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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).

Paul Temple


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A stress-test of the physical university

by Paul Temple

The impact of technological change on the continuation of the university as a physical entity, as it has been known in Europe for the last nine hundred or so years, has regularly come up for debate throughout much of the last century. Every development in communications technology – telephone, radio, TV, computers, email, the internet – has led to confident assertions that the days of the university as then understood were numbered. Why should students bother to turn up at a distant university when the teaching on offer there could be delivered readily and cheaply using the new technology of the day? (On the other hand, the transformative communications technologies of the nineteenth century – the railway and the steamship – were turned to advantage by the new University of London when it created its distance-learning operation in 1865.)

A favourite work of mine in this declinist genre is John Daniel’s Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media (1998), where the then-VC of the UK’s Open University confidently predicts that the growth of university student numbers in countries such as China and India will mean that only “mega” virtual universities will be able to cope with national demands. Even the Chinese, Daniel then argued, would not be able to expand physical university capacity at the rate required: to which one can now respond, “Oh yes they could”.

The pandemic lockdown in the UK, which has completely closed university campuses for (at the time of writing) about six months has shown what can be done in terms of online teaching when there’s no alternative. All the university teachers I know have become overnight experts on the use of Zoom and Teams for both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, for doctoral examinations, and more: exactly the direction in which Daniel thought higher education should move. But I haven’t heard any calls for this to continue indefinitely, and for campuses to be mothballed. My friend Jane, who teaches a large, mainly Chinese, postgraduate group at UCL, tells me that her students say that they would find online learning less appealing if they did not already know their peers and teachers from previous time working on the campus. Without this prior group-building to give the basis for informal peer support, Jane thinks that her learners could easily become isolated and would struggle. Everyone, especially it seems, students, wants to get back to the physical university.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. I have previously (Temple, 2018) noted the complex relationships between academic work and the physical environments within which it takes place. Just as the current lockdown has led people in all kinds of jobs to re-evaluate their work environments, so the temporary campus closures should have prompted thinking about how university built environments contribute to their outputs. The relationships between people and the built environments in which they live and work is an under-remarked factor in all manner of social and economic activities: Richard Sennett, for example, has over many years investigated these relationships in different settings, most recently in his book Building and Dwelling (2018). The idea that an activity as complex and deeply personal as higher learning can be completely divorced from its physical context seems improbable: Sennett analyses this complexity by using the term cité to represent ideas of belonging and consciousness, and ville to indicate physicality, the dynamics of space, and how elements of the built environment fit together. We might think of online teaching during the lockdown as taking the cité out of the ville: it might work initially, but eventually the ville infrastructure starts to be missed. Although Jane’s students liked the increased availability of recorded material, even live online interactive sessions were not for them adequate substitutes for a seminar room discussion. Other aspects of the physical university will be missing too: studies have shown how students value a working environment shared with other students – a library or study centre – even when they are personally unknown to one another. The enormous popularity of UCL’s new 1100 seat student study centre, in use (pre-Covid) around the clock, is a good example of what Nørgård and Bengtsen have called “the placeful university” (2016) – their way of thinking about the interactions between people and places.

The Covid-19 lockdown has given us a stress-test of university teaching without the campus. Teachers and students have worked hard to make it a success, usually helped – as with Jane’s students – by being part of a learning community with a pre-lockdown history. We need in future to give the ville aspects of university life the credit they deserve.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546

References

Daniel, J (1998) Mega-universities and knowledge media: technology strategies for higher education London: Kogan Page

Nørgård, R and Bengtsen, S (2016) ‘Academic citizenship beyond the campus: a call for the placeful university’. Higher Education Research and Development, 35 (1): 4-16

Sennett, R (2018) Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City London: Allen Lane

Temple, P (2018) ‘Space, place and institutional effectiveness in higher education’ Policy Reviews in Higher Education 2 (2): 133-150

Paul Temple


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Steering Column

By Paul Temple

The SRHE Blog hasn’t featured a motoring column before – and actually it’s a bit late to start: if you’ve recently bought a new-ish car, it may well be your last one. That’s because the car makers and the big tech companies are betting the farm on driverless (“autonomous”) cars being the future of road travel – not in some “weekend breaks on Mars”-type sci-fi scenario, but in the next couple of years. At the end of February, an autonomous Nissan Leaf drove six miles around East London, including negotiating a roundabout on the A13 that scares me. It’s generally assumed that these cars mostly won’t be owned by individuals, but will be driverless taxis, summoned to your door (at least, in towns). Most new cars are already at or near what the industry calls “Level 3”, with sensors for parking, automatic braking, lane guidance and so on; “Level 4” cars will add all this to artificial intelligence and so do away with the human driver. The computer won’t make the stupid mistakes that all human drivers do – so one effect that’s already been noted will be the “nice to have” problem of a reduction in the number of transplant organs available.

It’s the combination of the scale and the imminence of this revolution that makes it so interesting social scientifically: this won’t be a gradual evolution, but a big bang – one year, cars like we’ve always known them; a year or two later, a transformation. Like an avalanche, unnoticed high up on the mountain, it is about to sweep down. (Look at one of the many blogs on this, such as “Connected Cars”, to get a sense of how fast things are moving.)

Why should this be of interest to higher education researchers? Continue reading