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.


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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Reimagining higher education in the post-pandemic world

by Anastasia Olga Tzirides, Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope

Anastasia Olga Tzirides
Mary Kalantzis

Bill Cope

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. This statement can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic led higher education institutions to rethink the way that instruction can occur under the newly established circumstances. Many universities in the US and around the world have resumed instruction in hybrid format that is based to face-to-face instruction, coupled with online portions. In the case both of fully remote and hybrid learning, the gold-standard for learning remains traditional face-to-face, where online is modelled on the pedagogical processes and instructional artefacts of face-to-face. In this post, we are presenting the main characteristics of a hybrid format in a big US Mid-Western University and we are providing five ways that could transform it to a completely online format. Not only would this address the current needs set by the COVID-19 crisis; it would also change the concept of higher education by addressing in new ways the needs and the characteristics of contemporary students.

In the selected case of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, given that the health safety circumstances would allow it, the hybrid format of instruction was chosen, considering the significant value of the residential experience for the growth and development of undergraduate students, the training and advancement of graduate students and the production of new knowledge and research.

For the modified on-campus delivery format, the administrators of this institution had to rethink classroom capacities, to accommodate less than 50 students, and better utilisation of the spaces in order to aim for safe instruction with social distancing. They also had to re-evaluate time schedules, by taking advantage of irregular times (eg Friday evenings) and days (eg Saturdays), as well as passing periods, between the start and the end of classes. Online sections were an inevitable addition to the courses, as most lectures would be delivered online and the discussion parts were aimed to be face-to-face. Moreover, the administrators re-structured the calendar of the 2020-2021 academic year, ending the semester remotely to minimize the returns of students on campus after break periods. In the area of course development, instructors were provided with professional development training in order to develop new course modalities deploying different techniques and approaches to online education.

As it can be understood, this is an example where the institution selected to use online education as supplementary to face-to-face by trying to migrate their traditional practices online without really taking advantage of the possibilities that online education can offer. We argue that online can be completely different, and with the right tools, potentially superior to in-person teaching. To reap the benefits of online learning, we need to abandon the current generation educational technologies—systems and processes that mostly do little more than reverse-engineer traditional classrooms. At the University of Illinois, we’ve been researching the transformation of in-person learning and developing and testing online learning solutions (Montebello et al, 2018;  Cope, Kalantzis and Searsmith, 2020)

Here are five reasons why we choose to teach online and why we would never choose to teach in-person again.

1. Scale Up Higher Education and Scale Down Its Costs

In order to make higher education available to all, even workers and people with domestic caring responsibilities, we need to reduce the costs of teaching and learning, by providing access to it without the necessity for the student to leave their communities and homes. This can only be achieved with online education as a thoroughly renovated version of distance learning, which would be affordable to people from all social and economic conditions.

2. Develop Pedagogies of Social Knowledge and Collaborative Intelligence

In-person instruction is considered so valuable by its supporters, due to the element of human interaction. Nevertheless, in lecture theatres we hardly ever see interaction among students and even in classroom discussions, only one person is talking, and the rest have to listen. On the other side, with online learning and specifically with simple video lectures that contain prompts, students can engage in synchronous or asynchronous interactions below the videos in the platform used. Therefore, every student can comment and be part of the classroom discussion in this format. Moreover, learning analytics can track every learner’s engagement and this format is simply a far superior communication and pedagogical architecture than traditional in-person classroom interactions.

3. Create Pedagogies of Intense Engagement

In traditional models, learners are knowledge consumers and they demonstrate the acquired knowledge though end-of-course, summative assessments. In online learning architectures, it is possible to position learners as knowledge producers and co-contributors to knowledge communities. A simple way to do this is to have students research and make posts into the class activity stream that exemplify themes prompted by instructors. Another is to create peer-reviewed projects, where interim feedback in the knowledge production process comes from multiple perspectives: peer, instructor and machine feedback. Then projects can be published and shared by the instructor to the community as collective knowledge. Embedded, on-the-fly formative assessments can track community engagement and personal progress (Haniya et al, 2020). An example: in one of our recent 8-week courses with 54 students, using our CGScholar platform there were 14,500 pieces of actionable feedback on 3.3m datapoints, giving students and instructors a far richer and more reliable picture of learning than ever possible with a traditional test.

4. Focus on Higher Order Thinking

In the current world, the digital devices that we use everyday function as cognitive prostheses. They remember things for us, and they can provide us with a vast amount of knowledge that we don’t have to remember. So, the foundational objectives of education change. In reality, learning should be about careful navigation of at-hand knowledge resources and appropriate application of machine-supported procedures. Thus, the goal of education should be higher order thinking, including critical, creative and design thinking. Online environments can uniquely achieve this, by leveraging collaborative knowledge processes. Instead of individual minds, the social mind is acknowledged in the provenance of knowledge and the collaborative contributions of peers in the learning process. Artificial intelligence can track and offer suggestions on the basis of what we term “complex epistemic performance”. Machine learning works synergistically with human learning.

5. Lifelong and Lifewide Learning

Online learning, by contrast to the monastic origins of the residential experience of university and college education, can be embedded in the real world. It can be continuous, lasting for as long as life and stretching as wide as social and personal needs. The students in our online courses are in the world, contributing as partners in our knowledge communities and testing live in real-world contexts, the new things they have learned in our classes.

We argue that online instruction can be completely different, and with the right tools, it can potentially be superior to in-person teaching. The real problem is that none of the commercial or open source learning management systems can do what we have just outlined (check here for a comparison of the most popular learning management systems). Thus, in this time of crisis, we must seize the day and imagine a different future for higher education, by abandoning the back-to-the-future learning management systems and looking for or designing alternatives that address the future of education. With focused investment in people and technology we can renew and revitalize our pedagogical and social values. If nothing else, this crisis should lead to that.

Anastasia-Olga (Olnancy) Tzirides is a PhD candidate in the Learning Design and Leadership Program at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on exploring the potential of using digital technologies and Artificial Intelligence combined with a multimodal and translanguaging approach to language learning. Currently, she is as a teaching assistant for online graduate courses in the Learning Design and Leadership Program at the College of Education. In the past, she has worked as a graduate assistant designing online courses for the International Studies Program at the College of Education and as an instructor at the Modern Greek Studies program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Anastasia-Olga holds a master’s degree in “Teaching of Multilingualism and Linguistic Policies: Language and Culture Dissemination in Multilingual Settings” from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece and Université du Maine, France, and a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.  

 Mary Kalantzis is a Professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She was from 2006 to 2016 Dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Before this, she was Dean of the Faculty of Education, Language and Community Services at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, and President of the Australian Council of Deans of Education. With Bill Cope, she has co-authored or co-edited: New Learning: Elements of a Science of Education, Cambridge University Press, 2008 (2nd edition, 2012); Ubiquitous Learning, University of Illinois Press, 2009; Towards a Semantic Web: Connecting Knowledge in Academic Research, Elsevier, 2009; Literacies, Cambridge University Press 2012 (2nd edition, 2016); A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies, Palgrave, 2016; and e-Learning Ecologies, Routledge, 2017.

Bill Cope is a Professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include theories and practices of pedagogy, cultural and linguistic diversity, and new technologies of representation and communication. His and Mary Kalantzis’ recent research has focused on the development of digital writing and assessment technologies, with the support of a number of major grants from the US Department of Education, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Science Foundation. The result has been the CGScholar multimodal writing and assessment environment.