This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Stephanie Marshall, Vice Principal (Education)
Queen Mary University of London.
Blended learning is nothing new. It was a pedagogic approach used as early as 1436, when Gutenburg invented his printing press, facilitating inexpensive mass-production of books. Subsequently, rather than the pedagogue reading from a hand-written book to their tutees, students were facilitated in the skill of reading itself. This empowered them to read at their own pace and, in many instances, their own place, before discussing the material with their ‘tutor’. Roll forward centuries and there are numerous examples of technological enhancements leading to new, more blended forms of learning. From blackboards giving way to interactive whiteboards, to downloadable content complementing reading lists, technological change has consistently driven innovation in teaching and learning. Technological development has been met with the global pandemic this year to create the next major shift in our approach to education.
The tipping point came as education quickly moved online earlier this year in response to the national lockdowns imposed to stem the transmission of COVID. Schools and universities around the world massively accelerated their engagement with online teaching approaches, with academic leaders grasping the opportunity for pedagogical innovation.
As lockdowns eased through the summer universities built on the successes (or otherwise) of their online provision to prepare more fully realised blended models for the autumn. This has meant that students are currently assured of a continued strong learning experience even as the UK moves back into a period of greater restriction. However, despite the incredible effort and energy that has been put in, the question still gets asked, ‘what exactly do we mean by ‘blended learning’?’.
What is blended learning?
Those writing about blended learning agree that it is a holistic educational approach, combining individualised support with technology to empower students to take responsibility for their own learning. A useful comparison might be the ‘flipped classroom’ approach, where students are expected to prepare well – on their own, and at their own pace – for ‘learning’ activities, and would be disadvantaged if they had not undertaken this pre-work. What it isn’t, is, at the other end of the spectrum, a passive, transmission approach to teaching and learning, where the tutor is the dispenser of knowledge and analysis, and the student lacks agency in the learning process.
At Queen Mary University of London, our vision for blended learning is to encourage our students to be autonomous learners, highly skilled and motivated to ‘learn how to learn’ – essential skills for employability. We have seen the move from a culture of teaching (putting the teacher at the centre), to one of learning design (putting the learner at the centre), which has required a significant reconceptualisation of the role of staff and student. Initial indications at Queen Mary suggests that blended learning is leading to students engaging more actively with the whole educational process – knowledge, understanding, skills and behaviours.
Where are we now at Queen Mary?
Having made the rapid shift to solely online education at the end of March 2020, staff were supported in a variety of ways, including regular workshops, masterclasses, network events, and fora, to get their ‘teaching’ online. This in turn was complemented by feedback and insight gathered through fortnightly staff-student liaison committees. As the end of the 2019/20 academic year approached – complete with online end of year assessments – we moved to take what had been developed to a new level, with an intense community of practice-building exercise involving staff and students as co-creators of our blended learning offer.
In terms of face-to-face activity, like other universities we have acknowledged the importance of our network of advisers and worked collaboratively with them to write guidelines and recommendations for new ways of working. We have maximised the value of our diverse and rich research environment to provide opportunities for students to have hands on, ‘learning by doing’ opportunities. There are still difficult realities to contend with, and changing COVID restrictions have meant we have not been as successful as we would have liked in terms of being able to deliver the full range of possibilities, but we are keeping all options on the agenda.
When it comes to the online element, we have seen a host of unintended and unexpected benefits and challenges. For example, technology has empowered students who would not speak up in a ‘normal’ lecture: one of our lecturers reported that in a class of 150 students, 110 asked questions. Opportunities for mentoring from global alumnae have also been enhanced, with greater scope for online as well as in-person support.
Less positively, there have also been cases, at Queen Mary and elsewhere, of misuse of the technology. We are also contending with the perceptions – in part created by media reporting – that educational value can only be found through in-person contact in classrooms.
Where do we want to get to?
Many still refer to universities ‘getting back to normal’ as if the clock could be turned back, rather than considering the exciting possibilities this shift in pedagogic approach affords. We all need to continue to ‘learn how to learn’, given the rapidity of technological advances in support of education. We know that we have to learn from and continuously bench-mark our practice against others. Thankfully, the growing range of national and international online conferences on blended learning approaches are proving so much more inclusive for most of us, allowing people who would otherwise be restricted from engaging because of other work or home commitments to play a part. They are also much more environmentally friendly than events requiring long-distance travel.
The value of co-creation will continue to be key. The power of listening to the student voice is helping us co-create our vision of appropriate pedagogies for the future. Students are powerful agents in the development of the new normal for university education and should be seen as crucial partners in the process.
How do we get there?
Key to fully realising the value of this pivot to a new, technologically enhanced pedagogic approach for higher education is this continued commitment to co-creation of the blended learning offer and taking our students with us on the journey. University leaders need to embrace the pioneering spirit, think creatively and constantly trial new approaches. Data will be key, with a real need to monitor closely engagement trends to appreciate quickly the impact of the new approaches and – if necessary – adapt them. It is only by embracing these principles that universities can truly realise the potential of the new ‘paradigm’ and support new generations of students to enjoy the benefits.