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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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E-learning in the face of a pandemic through the eyes of students

by Thomas J Hiscox

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. The statement by Tom Hiscox can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to present unique challenges for the higher education sector around the world.  The reduction in fundingrapid redevelopment of learning resources to suit online delivery and rapid upskilling of academics to teach using new platforms have all contributed to the stress on Australian academics, but what effect has this change had on our students?

When COVID-19 reached Australia, strict measures were rapidly implemented at a Federal level to suppress the spread of the virus. Strict bans on gatherings of greater than 50 people were imposed, essentially putting an end to any face-to-face class delivery in 2020. The transition from a face-to-face delivery to a completely online delivery was rapid, but like all academics we were presented with two choices: asynchronous delivery (where the learning content is pre-recorded, allowing students to progress at their own pace) or synchronous delivery (where the content is delivered in line with the student progression through the unit).

The scramble to convert face-to-face classes to online

We had been using a flipped classroom format for a few years prior to COVID-19, so we were in a slightly better position than other units, however face-to-face workshops and practical laboratory classes, which relied on students working on problems in small groups, had to be transitioned to online equivalents.  The burden of pre-recording these face-to-face sessions was too great, so we opted for the synchronous delivery, where classes would be delivered live. This decision gave us the benefit of having extra time to redesign content to suit an online delivery, but consequently meant we only had one chance to get it right.

We quickly transitioned weekly workshops to live-streamed sessions delivered via Zoom. Laboratory classes were conducted live, with a facilitator in the lab completing the various procedures while students watched at home on their devices.  This entirely online mode of teaching was vastly different to what the students were expecting when they enrolled in their degree. We became interested in how the transition to online teaching affected the student experience.  Based on attendance numbers in our online sessions during the first few weeks of delivery, we were aware a significant proportion of the cohort were not engaged. This posed a few key questions. Why did so many students choose not to participate? Did the transition to online learning influence their decision and cause a reduction in motivation?

The student perceptions of online learning

We employed a mixed methods approach involving voluntary student surveys to explore student perceptions of how COVID-19 has influenced their study1.  The study, which is still in progress, consists of two anonymous online surveys.  The first survey (delivered midway through the March semester) identified a number of problems in our delivery, which directed some interventions that were implemented for the start of the July semester, the effects of which will be measured in our follow up survey (the data from which is yet to be analysed).  The surveys consist of a series of both closed and open-ended questions on their perceptions of the first year biology course.

In the first survey we found that 63.3% of respondents chose not to attend the live-streamed workshop, despite the majority (72.1%) of the respondents identifying the value of these sessions. When questioned why they choose not to attend, 31.6% of respondents cited “Lack of motivation” as their primary reason, other reasons included , “Connection issues” (26.5%), “Prefer to watch recordings” (18.4%) and “Clashes with other units” (17.5%). 

We conducted a thematic analysis of the qualitative data collected from the survey. This analysis mirrored similar themes in the quantitative survey. Amongst the qualitative data, 35% of responses aligned with the “Lack of motivation” theme, many of these responses (15.7%) further highlighted themes of anxiety and stress amongst the cohort. In some cases, this stress was associated with a lack of guidance in the degree of depth various topics will be examined at. A student reported:

“I honestly just really hope that I’m teaching myself everything that I need to know, I get really anxious and stressed that I’m not performing to the best standard that I can … From, a very stressed and anxious first year.”

In other cases, the level of anxiety and stress was attributed to a feeling of isolation, which can be summarised by the student comment below:

“I felt disconnected from other students and teachers. More support and social inclusion would be helpful”

Our conclusion from the initial survey was that isolation could potentially be having a significant impact on the performance of our students. The lack of social interactivity appeared to have broken an important component of the educational process – communication. Some of the problems were at the institutional end; we had underestimated how much we rely on simple face-to-face communication to answer student questions. In the fully online environment, simple questions that could easily be resolved at the conclusion of a classroom session, now had to be postponed and asked via email or by forum post. This does not only include communication between staff and students, but also between the students themselves. However when we surveyed students that did attend the online sessions live, it appeared these sessions may have another valuable benefit. They promote a sense of community.

When we surveyed the students who did attend online workshops live, 66.2% reported as being highly engaged during the session. When questioned “What did you enjoy most about the online workshops when attended live?”, 25% of respondents reported that they “Provided a sense of community”, while 24% stated that the workshops “Were more engaging when presented live”; the ability to ask questions in real-time was also highly reported at 28% (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Factors that students enjoyed while attending online live workshops (n=372).

The outlook for 2021

At the time of writing this post, Melbourne (the capital city of Victoria) is still under lockdown.  University campuses across metropolitan Melbourne remain closed for all students, except those that must satisfy key qualification requirements.  There are strong indications that strict social distancing policies will remain into 2021 across Australia. What does that mean for the university campus, where hundreds of students move in and out of a single lecture theatre or teaching laboratories at the conclusion of the session? The solution could be running more sessions, with classes running late into the night. Or is the writing on the wall for the end of face-to-face classes?  I believe online education will remain the primary offering of many Australian universities, potentially only allowing students to attend an on-campus class two or three times a semester. If this were to happen, serious consideration needs to be made into fostering a community spirit and engagement amongst students, for both their mental wellbeing, but also to maximise their performance and learning.

1 Our research was conducted as approved by the Monash University Human Research Ethics Committee (MUHREC) as per project 2020-25523-49505.

Dr Thomas Hiscox is an education-focussed lecturer within the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University, where he teaches in units across first, second and third years. Tom is also the coordinator of the first year biology program, which has an enrollment of  approximately 1600 students annually. His research is focused on the development and recognition of key employability skills by students during their undergraduate degrees.


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New research on student engagement: partnership approaches in the disciplines

By Abbi Flint

Engaging students as co-researchers, co-designers and co-creators of their learning experiences is an idea that, over the past few years, has captured the attention and imagination of many staff and students. The rationales for engaging students as partners in their learning are diverse and complex, including political and pedagogic perspectives. From a desire to engage and empower all students to take responsibility for their learning, an ethical responsibility to ensure students have a say in their education, to offering a constructive alternative to consumerist models of higher education.

At the HEA, our rationale is pedagogic. We are interested in how approaches which foreground partnership with students are powerful ways of transforming teaching and inspiring learning. As a sector we need evidence of their effectiveness in fostering deeper engagement with learning, particularly how impacts play out across different national, institutional and discipline contexts. Recent HEA research makes a much needed contribution to this debate.

Engagement through partnership is a popular idea, but what does this actually look like in practice and what difference does it make to the student learning experience? Continue reading