From education to employment

Blended learning and supporting students in the hybrid classroom

By Louise Thorpe, Vice President, and Head of Client Experience, EMEA at Anthology.

When universities suddenly closed their doors in 2020, educators had no choice but to move lectures online abruptly, leaving many students disgruntled and academics whether they wanted to or not, thrown into a technology conundrum to deliver their courses. In two short years the term blended learning has now become the new normal providing an alternative education platform, but just how effective is it and does it need more thought?

According to the National Education Policy 2020, published by India’s government, blended learning should be experiential and activity based. They expanded on this by saying, “it is not a mere mix of online and face-to-face modes but refers to a well-planned combination of meaningful activities in both, underpinned by the use of intentional technology.”

Blended learning allows academics to rethink traditional teaching practices and consider how to make the learning experience more accessible for all students. But as the policy notes, digital approaches must be mixed with experiential and activity-based learning to successfully augment and enhance pre-pandemic practices. Let’s consider the potential advantages and key attributes for blended learning to be effective.

The benefits of blended learning

A blended learning model provides ultimate flexibility in many aspects. It can be applied to any program that holds on to traditional pedagogical values and incorporates digital media. Students, academics, policymakers, and more can appreciate the opportunities and benefits it provides, including:

  • Increased flexibility. Technology affords new ways of engaging outside what was previously experienced in a physical classroom, which means there are more channels for educators to use in meeting student needs.  Students can take control of their own learning in their own time, pace and place enabling them to fit their education around busy lifestyles whilst removing the traditional barriers of time and location to learn.
  • Enhanced interaction. Blended learning offers a platform to facilitate greater interactivity between students, as well as between students and teachers. It also provides a fantastic opportunity for collaboration at a distance, where individual students from all over the world can work together virtually in intellectual endeavours.   Technology affords new ways of engaging outside what was previously experienced in a physical classroom, which means there are more channels for educators to use in meeting student needs.
  • Diversity in content.  A broad and rich range of course content delivered in a hybrid environment can improve engagement and add to the authenticity of the learning experience. This can improve the effectiveness of both online and face to face learning activities and help students achieve their long-term goals.

Qualities for blended learning success

Successful blended learning is about making the most effective use of face-to-face time between students and academics by using it for high touch activities when students are on campus.  Blended learning models that are successful in higher education institutions stand out for the following reasons:

  1. They use technology intentionally. Emerging technologies and those that are untested at scale can be desirable and engaging in the right circumstances. Technology that is familiar and well-integrated into daily life can be used to generate highly innovative practices for teaching and learning. Above all, effective blended programs are focused on the learning experience and outcomes.
  2. They focus on driving student engagement. Most students are surrounded by technology in their everyday lives. As a result, they often engage more readily with material when technology is incorporated into instructional settings. Enriching blended learning content with appropriate images, audio and video can add variety and impact. Some platforms allow incredible engagement opportunities, and with the correct planning, learning with these platforms and tools can be very effective. Additionally, students become empowered as they expand their technical skills and competency with technology. There are also benefits for disabled students, who before the pandemic might have experienced challenges with attending in-person lectures or engaging with course content.
  3. They provide appropriate training for educators It cannot be assumed that a good teacher in a traditional classroom will automatically be a good teacher in an online classroom. Aside from changes required in pedagogy, online assessments also require a different approach. There are numerous challenges to conducting online examinations at scale, including limitations on the types of questions that can be asked in an online environment, handling network and power disruptions, and preventing unethical practices. However, numerous bite-sized training resources can be found online to meet “just in time” needs.

Professional training programs like Anthology’s certified Digital Teaching and Learning Series also exist to create more professional development pathways for education practitioners and to promote excellence, quality, and consistency in the student experience.

Best practices applied

One University that has recognised these best practices, successfully implementing a well-thought-out blended learning programme, is Northampton University. Their active blended learning pedagogical approach combines sense-making activities with focused student interactions (with content, peers, and tutors) in appropriate learning settings – in and outside the classroom. Students discuss ideas, experiment, work in teams and receive tutor feedback. Community, cooperation, flexibility, and accessibility are highly valued on campus or remotely, as Rob Howe (Head of Learning Technology, The University of Northampton, explains:

“As part of the University of Northampton’s drive for continuous academic improvement, Active Blended Learning (ABL) was being discussed prior to 2014. This influenced the design of the new Waterside Campus which opened in 2018. Northampton has continued to evolve the discussion around ABL and many of the concepts are being picked up in the new Centre for Active Digital Education (CADE) which has a forward facing approach to new pedagogies which are operating both on and offsite. Anthology’s product suite is helping Northampton deliver successful learning and teaching. Our symbiotic relationship with them ensures that we continue to feed product improvements to benefit not just ourselves but the wider sector.” 

Ultimately whilst digital approaches can successfully augment, enhance, and even replace some traditional approaches, unless online education is blended with experiential and activity-based learning, it will tend to become a screen-based education with limited focus on the social, affective, and psychomotor dimensions. But when implemented and utilized the right way, blended learning becomes a transformational opportunity for both staff and students.

Louise Thorpe has +25 years of experience in higher education. Previously the Head of Academic Innovation at Sheffield Hallam University and Head of Learning and Teaching Strategy and Enhancement at the University of Sheffield. Louise is Vice President and Head of Client Experience, EMEA at Anthology.

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