This article is a personal reflection on the best and worst of blended learning from the perspective of a senior lecturer in innovation and entrepreneurship teaching a unit with 35 and another with 160 students, who is also a student at the School of Education.
The positives of online learning
In some ways the forced move to “blended learning” has enabled us to accelerate a move towards the “flipped classroom” in which students consume prepared material individually and come together for “meaning making” through shared dialogue. One advantage of individual consumption is that students can learn at their own pace, stop and rewind in a way impossible with a real time “lecture”. This has benefits for interactivity, particularly for students whose first language is not English. Such “asynchronous” interaction allows those who (for whatever reason) process new information more slowly to still engage in online discussions rather than missing out because by the time they are ready to contribute, the discussion has moved on. We have also been able to invite visiting experts for 20-minute guest Q&A sessions without the need for hours of travelling and recorded some great guest interviews. The weekly outline for our unit of 160 students looked like this.
Real time engagement stats from Blackboard also enable us to see who is / is not participating and check in with those not to ensure they are ok. It was really rewarding to reach out to a student and tell him how his team was missing his input and then witness (like a fly on the wall) his ensuing interactions with the team. We have had to make time to teach teamworking and online collaboration skills in a way that we would not never have done previously. It was quite exciting in May to be working with multicultural teams with members in India, China and South America collaborating on a common project – but it did make scheduling tricky given the spread of timezones.
Students also report that conducting research is easier. People are more available online even if the range of research methods is necessarily reduced by this medium. Real time transcription of recorded interviews or focus groups’ impressions of digital prototypes makes it much easier to faithfully capture what was really said. So much better than relying on fragments of handwritten notes with all of the sub-conscious bias this entails. The downside of course is the ethics considerations for information governance
But it is not all good.
I find it hard to speak to a screen full of anonymity, which reduces my fluidity when recording material. I hate to admit quite how much procrastination this induces when preparing recorded videos. Students, like other workers are finding it harder to get on with work when the distinction between study time and social time becomes blurred. The lack of the boundary created by travelling to and from campus and because social life is so disastrously curtailed leads to longer hours that are less productive. It is no surprise that this is impacting mental wellbeing. What I miss most is the ability to wander around and see how students in their teams are progressing with their coursework. Attempting this in mask and visor with students spread around curious bone-shaped tables designed for social distancing just does not work. Add in the fact that any “on-campus” learning also needs to cater for those in quarantine or self-isolating and we end up with a hybrid that feels like the worst of both worlds. Little wonder then that over time students voted with their feet with online “on-campus alternative” sessions attracting 10 times as many participants. The few that did come in said it was mostly just an excuse to leave the building.
Embracing new technologies?
We have embraced a lot of new technologies to provide the best possible learning experience, but it has been a steep learning curve and a straw poll among colleagues suggests that delivering the same teaching takes 50%-75% more effort than the old ways. It is frustrating for us and confusing for students that no single platform delivers everything we need for teaching. Students report problems with Internet connectivity due to infrastructure simply not built for the higher “contention” when everyone’s online all the time. I was grateful for digital skills courses put on over the summer. I did not learn much about digital delivery – I have been teaching entrepreneurship over Skype to Africa since 2013 – but it certainly showed me how to use the tools we had to best effect.
Looking back over 9 months or so of blended learning, on balance, I think that we are delivering a better learning experience. But this is against a backdrop of the overall student experience being very much diminished – particularly for extracurricular activity. These added stresses have required great paroral efforts. Let us hope that the next academic year starts to bring some semblance of normality and that we can keep the best while happily relinquishing the worst aspects of this year.
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