There continues to be disquiet expressed in the press over just what the student experience will look and feel like as we head into a new academic year.
Headlines such as Universities refuse to end online lessons have fanned the flame of uncertainty and the student voice is once again coming to the fore – Will Green’s heartfelt blog for Wonkhe bringing one perspective for example.
But is online learning really the enemy? The danger is that the debate is being focused on the delivery mechanism rather than on the student experience – and that student diversity is being ignored.
By only framing the discussion using terms such as “online” or “blended” as blanket descriptions of what may or may not be on offer to students this Autumn we present a seriously narrow view of just what a higher education is all about.
In particular, we leave no space in the debate for identifying and supporting the complex and diverse nature of student characteristics and the challenges facing students today. Only by acknowledging such diversity can we start to appreciate the wide range of opportunities and approaches that students may need in relation to their higher education experience.
Crucially, individual students will value different things.
“Blended learning” feels like the new “unprecedented times” – a phrase that has been used so much that it has lost all meaning. When the phrase was coined it was probably because of the positive connotations of blending things together, it sounds like an equal and seamless mixing process. Unfortunately blending something can also make one think of a slightly chaotic mix, with the strong chance that within that mix some things may be minimised or lost.
Rather than using the term “blended”, across the university and SU at Wrexham Glyndŵr we prefer to talk about accessible or flexible learning because this describes much more of what students we speak to want from their education in 2021 and beyond.
The pandemic has forced higher education to change rapidly and offer radically different ways of learning. In our experience, some of these changes have offered learning options to students who had none before.
So, this is our moment as a sector to reset, think a bit less traditionally and focus on broadening our reach by offering more ways to learn which suit more than one demographic of student.
Flexible learning options have made it possible for large swathes of students to consider making study a part of their complex lives. We think of one specific student who is a single parent, raising a family and holding down two part-time jobs. They have been considering further study for years but couldn’t work out how to fit in attending lectures and seminars at set times in the middle of the working day.
They weren’t lacking the ability or the drive to better their lives through education, it was the rigid structure of traditional face to face teaching that was excluding them. For this student and for many others, accessible and flexible digitally-enabled learning options are essential and in some cases the only way to ensure students are able to access all of the learning they are paying for.
Broadening support and staying human
As we embrace the accessibility and flexibility that can be enabled through digital technologies, we also need to focus on how institutions are going to ensure that human contact is still a regular part of student life, aside from the physical learning spaces. After all, forcing students to sit in rooms together at set times will not solve the mental health crisis which was in full force before the pandemic hit.
What the shift to a more flexible learning environment has highlighted is that innovative support services (both university and SU) are where funding and resource needs to be funnelled to help those students falling through the gaps.
Accessible student support is no longer an accessory to high quality learning but needs to be the centre piece and can be made more so through a digital approach. A student who needs additional learning support at the beginning of their course will be just as confused in a lecture theatre than they are on Microsoft Teams, but they might be more likely to ask for help over a message than put their hand up in front of fifty other students.
In relation to academic engagement, lack of basic IT knowledge makes good digital learning inaccessible so now is the time to make learning these skills commonplace with baseline digital skills embedded across all programmes of study. Technology also has the potential to open up a whole connected network of support services for students – a cross systems approach to supporting the whole person that cuts across traditional departments and silo thinking.
A note too on the widely held belief that online delivery is all about cutting costs. Whilst purely online distance learning is often priced competitively, we are certainly not suggesting that embracing the digital is a way of doing things cheaply. Far from it. Developing good quality, engaging, digitally-enabled learning opportunities demands a highly sought-after combination of high technical skill and first class pedagogic understanding.
Extending this to the concept of flexible and accessible learning demands a sophisticated understanding of diverse student need that can be responded to effectively through a tailored and personalised mix of digital and in-person facilitation. That is a complex challenge and one that will require more, not less, resource going forwards.
We are in a digital age whether we like it or not, so why would we not work with it whilst at the same time intentionally look for new spaces to inject human interaction rather than writing off a digital solution as the enemy.
Transparency and trust
Living through the pandemic has forced us all to deal with uncertainty and it is no wonder that universities have been struggling to set a clear direction. There has been no clear direction for any of us and this is evidently where the focus on that well-used blended learning phrase has come unstuck. Is it the blended approach that students have a problem with? Or is it actually the fact that nobody knows or is able to explain exactly what that blend is.
When you order a smoothie you know what’s going into that blender, and you pay your money knowing what ingredients you’re getting. Is it any wonder that students are attacking the concept of blended learning when they are not clear on what it will be made up of?
It is crucial that institutions keep communication with their students going, even if that means saying that they are uncertain about something but are working on it.
When gaps are left in communication they are rapidly filled with guess work, fostering more of that uncertainty and leading ultimately to fear. This is a real opportunity for university and SU collaboration – working together firstly to set that blend correctly to suit the demographic of students you’re working with, and then making sure both organisations are communicating the same messages with clarity and confidence.
This is perhaps easy for us to say coming from an environment that has fostered a sense of trust between university and SU, but we would suggest that if that isn’t there then now is as good a time as any to start building it.
It’s not online learning that is the enemy, but a narrow view of learner diversity and learning needs. Now is the time for institutions to start taking the positives from this monumental shift in learning delivery and keep offering more options to more students so they can grab the transformational power of a higher education with both hands.