Professor says research can build case for hybrid learning

Remote education’s sometimes bad reputation a result of experiences being reactive, not designed, says Simon Thomson

August 8, 2022
Professor Simon Thomson speaking
Off the cuff: the online experience most students got during the pandemic was reactive, not planned, says Simon Thomson

While the enforced switch to online learning during the pandemic sped up the development of academics’ digital skills by several years, it also meant crucial stages in the transition to more hybrid learning – such as evidence-gathering and running pilots – were missed.

That is the view of the UK’s first professor of hybrid learning, digital innovation expert Simon Thomson, who has been appointed by the University of Manchester to help oversee the institution’s development of a new flexible learning strategy and carry out further practice-based research in this area.

He argued that the creation of the post showed that hybrid and blended learning should be seen as a legitimate area of academic study as well as a strategy for education and hoped to use it to work with staff and students across the institution to develop experiences that are designed to work across in-person and online teaching.

The new hybrid offering may well end up being very different from the version most students experienced during the pandemic years, because this was reactive to the unique circumstances, not designed, which has caused many of the issues and concerns that have arisen since, according to Professor Thomson.  

“It is our responsibility to demonstrate the real value in it,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of students are taught entirely online every year and have high-quality experiences so to discount it entirely is factually incorrect.

“Nobody had spent six months planning those online experiences in case a pandemic came along. What we’re asking people to do now is design with online in mind so we understand the value of each of those modes. What we want students to know is when we design specifically for each mode it will be an excellent experience across all of them.”

Professor Thomson, who previously led the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Innovation in Education, said there was a danger that the opportunities that opened up during the pandemic could be missed, and things could go back to how they were before because of the nervousness that has surrounded the debate about online learning – and its relationship to the perceived quality of education.

Students protested about paying high fees when many of their lectures were held on Zoom and the Westminster government made it a priority to ensure academics were back in classrooms as soon as Covid restrictions allowed.

Professor Thomson said he can see how the government’s position could be partially justified “by the fear that all students who have signed up for on-campus degrees [are] suddenly being told, ‘No, most of your stuff is being delivered online’”. But, he said, he does not think that is what anybody in the sector wants.

“We recognise those who have signed up for on-campus experiences should get that predominantly. What we don’t want to lose sight of is the potential for using other modes to give a holistically better experience,” he added.

The next cohort of students starting in Manchester in September are unlikely to experience the types of hybrid learning that may be introduced further down the line because their programmes have already been designed months in advance.

But they will be invited to help shape the course structures for their peers in the future and Professor Thomson said he is approaching this with an open mind.

“We want them to think about what this concept means in terms of their learning and the opportunities it provides for future ambitions,” he said.

“Being a learner in a flexible learning environment, we might argue, would help them transition into employment in a hybrid environment. But we don’t want to presume any of this.

“That’s the danger here – there has been a lot of presumption that online is not good. We want to say we think there is value in it, and we are going to try it out with staff and students.”

While he does not yet have all the answers, Professor Thomson said that in future, flexibility could apply to students’ pathways through their degrees, or the pace at which they take and complete modules, as well as the place where learning happens.

Crucial to the success of the strategy is ensuring students know what they are signing up for in advance because this lack of choice has been seen as a key reason why some were so dissatisfied with their pandemic experiences.

“If we’ve designed a blended programme it needs to be marketed as that and it should be clear how much is on-campus and how much online. That’s what we need to get to now,” Professor Thomson said.

“We’ve all experienced some of the access benefits of working in online spaces. What we now need to do is structure that into what a well-designed blended course looks like and then begin to offer that out to students.”

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘Research can build the case for hybrid learning’

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