As higher education institutions plan for what will happen as we move slowly towards more students being on campus, there is continuing chatter about the form that teaching and learning will take.
This includes how best to deliver it and how to communicate what this might look like.
In all of this discussion, there has been a proliferation of words like “remote learning”, “digital learning”, and “hybrid learning” – and these terms have largely been taken for granted in respect to their pedagogical nuance. But if the preferred solution to the problems created by the pandemic in the first semester was “blended learning”, as we tumble through a second semester it would appear that the HE sector is beginning to settle on its next term of preference – “online learning”.
What’s in a name?
There is, of course, nothing particularly new about the terms blended learning and online learning, and discussions about what they actually mean are well developed. Similarly, the challenges and problems of delivering them are also well discussed.
At the most basic level, blended learning is taken to be something of a mix between face-to-face and online delivery – and this is usually how it is understood by those unfamiliar with the actual intricacies of pedagogy. But as the literature is at pains to ask, what exactly is being “blended”? Does the learning need to be more substantive than what might amount to a series of digital acetates and some online office hours? Or do mediums of delivery need to be flexibly designed so the total learning environment enables the achievement of student-led, personalised learning?
Online learning, on the other hand, is usually taken to refer to teaching and learning that is delivered remotely via digital platforms, with courses often designed to be taken “anytime, and anywhere”. But again, beyond that vague introduction, its meaning often quickly evaporates into questions concerning the specifics of delivery, the levels of interaction, the types of assessment, and the quality of learning taking place.
Trying to understand what, exactly, is meant by these terms is not mere pedantry. Indeed, given that UK Universities are continuing to appeal to the technological innovation and expertise suggested by both terms, how they are experienced in practice is not without consequence.
There are (at least) three related problems of taking the terms “blended” and “online” for granted. The first issue concerns staff preparedness. It is one thing to drop an online discussion forum into a virtual learning environment and hope students engage with it. However, it is quite another to get the majority of students to use these tools in meaningful and sustained ways that reflect the learning objectives. It is similarly easy to record a lecture, but it is very time-consuming (and expensive) to design and create high quality audio-visual material, and constructively align engaging synchronous activity within it. And this is all before discussing the problems of the technology itself, which can take substantial expertise to use at even a basic level. Designing, developing, testing, and delivering digitally-enhanced content is not easy – if it were, the majority of lecturers and teachers would already be experts in doing it.
Secondly, there is a well-rehearsed literature that demonstrates that students are not simply “digital natives”, who are naturally at ease with online platforms. Instead, the evidence clearly suggests wide disparities in how students use technology in relation to learning. Again, if students did have these interests and abilities, then there would not be as much concern about their capacity to fulfil the digital needs of the future workplace. There are, quite clearly, many benefits of digital learning platforms for students – not least in terms of widening participation – but as a number of surveys are demonstrating these benefits cannot, and should not, be taken for granted.
The final problem is the zeal at which university managers appear to be embracing all this capacity for the digital. Not only has working from home provided a top-down opportunity to rethink how HEIs might use university (office) spaces, if staff and students are quickly able to take advantage of the tools and capabilities offered by digital platforms, there is also the potential for general movement toward more distanced pedagogies. To cut a long story short, digital methods of teaching might appear to be an opportunity to increase income associated with recruitment and decrease expenditure related to delivery.
So, if none of these understandings really relate to what has conventionally been associated with online or blended learning, how should HEIs describe their current provision? The truth is that there is no established term for the problems presented by teaching and learning in the pandemic. But in using pedagogical terms so loosely, the danger for HEIs is that students will associate digital learning technologies with the sketchy and changeable delivery of the pandemic; an increasingly tired and demoralised staff may also look at the time and energy spent on producing content that was all too fleetingly engaged with and for little reward; while university management will continue to talk up the technology-enhanced provision as if it is necessarily both desirable and useful, and in spite of the reality of having to sustainably invest in it over time. All of which is likely to constrain, rather than facilitate, a more sustained engagement with digital technologies for the purposes of learning and teaching in the future.