THE Campus Live – switching on and off

Last week I took part in a panel session for the Times Higher Education (THE) Campus Live event. The panel was entitled ‘Switching on and off: Building student cohesion in a blended world‘ and discussed topics around continuation of education for students learning in difficult circumstances, ‘accommodating’ asynchronous learning and ensuring quality of provision. I was in good company sharing the panel with Liz Marr, Pro vice-chancellor of students at the Open University and Emma McCoy, Vice-provost of education and student experience at Imperial College London. Our panel answered a number of thought-provoking questions, I’ve selected three of my favorites with my responses.

What does blended learning mean to you?

Rightly so, blended in any context that that has a physical campus or on ground attendance means some form of mix of online and on-ground. Before the pandemic this largely presented as traditional forms of university teaching (lectures, seminars, labs etc.) enhanced by access to resources or activities online – for instance the reading list in Talis, the recorded lecture in Panopto, the course schedule, assessment brief and other resources in Canvas. Sometime these were further enhanced by asynchronous activities moving towards a more hybrid experience where you could be present as a learner and a teacher in both modes. What we saw over the pandemic was a wide scale exploration and adoption of online as the only space for teaching and learning. So in this context, and in the context of fully online learning what doe the term blended mean? This is how I approached the question posed. For me the blend in online is the blend of asynchronous and synchronous learning, which in part is related to the blend of flexibility and structure. Like online and on ground it is tricky to get right and find the equilibrium between the two. Learning design, as always, is the key that stops it being a disjointed thing of parts and moves it into a seamless experience.

It’s fairly well recognised now that ‘traditional’ university teaching styles often don’t work online. So if academics are expected to teach both in person and online and prepare programmes that work for both – how can this be managed?

Taking traditional approaches to largely mean ‘the lecture’, I do challenge the idea that this form of teaching is only ineffective online. It can just as easily be ineffective in a lecture hall with rows of students in situ, in fact after being a student at three universities I can ascertain to this through experience. At the end of the day there are good lectures and not so good lectures – that remains the same whether it is in a room, on Zoom or in a recording. What merits interest is why the experience of a timetabled on ground, attended lecture so coveted over and above the one delivered online? I believe the answer to this is that its the bits around the edges that make the difference, not the actual teaching content or the stuff that will support students to develop their assessments. We saw this when lecture capture was introduced. As a post I wrote all the way back in 2017 reported fears of students not turning up to lectures due to having the recording were misguided:

Our feedback from students is that they plan to continue attending their lectures citing structure to their studies and contact opportunities with their peers and subject experts as key reasons. The lecture has a social context and this is key.

Oh to return to 2017 when all us digital learning folk had to worry about was recording lectures! That aside, it is the community aspect of online learning that we continue to struggle with, how to turn a space that may operate perfectly well, into a place with heart and belonging. As discussed in a recent ALT Conference session myself and James Ritson (UCEM Programme Leader, Building Surveying) delivered ‘The art of placemaking for online learning‘ – we can start with the flowers, the small things that start to brighten-up our habitat. Online this may mean opening the invite to Zoom lecture 15 minutes early for greetings and chat, or having break out groups to discuss points made so far and slip each other virtual notes.

Moving onto the second point of the question. With greater discussions in the sector on designing hybrid programmes, programmes that can run both online and on ground we need to seriously rethink traditional concepts of university teaching teams. It is entirely unreasonable to require an academic to design for and teach in multiple spaces and modes. It requires a much more unbundled approach and the bringing together of academic staff, digital education professionals and other expertise that work together to create manageable, supported, quality teaching and learning experiences. In this respect we see the blurring of boundaries between roles, and greyness of what is and isn’t teaching. We all have a responsibility for student outcomes.

How should assessment be handled in a blended future?

Irrespective of the mode of delivery, the way we handle assessment should be underpinned by the same principles: principles of inclusivity, transparency, fairness, manageability – enabling students to progress and succeed. In a nut shell we should design good assessments. At my current institution we made the choice to remove exams from our provision before the pandemic started, for the reasons that they did not fit our vision of an accessible, authentic, manageable experience for our students. Submitting assignments and receiving feedback online is common practice across many institutions today, but I have a feeling that it is the area of assessment which could potentially see the most changes in an increasingly blended climate. Not only in terms of diversifying assessment but in terms of seeing efficiencies in assessment design and management, and even perhaps offering more authentic forms of assessment that were not possible previously for instance asynchronous video vivas and immersive scenario based assessments.

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