall satisfaction and course organisation.

University of the Arts London’s (UAL) digital learning team has also launched an intensive, online pedagogy course for staff, that was supported by Prof Susan Orr, the dean of learning and teaching enhancement and a professor of creative practice pedagogy. The task has been shared within the staff body in a bottom-up approach Prof Orr is pleased to see flourish. “What we have is a distributed set of colleagues mentoring and supporting one another. In some respects, this period has challenged some of our bureaucracies and hierarchies,” she observes, but it has “improved our agility”.

Prof Orr’s team have also made all their guidance on inclusive digital online teaching for creative art courses available online for use by other universities. UAL is surveying students and staff about their experiences and has collected “some valuable data” ahead of September, Prof Orr explains.

“Interestingly, attendance has gone up online. So, there’s something we need to take back and learn from there. Interestingly, we have a community of students who say they find it easier to connect with lecturers online – they like using the chat function, they find that easier to use than putting their hand up in a large seminar.”

One area Prof Orr is not sure digital technology can neatly supplant traditional teaching is “serendipitous encounters”. Spontaneity may be a rare thing in social-distanced teaching environments, too, she accepts, but she thinks digital ‘third spaces’ offer exciting opportunities for students to collaborate.

The majority of academics have never studied this way, so how can they be expected to instinctively understand it? – Paula Shaw, University of Derby

“I actually put out a tweet a few weeks ago and I moaned that all academics may not have as many serendipitous encounters next year. And then I tweeted the next day about language and digital pedagogy; for the rest of that weekend I had a series of fascinating discussions with a whole range of people, some I knew, some I didn’t. That experience showed me there is more potential to do this online than perhaps we realise.

“We’ve realised we could be creative with our online spaces. We’re learning all the time and we will be back on site, which will help us get that balance right.”

Dr Walker says well-designed hybrid courses “take extensive planning” and Folley says once hybrid courses are up and running, staff will need to be working harder than ever to meet students’ needs online.

“I think it’s a complete misconception about teaching online,” Folley claims. “It is equivalent to, or more work than, teaching face-to-face. For example, there are discussion forums to read and respond to; sometimes they’re like tumbleweed, other times, they take off and run wild, and academics need to respond to both situations. Sometimes, students go off topic, or there is a misunderstanding, and lecturers need to moderate.”

How much of the change is permanent?

Prof Orr is hopeful that the experience will allow UAL to re-think the way it approaches its creative pedagogy. “There are benefits for students that I don’t want us to suddenly forget. We’ve got to really reimagine a creative pedagogy that combines the strengths and affordances of onsite and online teaching,” she says. Post-pandemic, Prof Orr says the creative arts can reimagine the ways students demonstrate learning outcomes, learning to change delivery styles quicker and offer students more synchronous and asynchronous opportunities to partake in their course.

Shaw says the pandemic has forced all areas of the University of Derby to adopt new ways of working. Librarians have run online sessions to show students how to get the best from their digital library, she says, and “once you’ve learned that something can work, you can only go forward from that point”.
Folley says she’s encountered many staff who have reflected positively on the online-only experience.
She’s even been “surprised” by the positive feedback she’s had. “Having reduced capacity on campus is making staff think even more carefully about how best to spend the students’ time onsite,” she reflects. Sessions that have been shown to work online can now be more flexibly delivered, she continues, which will free staff-student time up for more fruitful interaction.

The pursuit of greater online learning is hampered by a lack of empirical research. Rachel Ambler, an independent researcher, Gervas Huxley, teaching fellow at the University of Bristol, and Mike Peacey, senior lecturer at the New College of the Humanities, published a blog in Hepi last month that said journalists rush to extol the virtues of online learning. More work is needed, they say, to “distinguish between different kinds of online learning” and the efficacy of each.

Interestingly, we have a community of students who say they find it easier to connect with lecturers online… There are benefits that I don’t want us to suddenly forget – Professor Susan Orr, UAL

According to the Student Academic Experience Survey 2020 (SAES), compiled by Hepi and Advance HE, the overwhelming majority of students report that the use of technology in HE is basic, rather than advanced. The survey is particularly interesting, because around half of the 10,000 responses were collected after 16 March, the point at which many universities transitioned to distance learning. The report’s authors noted that “innovation is currently the exception rather than the rule” for most courses, adding: “It is also important to point out that there was no impact at all in the data from Covid-19, as students surveyed before and during lockdown reported exactly the same picture.”

Analysis of the survey’s findings prompted the authors, Jonathan Neves, Advance HE, and Rachel Hewitt, Hepi, to conclude that, “where advanced technology is used, students are significantly more likely to feel they have received good value and, perhaps more significantly, to feel they have learnt a lot and that their skills gained will play a key role in their future”.

As Prof Buckingham told journalists in June, next year “will be different”. The SAES implies that the UUK president was not wrong to say an “exciting” blending teaching offer, propelled by advanced technology, does exist. The question is, does the sector have the time to achieve a revolution?

What’s next for exams?

Universities need solutions – technological or non-technological – for next year’s examinations and assessments. What are the options?

“The first step is to identify the purpose of the assessments that are in the course,” says Louise Krmpotic, vice president, enterprise services, at online education specialists DigitalEd. “Are they being used to enforce student participation and practice, or are they assessing the knowledge of the student in order to assign a grade?

“Many schools are re-evaluating their course structures and emphasising the act of learning over traditional assignments and end-of-term exams. Now is the time to redefine the grading schemes and expectations.

“For example, letting students take multiple attempts at an assignment using a tool that offers randomised questions, automatic grading and immediate feedback allows instructors to provide additional learning opportunities without significantly increasing their workload. Similarly, moving to an open-book exam and asking more conceptual questions often provides a better indication of the understanding that the student has.”

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