Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

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Eve Alcock is an analyst at the Clean Air Fund and a former President of the Students' Union at Bath University

When we picture the mature student with a family studying at a distance from their kitchen table, or the commuter student holding down a part-time job and battling to get across town on the bus, we tend to consider the kind of timetabling flexibility that online and asynchronous delivery affords to be beneficial.

Then when we picture the “traditional” young student living away from home, spending their first year on campus and getting involved in student life and clubs and societies, we tend to consider the rich immersion of a range of formal and informal, educational and social in-person activities to be beneficial.

Deliver everything in-person, and we disadvantage and freeze out the people we need involved in higher education. Move too far towards curriculum flexibility, and the stripped down “experience” ends up instrumentally delivering the qualifications but not many of the wider benefits woven into the rites of passage.

TL;DR – it’s hard to be a “day visitor” to a boarding school and still feel involved. But if the posh people get lots of out the boarding school, shouldn’t more people experience it?

I won’t treat you like you’re oh so typical

Who gets to be a grown-up boarder and who gets to be a commuter is interesting. Michael Donnelly and Sol Gamsu’s work for the Sutton Trust gives us a pretty clear sense – they found that in the middle of the last decade, the majority of young people (55.8% in 2014/15) stayed local for university – attending one less than 55 miles away from their home address. Just one in ten students attended a university over 150 miles from home, and those that did were socially, ethnically and geographically distinct groups.

​Students from poorer backgrounds were three times more likely to commute to uni from home. And British Bangladeshi and Pakistani students were six times more likely to study locally.

We see and hear a lot of binary contrasts between boarders and commuters – and come across multiple initiatives aimed at making education more accessible and flexible for the latter, and richer, safer and more diverse for the former.

Ironically, more often than not we hear of commuters keen to escape the family home for a day and of boarders not trekking across campus for a lecture – suggesting that while two cliches is better than one, they’re still cliches.

But more than that, we worry that in the binary, we’ve forgotten about a large and growing group of students that don’t fit the two cliches – that are poorly served by a “blended” model that requires you to be “present” in a given city all year – and that according to all the evidence we can find, are a growing group. We’re talking about the regionals.

All I want to get is a little bit closer

One of the things that became apparent during discussions surrounding students “going home” last winter was that the depth of understanding of the make-up of the student body at many universities (and within the Department for Education) is pretty poor. We know, statistically, how many students are in each of the two binaries of “living at home” and “away from home” because we collect that data for HESA. We’re less clear about those caught in the middle.

We’re talking here about people who live maybe an hour or so away from the university. They are often recruited from diverse cities – with Greater London, for example, playing a big part in filling universities that can be reached on a single train ride like those in Kent and the University of Surrey.

These may be students for whom the desire to leave home and “escape” their community is not as strong as the white, middle class youngster “fleeing the nest” – and may be students who are keen to return to their families at multiple points throughout the term, some every weekend.

Deciding whether to take up accommodation at or around the university is a genuinely difficult decision. The commute would be punishing and isolating – but the rent is eye-watering and wasteful if most weekends and lots of the holidays are spent with the family.

Of course these students want the “social capital” and experiences that they know give them the key to wider skills development and career networking – but these are also students who need the timetabling flexibility that our commuters and remote learners need.

They are, literally, “hybrid” students. But while we think we’re serving them by running some of our lectures online, we’re not really helping them at all. In that 80/20 or 50/50 “blended” split that everyone’s pushing, the danger is that we fail everyone.

It’s not just all physical

Imagine you arrive at a four day conference, and the sheepish volunteer on the registration desk tells you that the opening plenary and several of the other big sessions are to be spent in your hotel room on your own on Zoom. That’s what it will feel like for those that picked living away from home.

For everyone else booking on remotely, the idea that the breakout sessions are “best experienced” in person and that the fun bits of the conference – the quiz, the catch up in the coffee queue and the awards night – are either not available to you, or are streamed in a way that positions you as detached observer rather than a participant, means you’ll have a terrible time too. That’s what it will feel like for those that picked being “remote”.

So if “blended” doesn’t work in the way we’ve envisaged – with bits of remote and bits of in-person scattered throughout deeply traditional (funding and delivery) models of remote and “in attendance” learning – what might work instead?

Enter the residential.

Here come the dreams of you and me

Delivering intense, immersive, rich and life changing residential teaching and learning is commonplace in the PGT space. Many providers deliver one module at a time, intensively, over a weekend or a few weekdays. That period is filled with lectures, action learning sets, practical exercises, guest speakers, networking sessions, student feedback gathering and social events. Participants build their social capital, spend some quality focussed time with academics and eachother, and natter in the hotel bar until 3 in the morning.

Then when the intensive time on campus is over, they return to their lives and their communities – their jobs, families and houses (sometimes an hour away, sometimes further) – and do the work required for assessments. They catch up on WhatsApp and Zoom with their classmates, swap notes and tips for project work, feed issues back to their course reps, and have 121 sessions online with personal tutors.

It works. It’s immersive. It combines the social capital and wider experiences benefits of the traditional “away from home” model with a mode that allows people to thrive at home. It’s a model that is utterly dominant in the conference and training space – the intensive three or four day residential that doesn’t require us to leave our jobs. It involves fewer compromises and suits thousands of professional PGT students every year.

So why on earth don’t we do it for undergraduates?

The lights are off and the sun is finally setting

Real hybrid undergraduate education would operate something like this. Every 4-6 weeks or so, students would study a single module, intensively. Each would commence with being on campus for 3-4 packed days – with lectures, seminars, group projects, learning sets, visits, civic engagement, debates, club and society events, social gatherings and sports activity all woven together as expertly as any decent conference can be.

Almost everyone would experience those bursts of activity residentially – with campus accommodation intensively “farmed” as somewhere to sleep, but not somewhere to study. Students would be actively and enthusiastically involved in the design of these residentials – crafting linear experiences that put the didactic delivery on at the right moment and worry less about pace than we do now – because it’s only ever one module at a time.

Deadline bunching would be a thing of the past. Academics – often split between teaching, student support, admin and research duties could at least focus on teaching for specific sets of weeks of the year. Housing demand in most major cities would collapse – driving prices down for those that need it and freeing up capacity for young professionals struggling to get into a property.

There would still be students – many international and some home domiciled – who would move to the city to experience this kind of higher education. But many more wouldn’t – because even for those from around the globe, flying in and out 6 or 8 times a year proves to be less expensive than living here.

Crucially – the shift in the centre of balance would be profound and helpful when we think about what’s “normal” these days. And we wouldn’t have to choose – because everyone would get the benefits of intensive in-person delivery, and everyone would need to be supported between those bursts with tech and services that assumes that people can’t just “swing by” or “pop in”.

Here comes the spark before the dark

If this sounds faintly familiar, it’s because this is exactly the kind of conversation going on across the corporate world. Trapped between unhelpful binaries of “office culture” and “fully remote”, companies of all sizes are also exploring ways to deliver for a more messy in-between.

Maybe some staff need an office space and some really don’t need the commute. Maybe working from home isn’t really viable for some and a godsend for others. Maybe for lots of people, living nearish makes visiting the office viable – but five days a week? Really?

People do want flexibility, but corporates are starting to craft “office days”, team weeks and more regular residentials for immersive face to face workshops and brainstorming, relationship building and planning – which then means that other periods (either working from home or in the office) can be used for calls with people in different locations and the “tasks” that don’t require teamwork.

We don’t know whether this would work in the long term, and we’re sure we’ve missed a host of practical and logistical issues along the way. Maybe there are other ways to meet the needs of the regionals, avoid the locals getting a hollowed out experience and deliver some flexibility for those living away from home.

But what we are sure about is that in-person teaching is great if you’re there, and online teaching is ideal if you’re not.

That’s why combining bits of both might feel “hybrid” or “blended” from the sector’s point of view, but without proper thought and reengineering of courses, campuses and services, the choices surrounding the wider week for students will remain just as binary in the years ahead as they are now.

7 responses to “This is what a hybrid student experience would really look like

  1. “But many more wouldn’t – because even for those from around the globe, flying in and out 6 or 8 times a year proves to be less expensive than living here.” But the cost to our planet? I wouldn’t really promote this as the way ahead!

    1. I had exactly the same reaction – it would also seriously diminish the full experience for international students.

  2. I can see the advantages of this format but studying a module at the time will hinder opportunities for critical thinking and essential skills gained by studying 2 or 3 related modules simultaneously. It will also decrease opportunities for synoptic assessments. There will be other obstacles such as time tabling, staff and room availability and fitting all teaching into an academic year. Student experience wise, it wil hinder bonding and community building between students and staff. Being on campus enhances sense of belonging. A balance is clearly required here.

  3. Before we talk about a residential approach for undergraduate study, I’d want to see more of this approach for postgraduate taught than there is at present. For example, two years into the current situation, existing DL options for Creative Writing haven’t expanded far into English Literature courses (or even CW+Lit). Until such tiny steps in delivery are countenanced, it’s hard to imagine the commitment to event management required for a residential approach.

  4. Facilities are not mentioned. What about all those courses/modules that rely on dedicated workshops, laboratories, studios to accumulate skills and knowledge through doing, over sustained periods of time? Art & Design, Engineering, Healthcare etc. require being there to advance in their subjects.

  5. Wasn’t this ‘hybrid’ the model adopted by the University of Phoenix in the USA during the 1990s?

    It’s target group was working adults aged 25-40, bypassed by the residential or ‘big city’ commuter models. UoP did intensive weekly teaching in the evening rather than blocks in ‘easy-to-get-to’ locations, but the principle of one module at a time over a short intensive period was the same (alongside ‘the zeal of the Jesuits’ and the ‘logistics of the US Marine corps’).

    UoP argued however it wasn’t suitable for everyone. Other institutions seemed to regard their aggressive marketing as an attack by a commercial rather than public-spirited rival, but UoP argued that their advertising tended to stimulate demand at traditional model unis, whether commuter or boarding.

    The real problem however was that UoP was looked down on because it concentrated on high quality teaching, rather than research (it didn’t do any research!). In contrast to the argument that a ‘real’ international university does both, I recall a talk by one of the Presidents of UoP, saying that the system needed both its Princetons and it’s Phoenixs, and they should be seen as complementary rather than rivals.

    I’ve a lot of sympathy with the ‘horses for courses’ strategic role of institutions, but I’ve yet to see any serious acceptance of it across the UK. The tendency of the middle and upper class decision-makers and opinion-formers to pack off their offspring to the most prestigious possible boarding school as a rite-of-passage at 18 is a very nineteenth century (English) idea that still seems to predominate into the twenty-first century.

    The tragedy is that we’ve actually lost a lot of the localism of the alternative model of higher education, with the concentration of commuter campuses in the big cities (often cheek-by-jowl with the boarding schools) and the local HE in most large towns has disappeared. An alternative approach would be to develop a “Localism and HE” agenda that links reform-minded HE institutions with a network of community learning centres (aka local libraries) connected via advanced technology. The climate crisis alone should be enough to justify massive state investment, in the way that Andrew Carnegie did it from private funds for libraries. However I fear that in the post-pandemic austerity coming, many local libraries will not last the decade, let alone flourish as distributed learning centres for the masses.

  6. I love the idea of being taught intensively one module at a time, and this seems to be independent of any potential residential model. But I cannot for the life of me think why (for the majority of both home and international undergrads) any other residential model can be better than living on or near campus for at least a year and developing lifelong friendships thanks to that prolonged close contact. Of course there are groups of students who prefer other models, but universities must provide what the majority of their students want.

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