Ten notes of caution about a blended autumn and winter

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

There’s no doubt that there’s been both a herculean effort to keep the higher education show on the road over the past year, and some amazing innovation in online teaching and learning that for most students was long overdue.

There’s also no doubt that almost every student’s “non-distance” teaching and learning experience was already “blended” before the pandemic. As such, announcing “blended” as a radical new approach per se may well be a classic case of looking at the student experience through the wrong end of the telescope.

What has always mattered to most students isn’t that some of their learning is through in-person teaching and some through other, often online learning resources – it’s how many hours a week they get to spend in rooms with others. And they consistently fed back that they were surprised at how few of those hours there were pre-pandemic.

So as universities start to publish their top-level 2021/22 teaching and learning “offer”, I’ve rounded up here some notes of caution about the great dash to blended unless specifically required by prevailing public health restrictions. Because in many cases it looks like it may be in danger of moving too fast, and imposing a model upon students rather than co-producing one with them.

1. Yes but does it correlate

If there’s been a dominant story this year it’s been one about mental health. The regularly published Coronavirus and higher education students data that’s been collected by ONS all year has consistently shown a significant problem for students that we should be making every effort to recover from.

As such it’s important to remember that the HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey demonstrated a pretty clear correlation both in 2020 and in 2019 between mental health and (what then will have been in-person) contact hours. As such, if a student was getting 12 hours a week in rooms with other people, and in September four of those hours will be online instead, it’s hard to believe that that will have anything other than a detrimental impact. See also “value for money” and “student satisfaction”.

2. Get a grip

One of the things I’m hearing a lot about are universities issuing guidance and frameworks to academic departments that will be capable of what I might call “local interpretation”. That might make sense centrally and culturally, but we know that it’s comparisons – between students on different modules but the same course, different courses in the same provider, and across different providers – that more often than not generate feelings of dissatisfaction, disappointment, grievance and injustice.

Of course, no two modules start in the same place. But when there is significant consistency in the mood music (“Look! Blended!”) and deep inconsistency in its application, trouble lies ahead.

3. Promises promises

As OfS keeps reminding us, consumer protection law continues to apply during (and after) the pandemic and it expects providers to understand these legal obligations and meet them. And while the funding councils elsewhere may not have the same level of compliance concern, CPL does still apply UK-wide.

There seems to be a misconception about – generated by the arrangements that were put in place last summer – that as long as (continuing) students are warned about significant or material changes to their experience, that providers will be able to impose them even if there isn’t a continuing and prevailing set of public health restrictions that effectively makes those changes unavoidable and as long as students are given the “option” to leave (!)

Providers should probably bear in mind that they have a principal legal duty to make every effort to deliver what they have promised to students – ie what was sold to students in the pre-contract information. That almost certainly includes delivering it in the format promised – the balance of online and in-person is “material”.

Taking 12 hours of in-person “contact” a week and remixing that into 8 hours’ contact and 4 equivalent component hours of live online classes and additional materials might well be better pedagogically or have received widespread support from course reps. But returning students have the right to the experience they were sold.

4. No Limits

One thing I’m also hearing is that universities that are nervous about whatever happens post-Augar are keen that there are as few constraints as possible on recruitment this summer. In other words – if the grade inflation predictions come true, nobody wants the physical size of their lecture theatres to be a barrier to emergency boots-filling come August.

That doing so on some programmes in some universities in some locations would place intolerable pressure on support services, teams of academics, student accommodation and so on ought to cause second thoughts – but the regulatory levers at collective and individual level compared to the financial pressures and the need to recruit are hopelessly weak. Even so a university “doing the right thing” would be having open and honest conversations now with staff and students about what “full” really looks like at programme level.

5. Live and kicking

I have read the results of a lot of surveys, and it is absolutely true that students want aspects of “blended learning” to continue post-pandemic. But we have to be careful when interpreting results not to see the results we want to see. I’ve not seen a single dataset that tells us that anything other than a tiny minority of students who are in attendance at a provider want to experience live, synchronous teaching online.

Recordings they can catch up on? Sure. Bite-sized additional materials, whizzy videos? Maybe – depends if you’re taking away some in-person time as a result. Extra resources? Lots of feedback says a desire to “show value” from taking away an hour of in-person actually makes them feel overloaded. But online seminars or lectures that are live? It isn’t a thing.

If nothing else, if a student has bothered to travel to a university city they’re unlikely to want to spend “the bit they feel they’ve paid for” in their room, and they’ll be furious if they have to find somewhere quiet to sit for an online live class at 11 having had something in-person at 10.

6. Access all injustice

At the start of the pandemic, a hell of a lot of Disabled students were fuming that having been told things like lecture capture were just too difficult forever, they suddenly became possible when everyone else faced an access gap. The danger now is that the problem is happening again – in reverse.

There’s no doubt that some types of online teaching and learning have been helpful and welcomed by Disabled students. But a) they’re not a universal panacea and b) maybe let’s work out why? What’s the vision here – an inaccessible campus but Disabled students can take part via webcams alone in their rooms?

The danger is that a group of students that already feel isolated conclude that supposed increased accessibility during the pandemic gets used as a reason to not improve campus accessibility – and as a back pocket neutraliser reaction to students protesting the lack of commitment to a return to face to face teaching.

7. Impact assessment

There aren’t many people that would cling onto the glacial pace of change previously experienced by anyone trying to make things better in higher education. But there was at least a rhythm to the cycle – in theory changes to provision can be monitored for their (often differential by characteristic) impact on attainment and satisfaction.

We are simply too early in the cycle to have been able to properly evaluate what’s been done this year. I’ve not seen a credible analysis of national data like the HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Survey, the National Student Survey or PTES because none of them have been published yet. Nor have I seen a university evaluating in any depth attainment this academic year so far – because it’s only just ending. And as for OfS “monitoring”. Please.

If I had a pound for every time an SU had told me that their idea that they could demonstrate had widespread student support had had to wait pending a proper outcomes evaluation of a pilot, I’d be on a beach somewhere. As it is an academically credible decision on changes in 2021/22 would be able to show the impact on students beyond the odd vox-pop.

8. Digital divide

We have not, I’m afraid, closed a yawning digital divide for students this year. Survey after survey demonstrates major problems with internet access, space at home to study, IT equipment and IT software. As ever, some hardship schemes will have helped some out at the extremes.

But until we’re at the stage where we can say, hand on heart, that there is no divide – is it credible or fair to herald a student experience that in part has to be experienced in a way that many students at the margins simply can’t access?

9. Deck the halls

I’ve seen a lot of models and announcements so far pitching at a “just in case” 1m+ or 2m+ indoors social distancing justification from universities who I also know are still intending to full their hotel-style halls up to 100% of usual capacity. Maybe other organisations can get away with “well we weren’t told not to”, but we are the actual home of the actual science that is telling us that the problem was in halls last Autumn. Really?

10. Free hugs now

In the end, whether we’re looking at new students or returners, we all need to be in rooms together again. That’s the thing about lectures – they might be pedagogically highly questionable, but they’re events that bring together large numbers of students and generate significant pre, post (and, whisper it on WhatsApp, during) social mixing. That mixing, remember, impacts mental health, attainment, confidence and reduces reliance on centrally delivered support services and direct support from academics because it builds a lateral network of support instead.

Saving on airfares for international travel? Sure. Online consultations with counselling to avoid sitting in the waiting-room-of-doom? Yes please. Letting staff WFH a couple of days a week to reduce the pain of commuting? Ideally. But killing off X hours of lectures without thinking through the implications for this network building properly? I’d take it all a bit slower to be honest.

11. The Hyflex is a lonely child

OK, one bonus one. If anyone can find me somewhere where simultaneous half-the group online and half-the-group in-person in the same room for the same hour is working well, a box full of Wonkhe mugs is on its way.

12. You had to be there?

OK. One final final bonus. A further push towards hybrid/blended intensifies the “why am I (physically) here” question that students have been posing all year.

Yet if you look at this from a student point of view, ironically they are still either able to “live there” or “distance learn” – for them, the choice remains binary rather than blended.

As such, wouldn’t a real, honest and student-centred push towards hybrid/blended – particularly for regional recruiters – involve imaginative hybrid versions of the residential experience? I’m talking much closer to the sort of block teaching/residential/temporary stay models we see for PGT – with no need to move house per se, but the ability to generate social and co-curricular activity around intensitive periodical residential stays?

2 responses to “Ten notes of caution about a blended autumn and winter

  1. Is parliament somewhere where simultaneous half-the group online and half-the-group in-person in the same room
    for the same hour is working-after-a-fashion? (You’re on mute)

  2. It is – but unlike in the average classroom there’s a team of four people at any one time producing that experience behind the scenes and a separate chair and officials that support them!

Leave a Reply