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Responding to the challenges of the OfS’s blended learning review

  • 19 December 2022
  • By Matt Riddle

This blog was kindly provided by Matt Riddle, Principal and Director of Learning Experiences, Curio.

A longer version of this article first appeared on the Curio website in October 2022.

Is now the perfect time to reconsider the student experience in higher education?

The regulatory requirements published by the Office for Students (OfS) in response to last month’s Blended Learning Review have important implications for universities in the UK, including more careful consideration of the design of the student experience to encourage engagement, develop practical skills and facilitate feedback.

Coming at a time when universities are still weighing the impact of the pandemic on higher education, many now see blended learning as the ‘new normal’. The sector has learned much during the past two years about online and blended learning. Yet several challenges remain, including those relating to improving student engagement, increased expectations of online learning, and how universities can respond with an institutionally distinctive student experience.

Blended learning as the ‘new normal’

Let’s explore ‘blended learning’ in more detail. There is a lot of controversy regarding definitions. Still, this phrase, which is occasionally used as a synonym for ‘hybrid learning’, usually refers to providing a variety of alternative modalities for most students enrolled in a particular course. Typically, this combines synchronous online experiences (like a Zoom conference) and/ or asynchronous online experiences (like reading or watching recordings of lectures) with face-to-face interactions. One could say that hybrid learning was already the accepted student experience before the pandemic, although it would be much harder to argue that it was as fully entrenched as it is now.

Hyflex gives learners choices

Since at least the mid-00s we have heard the call for a more ambitious level of flexibility. Beatty’s (2007) highly influential paper coined the term ‘hyflex’, combining ‘hybrid’ learning with ‘flexible’ participation. A central principle of hyflex learning is that students make choices about their preferred experiences. They could be logged into a class in real time or they could watch a video instead, for example, and their experience in each mode should be designed to be equally as effective. I highly recommend referring to Irvine’s (2020) excellent description of ‘merging modalities’ if you are keen to learn more about accepted distinctions between terms like ‘hybrid’ and ‘hyflex’.

Streaming to the rescue?

Blended synchronous learning has been widely used as a form of hyflex learning aiming to provide greater flexibility within a given cohort, even though, arguably, it fails to meet Beatty’s definition as it still requires students to participate in real-time. Typically, some students participate in class in person while others follow along remotely (also known as ‘real-time remote learning’). This frequently occurred during the pandemic and students and instructors sometimes lament it is the worst of both worlds. According to one evaluation of blended synchronous learning implemented over the pandemic (Detyna et. al, 2021), cognitive load and social presence remain major challenges. 

Online learners want flexibility as well as connection

While the trend towards online was already underway prior to the pandemic, most higher education students still wish to study on campus. For the minority who do choose a fully online experience, it is not surprising that they generally prefer to be able to time-shift by completing most of their work in an asynchronous mode. After all, let’s remind ourselves why on-demand TV is winning over live TV. The point is really all about being able to fit the experience around your complex, messy life. Blended-synchronous approaches are just not suited to fully-online learners. This is one reason many university leadership teams are considering making a better long-term plan.

The flexibility offered by a mainly asynchronous experience is not the entire picture, however, as recent results from Wiley’s ‘Voice of the Online Learner’ (2022) report shows. This large post-pandemic survey of US students shows that while online learners certainly want flexibility, they also want to connect with their peers in real time. Thus, while online learners generally prefer asynchronous formats (69 per cent) and fully remote (79 per cent) participation options, most would prefer the inclusion of some level of synchronous online learning (79 per cent) as part of the picture. As Phil Hill (The Synchronous Opportunity, September 13) points out, this appears to be a significant upwards trend from previous surveys and bears noting.

Multi-modal learning is the future

A more ambitious strategy being adopted by some universities is to plan a ‘multi-modal’ (or ‘multi-access’, Irving, 2020) offering. That is, some universities are seeking to offer courses in multiple modes, often with independent cohorts, on a large scale. While not necessarily a cheaper option in terms of course development and support, this strategy offers students the power to choose between a range of modes for a given course offering, sometimes allowing them to switch modes whenever they like.

Universities in 2022 are offering the full gamut, including tri-modal, dual mode, hyflex, blended synchronous, and hybrid/ traditional. Indeed, there have been almost as many different types of responses to the pandemic as there are institutions. 

An oft-cited response is Arizona State’s, who announced early on that they were moving to a tri-modal system. This included in-person (blended/ traditional), ASU Sync (blended synchronous using Zoom) and iCourses, a fully asynchronous online mode. Offering an exceptionally large number of courses in multiple modalities is resource-intensive but offers the greatest flexibility for students. Far more common are responses at the other end of the spectrum which broadly offer blended synchronous courses as a response to the pandemic. A great many universities sit somewhere in between, for example by offering two modes: fully online (particularly for a subset of postgraduate courses) and hybrid for the majority.

Challenge 1: Student feedback on experience

Attendance at classes was on the wane before the global pandemic, and now students must weigh the importance of being in lecture theatres with wellness in their work and home life. During the pandemic, students and educators were being asked to move into modes that were not their first choice, so naturally, many found this rapid transition challenging, and student survey results showed this impact (OfS, 2021). One of the most telling items was the response to the question, ‘I am content with the delivery of learning and teaching of my course during the COVID-19 pandemic’, which garnered only 48 per cent agreement. Adding to this, the Student Academic Experience Survey 2021 found that only 27 per cent of full-time undergraduates felt they received ‘good or very good’ value (HEPI, 2021). Yikes.

Challenge 2: The bar for online learning has been raised

It would be a mistake to believe that a post-pandemic backlash means students do not want to learn using technologies and yearn for a return to campus. Their frustration is to be expected following a period of forced online study, and their expectations have likely increased as a result. Nobody should be satisfied with learning experiences that are a poor imitation of a previously rich experience, especially when there is no payoff in terms of increased flexibility. If a student’s original choice was to study on campus, the flexibility offered by online learning is not so much the point. 

It is undoubtedly more useful to see the lessons learnt through the pandemic about online learning as a net gain for the student experience that should now be amplified. A recent survey of people working in higher education by Kortext on behalf of WonkHE asked some very pertinent questions, such as ‘How do you feel about the potential for learning and teaching change post-Covid?’ (57 per cent optimistic or very optimistic) and ‘I am concerned about the pedagogic implications of a shift towards digital learning resources’ (30 per cent agree or strongly agree). While challenges certainly remain in areas such as online assessment and creating community, there is some reassurance from the data reported here that these academics feel they did well in the emergency response and want to make the most of it.

Calls to a return to an ‘old normal’ post-pandemic are questionable, as WonkHE editor David Kernohan points out:

We’re at a liminal moment in the life of digital learning. Recent practical experience has both proved that it can be done (at a cost) and suggested that the kinds of ‘revolutions’ predicted by some over-excited commentators are wide of the mark. Many respondents picked up on the disconnect between the institutional willingness to learn from and incorporate the best of emergency online provision to meet the increasingly diverse demands of students and the current governmental messaging on the primacy of face-to-face and a need to return to ‘normal’.

Challenge 3: Implementing the plan for your university’s ‘new normal’

Where does this leave us when thinking about your university’s strategy during the next phase? With the momentum gained from the rapid transition to online learning, there really is no better time to reconsider the student experience. University leaders must now develop a strategy that puts learner desires into the context of a post-pandemic world, considering their preferences for modality and providing them with the support they need. This plan also needs to be made according to the university’s capacity and capability to move at the required speed and scale. But how?  Here we offer three ideas.

By offering choices

We recommend an approach that offers learners genuine choices as to how they study according to their preferences. This might mean looking at the preferred modalities of existing as well as potential students. It is possible to start by offering a small number of courses/ modules in alternative modalities while building a larger portfolio, and just as you may target specific modalities for some offerings. The important thing is to make well-informed decisions that take into account student perspectives.

By earning the commute

Universities need a plan that puts emphasis on the value of the learning experience. With many lecture halls standing empty, universities need to think about how they earn the commute. This means not only giving learners a sense of belonging and community but also designing learner experiences around the things that make an on-campus experience distinctive. This includes creating connections and collaboration between learners, opportunities for real-world inquiry, practical experiences and access to expertise in conversational as well as didactic modes.

By thinking about pedagogy, space and technology

Thus, Laurillard’s (1993) conversational framework and her call to rethink university teaching is just as (if not more) relevant today. We also need to continue to reimagine our learning spaces as distributed across the physical and virtual, with learners at the centre (Keppell and Riddle, 2012). Curio’s approach to the design of an on-campus learning experience appropriate to the post-pandemic world iterates on the pedagogy-space-technology model by Radcliffe et al (2008). This allows university leaders to focus on design principles across all three domains (see Acton, Riddle and Sellers, 2018), asking questions such as ‘what is your signature pedagogy?’, ‘what virtual and physical learning spaces do you need to be able to support your future student experience?’ and ‘what does your ideal digital ecosystem look like?’.

About Curio

Curio advises institutions, organisations, and thought leaders to translate expertise into forward-thinking learning and development solutions. If you are facing some of the challenges raised in this article and would like a deeper dive, please feel free to reach out at [email protected].

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