srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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In search of the perfect blend – debunking some myths

by Ling Xiao and Lucy Gill-Simmen

A blended learning approach has been adopted by most UK universities in response to the Covid pandemic. Institutions and higher education educators have become fully committed to and invested enormous resources in delivering such an approach. This has helped to maintain a high quality education and to some extent, to mitigate the potential dire impact of the pandemic on the students’ learning experience. This approach has no doubt accelerated a reshaping of pedagogic approaches, facilitating deep learning, autonomy, personalised learning and more. With the rapid pace of the UK’s vaccine rollout, and the semi promise by the UK Government that we’ll be back to some kind of normal by the end of June, there is hope for a possible return to campus in September, 2021.  As a result, this now marks a time when we need to reflect on what we have learned from the blended learning approach and figure out what to take forward in designing teaching and learning post-pandemic, be it hybrid or hyflex or both.

The Management Education Research Group (MERG) in the School of Business and Management at Royal Holloway, University of London recently held a symposium on ‘Reflecting on Blended Learning, What’s Next?’. It showcased blended learning examples from various universities across the UK and was followed by a panel discussion where we posed the question: what worked and what didn’t work? We found that some of our previous assumptions were brought into question and a number of myths were debunked.

Myth 1: Pre-Recorded videos should be formal and flawless

Overnight, and without any training, educators took on the role of film creators, film editors and videographers. Spending hours, days, weeks and even months developing lecture recordings from the confines of our home working spaces we were stopping, starting, re-starting, editing out the slightest imperfection. It has to be perfect, right? Not so fast.

For many institutions, recorded video is the primary delivery vehicle for blended learning content, with academics pre-recording short presentations, lectures and informal videos to complement text-based information and communication. Many of us postulated that a formal and meticulous delivery style for pre-recorded videos is required to help to maintain high quality educational materials and for students to perceive us as professionals. Academics’ personal experiences however suggest it is vital to keep the human elements, as students enjoy and engage better with a personalised delivery. A personalised style helps to build relationships with students which then provide foundations of learning. Mayer (2009) describes it as a personalisation principle of learning through video and recommends that a conversation style is preferential to a formal style for learning. This also resonates with recent insights from Harvard Business School Professor, Francesca Gino, who reflects in her webinar on the power of teaching with vulnerability in COVID-19. She explains the importance of being open, honest and transparent with students and sharing one’s own human side in order to strengthen the educator-learner bond.

Myth 2: Students enjoy learning from the comfort of their homes

Blended learning empowers students to become autonomous learners, since they can engage with their courses when real-time contact with lecturers is not possible. However, such autonomy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and turns out to be a lonely road for many students. Instead of relishing staying at home and learning when they want, some students declare they miss the structure, the sense of community and the feeling of belonging they associate with attending university in person.

Universities are more than places for learning, they serve as the centre of their communities for students. Students not only learn directly from the education but also, just as much, from interaction and collaboration with lecturers or their fellow classmates. It emerged in conversation between students and faculty that students felt it generally took longer to establish a sense of community in an online class than in a traditional face-to-face classroom but that it could be achieved. So, it’s up to us as educators to foster a sense of community amongst online learners.

Central to learning community is the concept of cooperative learning, which has been shown to promote productivity, expose students to interdisciplinary teams, foster idea generation, and to promote social interaction (Machemer, 2007). One such technique is to introduce collaborative learning opportunities, and those that reach beyond online group work and assessment – which in itself may prove problematic for learners. Instead, educators should look to develop co-creation projects such as wikis or blogs where students can come together to cocreate content together. Social annotation platforms such as Google Docs and Padlet enable students to share knowledge, develop the understanding of learning objects through collaborating on notes, commenting specific parts of materials, etc (Novak et al, 2012; Miller et al, 2018). Padlet for example has proved to be particularly popular with students for collaborative learning given its ease of use.

Myth 3 :  It makes sense to measure student engagement merely by participation metrics

After months of preparation and instructional design and preparing the perfect learning journey for students, we tend to expect students to learn and to engage in a way that we as educators perceive to be optimal for fulfilment of learning outcomes.

We all know that students learn and engage in many different ways, but we often find ourselves trawling the data and metrics to see whether students watched the videos, engaged in the readings we provided, posted on the fora we clearly labelled and participated in the mini quizzes and reflection exercises we created. However, as our hearts sink at what appears to be at times a relatively low uptake, we jump to the conclusion that students aren’t engaging. Here’s the thing:  they are, we just don’t see it. Engagement as a construct is something far more complex and multi-faceted which we can’t necessarily measure using the report logs on the VLE.

Student engagement is often labelled the “holy grail of learning” (Sinatra, Heddy and Lombardi, 2015: 1) since it correlates strongly with educational outcomes, including academic achievement and satisfaction. This can therefore lead to a level of frustration on the part of educators when engagement appears low. However, engagement comes in many forms, and in forms which are often not directly visible and/or measurable. For example, cognitive, behavioural and emotional engagement all have very different indicators which are not immediately apparent. Hence new ways of evaluating of student engagement in the blended learning environment are needed. Halverson and Graham (2019) propose a possible conceptual framework for engagement that includes cognitive and emotional indicators, offering examples of research measuring these engagement indicators in technology mediated learning contexts.

Myth 4: Technology is the make or break for blended learning

The more learning technologies we can add to our learning design, the better, right? Wrong. Some students declared the VLE has too much going on; they couldn’t keep up with all the apps and technologies they are required to work with to achieve their learning.

Although technology clearly plays a key role in the provision of education (Gibson, 2001; Watson, 2001; Gordon, 2014), it is widely acknowledged that technology should not determine but instead complement theories and practices of teaching. The onset of Covid-19 has shifted our focus to technology rather than pedagogy. For example, educators felt an immediate need for breakout room functionality: although this can be a significant function for discussion, this is not necessarily the case for disciplines such as accounting, which requires students continuously to apply techniques in order to excel at applied tasks. Pedagogy should determine technology. The chosen technology must serve a purpose and facilitate the aim of the pedagogy and should not be used as bells and whistles to make the learning environment appear more engaging. In our recent research, we provide empirical evidence for the effective pedagogical employment of Padlet to support learning and engagement (Gill-Simmen, 2021). Technology has an impact on pedagogy but should not be the driver in a blended or hybrid learning environment. Learning technologies are only applicable and of value when the right content is presented in right format and right time.

In summary, we learned these lessons for our future approach to hybrid learning:

  1. Aim for ‘human’ not perfection in instructional design
  2. Students don’t want to learn alone – create opportunities for collaborative learning
  3. Student engagement may not always be measurable – consider tools for assessing emotional, cognitive and behavioural engagement
  4. Technology should support pedagogy, not vice versa – implement only those technologies which facilitate student learning

SRHE member Dr Ling Xiao is the Director of MERG and a Senior Lecturer in Financial Management at Royal Holloway, University of London.  Follow Ling via @DrLingXiao on Twitter.

SRHE member Dr Lucy Gill-Simmen is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London and Program Director for Kaplan, Singapore. Follow Lucy via @lgsimmen on Twitter.

References

Gill-Simmen, L. (2021). Using ‘Padlet’ in Instructional Design to Promote Cognitive Engagement: A Case Study of UG Marketing Students, (In Press) Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.

Machemer, P.L. (2007). Student perceptions of active learning in a large cross-disciplinary classroom, Active Learning in Higher Education, 8(1): 9-29.

Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press (2nd edn).


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Exploring notions of ‘good’ academic leadership in challenging times

by Alan Floyd

Due to the nature of academic work it is accepted that leaders cannot be effective without the support of their departmental colleagues. Consequently, academic leadership is seen as more of a collective responsibility. Arguably, ‘distributing’ and sharing leadership is even more important in universities than in other organisations as academics are well educated, largely autonomous, and trained to be highly critical, so are more likely to oppose and challenge traditional leadership models and behaviours and may need a subtler form of leadership than other occupational groups. This perceived shift in leadership power, moving from people in formal positions to the whole academic body, is important for universities as it has been shown that the leadership activity of academics outside formal leadership roles can be very influential in effecting organizational change. Such a power shift may also allow academics to discuss and decide on leadership issues in a more collegial manner, a practice more in line with the shared value systems of the academy. But what are academics’ expressed notions of ‘good’ leadership within this context?  This blog explores these issues by drawing on data from research that has explored more flexible ‘distributed’ and ‘collaborative’ models of leadership, crucially focusing on data from both leaders and the led (see Floyd, 2019; Floyd and Fung, 2017; Floyd and Fung, 2018).

From this work, it appears that academics construct ‘good’ leadership predominantly in terms of understanding and supporting others, empathy, the ability both to act with integrity and as a role model, and the willingness to engage in genuine dialogue.  Academics apparently want to see in their leaders all of these personal qualities and knowledge and understanding of the whole ecosystem of higher education and the ability to make tough decisions to make that successful when needed.

The data suggest that academics understand the need for strong academic leadership in the current higher education landscape and there is a lot of empathy for the complexities of leadership practice in these turbulent times. In addition, academics are clear that individuals cannot just ‘plough their own furrow’ without considering the overall needs of the department or institution overall. Thus, academic leadership was seen as being a collective act (Bolden et al, 2009). Shared understandings of good academic leadership included words like ‘respect’, ‘feeling valued’, ‘fairness’, ‘being realistic’, and being ‘open’ and ‘communicative’. In relation to distributed leadership practice then, it seems that academics are happy to work with leaders in achieving shared institutional goals as long as they perceive the decisions taken to be in the best interests of the group, that all people involved (those whose roles are teaching-focused as well as those who are research-focused) are treated fairly and with respect, and that leaders show effective communicate skills and engage in genuine dialogue with academics rather than just transmitting information.

In their personal accounts about the characteristics of ‘good’ academic leadership, some leaders stress the importance of having the right set of skills, while others emphasize a set of underpinning values. There is some difference in emphasis between those whose roles are predominantly focused on research and those whose main focus is student education, but interviewees typically construct a sense of needing to respect both research and teaching as vital strands of academic practice. Most also see academic leadership as necessarily negotiating the sometimes-differing needs of the institution itself and the individuals being led.

There were many similarities in our findings between the two groups. For example, from the leaders’ point of view, good academic leadership was characterised by holding ‘shared underpinning values’, ‘good listening and communication skills’, being ‘understanding’, ‘supportive’, and ‘even handed’, and ‘human’ in their relationships with academic staff.  There also appeared to be a shared understanding from both groups of the need and difficulty in ‘balancing’ institutional and individual needs.

One key theme that emerged from our data was the perceived need for appropriate career support from leaders in relation to academics’ chosen career paths. This finding suggests that the focus of development training and support activities for academics who take on leadership roles may need to be widened from traditional activities (for example, linked to managing conflict and finance) to include more discussions on individual staff development needs. Such a finding reflects the move towards more portfolio based careers for academics, with career development responsibility seemingly shifting from the institution to the individual (Floyd, 2012), and an accompanying shift in associated developmental needs for academic leaders (Floyd, 2016). More fundamentally, it also suggests the need for academic work, including research and education, to be seen as a scholarly whole (Fung, 2016), and for university leadership to be seen as a special form of academic endeavour directed at strengthening the synergies between these different areas – for the good of both the individuals themselves and their institutions. The tensions between what is deemed good for the individuals (both leaders and those who are led) and what is good for the institution lie at the heart of the challenge, and our data suggest that all parties appreciate explicit discussion about these tensions, so that shared solutions and indeed shared values and goals can be developed.

Acknowledgments

The research on which this blog is based was funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and undertaken with Professor Dilly Fung. I gratefully acknowledge their support. Interpretations and errors remain my own.

SRHE member Alan Floyd is Professor of Education at the University of Reading where he is also the EdD Programme Director.

References

Bolden, R, Petrov, G and Gosling, J (2009) ‘Distributed leadership in higher education: rhetoric and reality’ Educational Management, Administration and Leadership, 37(2): 257-277

Floyd, A (2012) ”Turning points’: the personal and professional circumstances that lead academics to become middle managers’ Educational Management, Administration and Leadership, 40(2): 272-284

Floyd, A (2016) ‘Supporting academic middle managers in higher education: do we care?’ Higher Education Policy, 29(2): 167-183

Floyd, A (2019) ‘Investigating the PDR process in a UK university: continuing professional development or performativity?’ Professional Development in Education, 1-15

Floyd, A, and Fung, D (2017) ‘Focusing the kaleidoscope: exploring distributed leadership in an English university’ Studies in Higher Education, 42(8): 1488-1503

Floyd, A, and Fung, D (2018) ‘Stories of leading and being led: developing collaborative relationships in an English research-intensive university’ in Gornall, L, Thomas, B and Sweetman, L (eds), Exploring consensual leadership in higher education London: Bloomsbury Academic

Fung, D (2016) ‘Strength-based scholarship and good education: the scholarship circle’ Innovations in Education and Teaching International 54(2): 101-110