This summer the Office for Students [OfS] commissioned a review of blended learning aimed at supporting the English HE sector’s understanding of how blended learning approaches might relate to the OfS’s Conditions B2 and B3, both of which concern the quality of education provided in any manner or form by or on behalf of a provider. The review, which has just been published, is aimed at all stakeholders and focuses on blended learning approaches by six English HE providers, concentrating on four broad subject areas: humanities; medicine and allied health; natural sciences and engineering; and the performing arts.
A review panel was appointed by the OfS to conduct desk-based research, collect survey data and interview academic staff and students about each provider. Here are its main findings:
- There was an “emergency pivot” or switch by English universities to online delivery at the start of the coronavirus pandemic [a diplomatic way of saying that institutions that had not relied much on online learning previously scrambled to piece together remote learning programmes]. The approach to blended learning is now “emergent” [i.e., more measured, but still developing] as providers consider their long-term teaching strategies.
- In the academic year 2022-2023 – the current one – there will be greater opportunity to develop an appropriate range of learning techniques.
- The rationale for blended learning approaches has often not been made clear to students.
- Many students value the flexibility of “asynchronous online lectures”, which enables them to review and re-watch material at their own speed; but many also appreciate on-campus lectures which support peer learning, separate home and study environments, encourage their motivation to learn and help them to engage with challenging course content.
- During the lockdowns, students felt isolated when studying online and identified a long-term “negative impact” on the academic community and lack of peer network support.
- Integrating the online and on-campus learning timetable was a challenge for students and sometimes led to course overload.
- The review panel identified examples of high-quality blended approaches and innovations by both instructors and supplies that ably supported students’ learning, but there were also “pockets” of poor online teaching practice and poor online learning resources.
- The panel therefore took the view that the balance of face-to-face, online and blended learning is not the key determinant of teaching quality. High quality (or poor quality) teaching can take place across all modes of delivery.
Some key recommendations of the report are:
- The procurement and delivery of new learning technology systems represents large and complex programmes for university IT departments operating in a rapidly-changing environment. Therefore providers should have in place the necessary project management and delivery expertise to ensure the maintenance of high standards and the observance of interoperability and accessibility requirements.
- Using more learning technology will require increased numbers of professional staff with expertise in learning technology at universities; they must be able to work closely with senior leaders and course teams.
- Understanding of the institutional and individual responsibilities of technical and teaching staff to ensure that learning materials are accessible was found to be “patchy”. The word “accessible” is often used to replace “digital” or “available”, rather than aligned with web accessibility standards [the latter is an issue that the HE community has worked hard to highlight and improve in recent years, an initiative that started well before the pandemic]. More work is needed to ensure that all staff in universities are aware of the policy context, regulations, standards and ethics concerning the use of technology, including equality, inclusion, universal design, “accessibility” in the sense it is used in the HE environment, copyright and data use.
These findings and recommendations may seem obvious to the seasoned HE-watcher and academic publisher. However, despite its rather anodyne language, the report makes some very useful suggestions, which can be of great help both to those established academic publishers already developing online learning solutions and new entrants to the market. Of particular help to the latter are the many sections in the report which describe correct approaches and protocols when working with universities. More generally, there is advice to all stakeholders to get their ducks in a row, to work closely together and to make appropriate investments in people as well as technology. Between the lines, there is also a warning to academics to treat suppliers as equals and to commit to working on products and solutions together.
From this writer’s perspective, the most controversial suggestion is that all modes of delivery of teaching are equal. Whilst not in itself contentious, the statement should be internalised alongside the carefully-articulated view that for students face-to-face teaching is important. In other words, if “quality” HE teaching is to be achieved – the goal of the review – a horses-for-courses approach must be taken. It’s not just a question of catering to different learning styles, but also accepting that a variety of teaching modes is needed to fulfil the whole range of learning experiences and needs.
[written by Linda Bennett]