Blended learning is a combined teaching approach, utilising both traditional in-person teaching and digital tools to deliver the curriculum. In a Jisc Survey (2021) 51% of students said they received support for learning online away from campus. To meet the growing demand for digital skills and online courses universities need to understand the future of blended learning with how staff and students alike need better support in the delivery about learning away from campus.

University of Westminster

Professor Gunter Saunders is a Professor at the University of Westminster and has worked in higher education for over 30 years. This post on the ‘Future of Blended Learning’ follows a piece he previously shared with Federica Oridini on how digital learning can enhance the teaching and student experience.

Probably as far back as modern universities can be remembered, students were often expected to ‘prep’ in some way for a face-to-face class. However, such ‘prep’ would not necessarily be designed to lead to more time in-class for active student-centred learning (Prince, 2004). Blended learning (BL), and particularly the flipped learning (FL) approach, seeks to change that. The clear goal of BL/FL approaches is to provide students with online materials that reduce the need for a teacher to be the ‘sage on the stage’ in the face-to-face classroom (Saunders and Klemming, 2003; Bergman and Sams, 2012; Sohrabi and Iraj, 2016). Instead, they become the ‘guide on the side’ in-class, typically facilitating student groupwork that is geared towards the application of knowledge in driving active learning.

This article will explore the extent to which blended learning, as shaped by the emergence of online learning tools and systems in the late 1990s, became used across the sector. The article will also consider the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on academic colleagues and how they may now be more inclined to use online learning as a part of a blended learning approach. Finally, the article will speculate on the extent to which the impact of pandemic teaching on academic colleagues will lead to a greater exploitation of blended learning and whether or not the traditional way of applying blended learning approaches is likely to characterise the higher education sector moving forward.

Technology and its impact on Blended Learning

In the late 1990s, the emergence of online learning tools had already started to have an impact on the delivery of distance learning courses. It was around this time that academic colleagues around the World started to explore those same technologies to blend learning at campus-based universities into a mix of online and face-to-face. Unlike the pre-class ‘prep’ of old, the purpose of BL/FL was to provide students with ‘prep’ that would be done online, typically in a flexible manner over a period of days and be deeply integrated with what was done subsequently in face-to-face classes. In these classes, students would engage in activities designed to help them make use of information provided pre-class to solve problems or collaborate in groups to develop understanding and application (Nederveld and Berge, 2015). In many respects, BL/FL sought to reduce in-class face-to-face lecturing to a minimum.

Despite the undoubted success that a proportion of academic colleagues across the sector have had with BL over the years (see Sahni, 2019), and the evidence for enhanced student learning from that form of teaching, it is the case the use of BL approaches has never become mainstream in the majority of universities across the higher education sector. There are several likely reasons for this.

Probably the most often cited issues relate to ‘time’. Effective BL/FL isn’t just about recording a video and asking students to watch it before coming to a class. Aside from the time it takes to make a recording, a blended learning experience needs to be carefully designed. You cannot just take a face-to-face session that you have taught previously, strip out the lecturing part and expect the new BL/FL experience to be a success. The work that students do out of class before a session needs to be carefully integrated with what they will do in the following face-to-face class and what they do face-to-face will therefore need careful thought and re-design. Without a clear connection between the two elements of the blended learning session, students are unlikely to fully engage. Unless they can see that the learning outcomes for the class can only be achieved if they engage with the pre-class work, then everyone involved will have a less than satisfactory experience. And that includes the teacher. It is paramount that students see why their expertise in their chosen profession, as well as their personal skills development, will benefit from a BL/FL learning method. Alongside this, and as an essential part of the integration, the design of any BL or FL session must be carefully aligned with both learning outcomes and assessment (Medina, 2018).

Also connected to the question of time is that of the technology that will underpin the online learning that students will do. Significant proportions of academic colleagues across the sector are still understandably nervous about engaging with technology given the time it can take to become confident in using the online learning tools and systems that an institution may have (JISC Digital Insights Survey Report 2021). In some ways, the pandemic may be considered to have ‘upskilled’ many staff in this respect. But the pandemic was an emergency response to keep universities going, not to transform how they teach (Flynn and Noonan, 2020). As a consequence of the pandemic, there are now many more academic staff familiar with how to present slides in a live virtual learning environment, as opposed to presenting slides in a physical classroom. However, this does not mean that we have any more colleagues skilled in designing the online resources needed to drive BL and FL, than there were before the pandemic. 

There is also a cultural aspect to the lack of penetration of BL/FL approaches across the sector. Campus-based universities are campus-based for a reason – they enable face-to-face engagement in activities and through doing this facilitate both learning and the development of professional friendships and relationships. Why would anyone, who has taught for any length of time face-to-face in traditional classrooms, seek to change this and find the additional time needed to make good online resources and re-design their classes so that more time is ultimately spent in class on student-centred learning activities? Whilst the literature may ‘light up the eyes’ of many teachers in terms of providing their students with a better and more active learning experience through BL, if they have insufficient time to design and plan it properly, they may wind up ultimately giving their students a worse deal.

If one considers that a course normally works by having modules which run for 11 or 12 weeks and that there are 3 hours of in-class contact per week, then is the out-of-class work done by students in a BL/FL design to be considered part of that contact or not? If students are given pre-class work that equates to say 1 hour of engagement, then why should it not be possible for the teacher to see the students face-to-face for a 2 rather than 3-hour session, especially if the 2 hours is made up of good, solid constructivist learning activities? This makes sense and certainly ‘buys’ back an hour of time for the teacher who has invested in the development of a good BL design and plan.

Unfortunately, contact hour contracts make such a model, at best, a little unclear and at worst leads to a situation where academic colleagues just see ‘good’ blended learning as extra work. In addition, the somewhat unfortunate focus of government policy on face-to-face contact does nothing in the current times to help address these issues. Alongside this, and of concern to policymakers, is the mindset of some students who see online learning as somehow short-changing them. The fact is that well-designed blended learning short-changes no one. The evidence for the efficacy of blended learning is strong (garrison and Kanuka, 2004) and the evidence that students learn best when most of their time is spent being active in a class, is even stronger (Prince, 2004). It is unfortunate indeed that pandemic teaching, if anything, has reinforced some negative attitudes towards online learning and particularly asynchronous online learning. By contrast, synchronous online learning, seen as something that saved the sector when it was in crisis, is in some ways the ‘online chalk and talk’ villain of the piece.

The impact of the pandemic on the exploitation of online learning

Much has been written of the way in which the higher education sector transitioned to online learning as a consequence of the COVID 19 pandemic (Specht et al., Latorre-Cosculluela et al., Tang et al.,). What was achieved in this period was truly remarkable, in terms of the ingenuity of academic colleagues, learning technologists and the flexibility of virtual learning environments (VLEs), like Blackboard for example. However, the model for online learning that predominated during the pandemic, with a heavy reliance on live online learning events, did little to further the cause of blended learning. There were undoubtedly some examples where teaching sought to offer more engaging, interactive online sessions, but such efforts would have been severely compromised by several factors. Firstly, blended learning approaches that have worked successfully in the past relied on face-to-face meetings for the active student-centred learning aspects. In a live online environment, despite best efforts of the designers of such systems, interaction and the management/facilitation of group work is very different. No matter how skilled one may be at pressing the right buttons at the right time, or how charismatic or relaxed one is online, the spontaneity and ease with which one can circulate a class, looking over the shoulders of students and joining into their discussions, is simply not there in a live online environment. Secondly, the level of engagement from students in live online sessions was clearly very variable. This was not just down to any inherent reluctance to take part but was also connected to the problem of digital poverty (Office for Students 2020). A significant percentage of students had difficulty maintaining the Internet connection speeds needed to take an active role in live online sessions. Alongside this, even if a student had the required connectivity, some were working in surroundings where using their cameras, a fairly key prerequisite for live online group work, was difficult.

How blended learning may develop in the future

A quite significant question facing universities and teaching practitioners right now is whether or not blended learning will finally take a more prominent role in curriculum delivery. On the face of it, given the time pressures that academic colleagues remain under, allied to the somewhat negative view of any reduction in face-to-face contact hours plus the rather low opinion generally of asynchronous learning, major change seems unlikely.

However, it may be possible due to advances in technology in physical spaces, that the blending and affordances of technology and online learning with face-to-face may manifest in fundamentally different ways. Instead of students working alone online, maybe watching videos prior to a face-to-face class we may be entering an era where greater use of students’ own technology in physical spaces may start to have an impact on the way that face-to-face classes on-campus work.

The general reliability of wifi on-campus, coupled to an increased availability of screen-casting options, is already leading to more circumstances where students make use of their own laptops, tablets or indeed smartphones in physical spaces. This means that in principle, students could effectively be tasked with doing the pre-class prep, normally done asynchronously away from campus, synchronously in-class. This would not only make the integration of online work done by students more seamless with the face-to-face experience, but it could provide much greater scope for the online work to be a collaborative experience. One could still ask students to watch a video as in the traditional BL/FL model, either on their devices or by showing it on the large screen. Following this, one could then require students to immediately work together on a task related to what they had watched and then report back to the wider group as part of the face-to-face session.

Equally, one need not be confined to the video model. Instead, one could task students in small groups to research a topic together, sharing and collaborating on what they collectively find, before again sharing their outputs more widely. There are many possibilities for the blending of online with face-to-face in physical environments that can help not only to finally make sense of the role of technology in learning by campus-based universities, but also to help modernise and better drive the goal of generating active student-centred learning. It is our view that blending the use of technology in this way, with the online learning done within the timetabled classroom session, may require less time for planning and design than the more traditional blended learning session might, given the immediacy of the connection between the online work and the face-to-face activity that will follow.

Conclusions

Traditional forms of blended learning have largely failed, over the past 20 years, to have any significant sector-wide impact on curriculum delivery and the student learning experience. There seems little likelihood, given current attitudes towards curriculum delivery from all key stakeholders, that this will change significantly. However, the interest in online learning, generated during the pandemic, could be built upon by creating better physical learning spaces that are more suited to groupwork and the active use of students’ own devices. This would have the effect of ‘bringing the Internet into physical classroom spaces, potentially enabling learning and teaching to become more student-centred through the use of commonly used and simple technologies.

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In a Jisc Survey (2021) 51% of students said they received support for learning online away from campus. Professor Gunter Saunders, University of Westminster, shares with us the future for blended learning in higher education.

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