My Christmas wish? Wider recognition that blended is different from online

Following two years of disruption and jumping between modes of delivery, many students and staff seem to be – incorrectly – conflating blended with online, says Harriet Dunbar-Morris

Harriet Dunbar-Morris's avatar
The University of Portsmouth
22 Dec 2021
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Santa goes online. But university students and staff seem to be conflating online and blended learning, when they are two separate entities

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It’s that time of year. The time for making wishes and thinking about New Year’s resolutions. But all I want for Christmas is to set the record straight on one fundamental thing: blended learning is not online learning.

Many staff spent an inordinate amount of time developing their approach to teaching, learning and assessment for the 2021-22 academic year. At the University of Portsmouth, where I work, that approach was named “Blended and Connected Learning”.

We thought about all the different types of students we cater for, the different modes of delivery we offer, the good practice we had put in place during the initial pivot to online in spring 2020, the good practice across the institution and the sector – for example on Being, Belonging and Becoming – and took on board feedback from the academic community and the students’ union.

Like a good Christmas cake recipe, we took all the ingredients, added the right amounts in the right order and designed for our students and our context – a dash of synchronous, a pinch or three of pre-recorded short chunks of lectures, a drop of sense-making, interactive, face-to-face sessions.

Like the amount of raising agent needed for a cake, our measures were carefully calibrated; we planned for both synchronous and asynchronous, virtual and in-person sessions to make up our “Blended and Connected” recipe for student success.

For ease of reference, here is what I’m referring to when I say “blended learning”: tutor-mediated, scheduled learning activities that take place in face-to-face contexts such as on-campus seminars, labs, studios and workshops, combined with planned online interactions (synchronous or asynchronous) that require the direct and active engagement of students with staff.

So after expending all that effort on our recipe, what happened?

Well, at the beginning of the academic year, our students felt that they benefited from the “Blended and Connected” approach. In September, October and November, they experienced face-to-face and online induction and then learning and teaching. Our students’ union surveyed students and, at that time, on the whole, a good proportion of the respondents were satisfied with the quality of teaching and course induction, and fairly comfortable with blended learning.

This result was mirrored later in the year by National Student Survey (NSS) results and comments and also in the findings of the QAA-funded collaborative project that we led with the universities of Nottingham, Solent and Manchester Metropolitan.

Then, the “travel window” was upon us. Students went home and, in many cases, stayed at home for the rest of the academic year. Only those on certain courses came back to campus to experience the full “Blended and Connected Learning” experience in 2021. For all others it was online only.

And this is where the confusion has crept in. Memories are short, and we remember difficult things so much better, do we not? So often, what we and our students remember and comment on is the pivot to online in 2020 and the flip back to online only in January 2021.

If “Blended and Connected Learning” was a carefully crafted Christmas cake, what is left when we take out some of the key ingredients, such as the face-to-face group sessions and the in-person, sense-making sessions? We tried, of course, to replicate these sessions in the online environment, with varying degrees of success. Our QAA-funded project in particular highlighted students’ dissatisfaction with undertaking group work online. Only 38 per cent of the survey respondents perceived group work to be valuable/very valuable during the pandemic year.

So, our confection didn’t rise, or perhaps it was reduced to more of a mince pie – lots of ingredients crammed in together in one casing (online delivery mode).

But we never set out to deliver online only. Students judged us in the NSS on online delivery, and when they heard that we would continue with some of the ingredients from our blended approach this academic year, they said they didn’t want that. They wanted more face to face and in person – which is precisely what we wanted to do.

Yet some students, as you can see here from one of students in the focus groups in our QAA-funded project, did recognise the elements that are key to the success of blended learning: “Recorded lectures [are] the number one thing that should continue…the second thing…is…independent learning, because by posting pre-recorded lectures and some hands-on materials we can consolidate our knowledge, especially during consolidation week and Christmas and Easter holidays.”

Staff, too, are thinking about online delivery. Many are even thinking about how to make online more interesting when, really, we need to be focusing on blended learning, and in particular the elements of blended that were missing in 2021 – the in-person, sense-making sessions that were designed to accompany online learning.

In 2021, there was not a full blend, and understandably, staff and students focused on what they received – online learning.

However, we designed a full experience encompassing online and face-to-face, synchronous and asynchronous – and all those elements have a role to play in helping students achieve high-quality learning

I want to encourage staff and students to remember what the online element is for within the context of blended learning. Online is one medium of quality teaching, but it’s accompanied by opportunities for interaction, discussion and debate. My wish is that more staff and students begin to “get” that.

So, Santa, if you’re listening, could you please trail a banner behind your sleigh this year that reads: “Merry Christmas! Blended learning is not online learning!”

Harriet Dunbar-Morris is dean of learning and teaching and a reader in higher education at the University of Portsmouth.


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