The rapid move into lockdown last March forced most universities to make a wholesale leap into online learning delivery.
Remaining lectures and seminars were run online, assessments were reshaped for online delivery, and safety net / “no detriment” policies were established to safeguard the progression of students and their final award.
Since that time, a number of reports like Pearson and Wonkhe’s expectation gap and former OfS Chair Michael Barber’s Gravity Assist have highlighted the benefits of online learning, with students readily recognising and expressing a wish to retain elements of the response – online and recorded lectures, tutorials and support from professional services.
As universities plan for what will hopefully be a year without substantial mandated social distancing, there are many lessons learned and experiences shared which should not be lost as we march toward the promised return to campus.
At the University of Suffolk, I am working with colleagues across our community to shape our own return. We recognised the impact of the pandemic on the already complex lives of our students, moving to a block pedagogy as a pilot in September 2020. This change alone has gone some way to support learners to develop their sense of efficacy as successful and confident learners, and to increase achievement, but it is only one piece in the jigsaw puzzle.
What is the blend?
I am often asked for the ideal ratio needed for the “blend” in “block and blend” – but there isn’t one. Blend has to be reimagined as something more than whether the learning takes place in person or online. Instead, we should think about the gap in between – this is where the learning takes place, the point of digestion or synthesis, the transition from knowing to understanding, from theory to practice.
In intentionally designing for this gap, we focus the design on what the learning activity is intended to achieve – what we want to be different for our students as a result of the learning and how they will connect this learning to what came before – and what immediately follows. Blended learning is not a blend of on campus and online, it is the creation of the right blend of intentionally designed activities, regardless of type of learning environment.
The premium on presenteeism
The pandemic has shown that the intentional use of a range of learning environment tools and approaches can create effective and successful learning, even if the students are not present at the billed live event. This does not mean that students may intentionally choose not to join. Our own students have valued live stream and recorded for the flexibility it provides, the ability to revisit and follow up, and to catch up if something in their lives took precedence.
While we should absolutely encourage and create a vibrant on campus community, we must also recognise that the impact of the pandemic will be long reaching, and that our ability to reopen campus does not mean that the complex lives of our students will always enable them to always join us. Our learning offer should preempt this and refocus our attention on the creation of flexible and effective learning communities which encourage and promote engagement with all learning opportunities.
Reimagining relationships and presence
The reimagining of the focal point of learning in terms of the why, how and where forces us to reimagine the relationships between learner and teacher, and between the students themselves. In asking who the learning is for, what their experience and context might be and how they identify as a student of the university we can do just this.
University learning spaces, physical or online are not necessarily familiar for students. This is often true for students at the University of Suffolk where a large proportion of our students are from low participation neighbourhoods. Bringing students in our physical environment forces them relocate and reconsider their own identities, the pandemic has put learning back into spaces with which they are, at least in part, more familiar. For some, entering the second year of study, the return to campus may unsettle their ontological security.
At Suffolk, we have and continue to work to mitigate some of this through extended transition and induction programmes located within our online learning environment from point of acceptance of firm offer. This means we can begin to foster relationships critical to engagement, normalise and demystify language and experience and build bridges between familiar and unfamiliar environments.
I think this also gives us the opportunity to learn about and from our students, develop a relationship which is more equitable – we enter their spaces, and they enter ours.
The recent PA consulting report Tomorrow’s universities today: principles for prospering in a changed world challenged universities to retain a mindset of innovation in order to “address higher education’s current vulnerabilities and overcome the “old normal” limitations. For me this means seizing the opportunities for longer term change that Covid has presented.
Embracing pedagogies of care, recognising that the much anticipated “Freedom Day” does not remove the additional complexities and barriers that the pandemic has created, and being more cognisant of the support students may need to transition between spaces, experiences and identities is at the core of this. Covid has been and is a catalyst change. We must not go back.