BlackboardBlended learning is here to stay, but which aspects of digital teaching will universities keep?

Blended learning is here to stay, but which aspects of digital teaching will universities keep?

Remote teaching frees students from ‘timetable tyranny’ but can leave them socially isolated

The Covid-19 pandemic has altered university teaching forever, according to a panel of experts. The question is which aspects of blended learning will be retained when staff and students return to the classroom.

“Generally, there has been an acceptance and understanding of blended learning’s benefits, which previously wasn’t there before Covid-19,” Andy Beggan, dean of digital education at the University of Lincoln, told a Times Higher Education roundtable. During the roundtable, which was held in partnership with Blackboard, the speakers looked at what aspects of online learning had worked for their institutions.

“We’ve always had this model that’s largely been built on the fact that you get educated at the early part of your life and then that’s it,” said Mark Simpson, pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching at Teesside University. “I think that has to change – as technology advances, there is going to be a real need for people to be retrained.”

The need to upskill and reskill is also vital in the wake of the pandemic, which saw many people lose their jobs. Blended learning, in which many courses are available asynchronously online, can free students and staff from the “tyranny of the timetable”, said Beggan. It offers many more people the opportunity to study further and enables lifelong learning.

Masud Khokhar, director of library and archives at the University of York, said his institution expected that in the future about 30 per cent of its students would be fully online, while 70 per cent of them would learn in a blended or physical-only environment. However, he also voiced concern over student isolation and the need for more research and understanding in this area.

The move online has affected all industries, not just academia, and being able to work collaboratively on a digital platform is a skill that graduates need. They will also need to think creatively rather than simply recite facts. The idea of an open- or closed-book test is absurd, said David Hawkins, executive dean of the School of Digital, Technologies and Arts at Staffordshire University. “You can look up whatever you want whenever you want. Why don’t we work within that context? That’s not going to go away. It’s about understanding. It’s about applying knowledge,” he said.

This format is also more accessible to people who are returning to academia. “If you’re in the workplace already and you’re spending a lot of time working in this way, you have a mode of operation, which is digital-blended collaboration,” said Louise Thorpe, Blackboard’s vice-president for client experience and consulting in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “Being able to do your studying and your assessment in this way makes the return to education less daunting.”

For Kirsty Kiezebrink, dean for educational innovation at the University of Aberdeen, online learning is “fantastic”. “We really struggle to get staff to move to the north of Scotland,” she said. With digital learning, the university can now have guest lecturers from all over the world and staff are more easily able to plug in to international communities.

However, there are still obstacles when it comes to digital learning. The pandemic highlighted the digital inequality experienced by students and staff. “Not all our staff have great broadband access at home or access to hardware or software,” Simpson said. Students and staff often do not have the physical space to work, either. These inequalities mean universities need to think about how to use their physical space for those who need it, the panellists said.

The data collected from online learning can also help to track students who are struggling, said Vicki Holmes, head of technology-enhanced learning at the University of Reading. Her institution compiles weekly reports on student engagement. “We caught several hundred students who could have been at risk of feeling quite unfamiliar, quite alienated by the new way of learning and could have dropped out,” she said.

A major struggle, however, remains community engagement. Sally Charles, innovation learning manager at Robert Gordon University, said community engagement was where real-time classes became increasingly important. “We’ve used the time in the synchronous space not as an additional lecturing tool, but as a vehicle for discussion and group activity. It can support resilience in the sense of community building,” she said.

Academics have a good understanding of the technology, said Neil Stokes, head of digital learning and teaching at De Montfort University. Now the issues are “how can you build those communities, how can you make sessions interactive, how can you make them more engaging?” Students and staff have realised that “this digital approach is not necessarily worse than face to face, it’s just a different style of learning, and it’s a different style of teaching”, Stokes said.

The entire session is available above and on the THE Connect YouTube channel.

Find out more about Blackboard and higher education.

The panel:

  • Ruth Ayres, pro vice-chancellor education, Aston University
  • Andy Beggan, dean of digital education, University of Lincoln
  • Sally Charles, innovation learning manager, Robert Gordon University
  • David Hawkins, executive dean, School of Digital, Technologies and Arts, Staffordshire University
  • Vicki Holmes, head of technology-enhanced learning, University of Reading
  • Kirsty Kiezebrink, dean for educational innovation, University of Aberdeen
  • Masud Khokhar, director of library and archives, University of York
  • Alistair Lawrence, special projects editor, Times Higher Education (chair)
  • Norbert Pachler, pro vice-provost of digital education, UCL
  • Neil Stokes, head of digital learning and teaching, De Montfort University
  • Mark Simpson, pro vice-chancellor of learning and teaching, Teesside University
  • Louise Thorpe, vice-president of client experience and consulting – Europe, Middle East and Africa, Blackboard
  • Kay Yeoman, academic director of learning and teaching enhancement, University of East Anglia

Watch the roundtable on demand above or on the THE Connect YouTube channel.

Find out more about Blackboard and higher education.

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