Revolutionising Universities – The Blended Learning Approach

How universities can learn from COVID-19

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here is no doubt that Universities across the globe have had a challenging time during the Covid-19 Pandemic. But what can we learn from this desperate situation? Is a Higher Education revolution on the way? What should universities be doing in order to minimise similar risks in the future, and what will that future look like for Higher Education?

University programmes have always been so intrinsically based around physical attendance, that digital learning is often still an afterthought or an optional extra. But, just as many businesses have evolved to support remote workers and colleagues working from home, many universities will have to reconsider their use of technologies to do the same, offering a truly blended approach to learning, in order to survive.

When we look back in ten years’ time, will Covid-19 have been the catalyst for change in university digitalisation? Or will it have been the beginnings of many universities’ downfall?

Why Change?

We are not simply talking about a temporary fix to see us through this pandemic, and any similar situations in the future, we are talking about a long-term shift and a widening of what universities can offer. Universities who are able to offer effective distance learning can potentially engage more international students, more students who are unable to live on campus, more students who would have ordinarily missed out on a university education due to personal and family commitments.

Of course, the whole university campus experience is still an important part of university life for some, especially younger undergraduates who are living independently for the first time. The making of new friends, mixing cultures, and developing social skills are all a wonderful part of the university offering. But, can universities extend the learning experience to those outside of that traditional learning bubble?

It seems like with today’s technology, not physically attending a university lecture should not put students at a disadvantage. People should be able to take their learning away from the physical university and still have everything they need to be successful in their programme.

Just as businesses are adapting to worker’s needs, universities will need to evolve to meet the modern students’ needs or risk falling behind.

What is The Next Step for Universities?

David LeFevre, Director of the EdTech Lab at Imperial College London, talks about the three stages of adaptation Universities will go through as they deal with Covid-19 and their remote offering (Read the full article here):

1. Stabilise

2. Enhance

3. Innovate. This final stage — innovate — is the exciting part, this is a great opportunity to revolutionise the way universities use technology to extend their offer beyond campus.

We might only be at stages 1 or 2 at present, but universities need to start thinking about stage 3 now. The first hurdle will be changing mindsets. If we can open our minds to the idea of optional physical attendance, we could start to imagine a university where learning occurs, not only on campus but sometimes in homes, in cafes, in study spaces across the world, through a combination of channels. Whatever makes sense for the individual. Yet all individuals can be equally successful.

The Student Experience

So, what would this new way of doing things look like? For the campus-based individual, very much the same. They can still attend classes, lectures, seminars…. But they can now also catch up on sessions they’ve missed, or repeat lessons they wish to revise. Not only can they catch up on, say, a lecture, but they have access to the class’s backchannel (Take a look at Ted Curran’s thoughts on using Slack as a backchannel here) where students have commented, questioned, interacted with the teacher, and added additional resources. 

For the remote student, they suddenly have direct access to all sessions whether live or catching up. They have access to a backchannel because this is being used by everyone, whether in physical attendance or not, and they can be marked as ‘present’ or ‘completed’ on the same system as anyone else. In essence, there shouldn’t be a difference between live or catchup, in person or remote, all channels of access should be equally effective.

The important part of the student experience is that everyone has access to learning. This is where having one system which students can log into becomes important. Students would be able to attend classes via whichever channel suits them, and all notes and resources would be available on the system. If all assignments and additional study materials are also accessible via the same system, there is nothing here that would hold the student back.

Would this work for all course types? There may be some programmes which would need additional facilities, e.g. a laboratory or specialist equipment. For these types of courses, as long as the student materials and communication channels are accessible online, this opens up the possibility of utilising remote study points, e.g. home laboratories, the sharing of university and commercial resources to support students in the local area (even if they are not studying with that university). There are solutions to this problem if we just think outside of the box.

The Technology

The good news is, the technology is already out there. It just needs utilising, and in some cases, tying together. Starting with one centralised ‘Hub’ for universities, where students and educators can access several different systems, is a good starting point. Your ‘Hub’ might look something like this…

Many Learning Experience Platforms (LXPs) we see today have a good number of the above features, including personalised journeys, interactive learning environments, social learning, and other engagement tools. The gap that needs closing for universities is how to also incorporate and retain face to face learning, on the same system, to offer a truly blended approach.

For example, Totara Learn (a Learning Management System — LMS) already has an inbuilt calendar tool designed to cater for webinars, can we not extend this further and integrate a video call tool into this? E.g. Zoom or Microsoft Teams? Once we have this integrated, could we add a messaging or social platform to this system e.g. Slack, so that students (and educators) can use it as a back-channel during and after the lesson, for both those in physical attendance and those joining remotely?

Integrate standard LMS completion tracking with the student database, and suddenly attendance (virtual or physical) is being tracked on the same system. Combine the AI power of an LXP with online resources, and suddenly this opens up the idea of being able to automatically recommend appropriate further reading to specific students based on their progress.

With the right tools, universities can offer students a complete learning experience no matter where they are in the world, and whatever their circumstances are. Technology has helped some businesses move to be a 100% remote team. There is no reason why universities can’t do the same and will need to do the same to keep ahead in a rapidly changing education landscape.

Who is Ahead of The Game?

Some universities and non-profit establishments are already there. Take a look at The Center for Creative Leadership in the U.S. CCL is a good example of a complete platform with a range of learning materials for students to engage with which runs alongside and compliments their face-to-face training session. CCL is also able to handle different cohorts of students in their platform, an ideal function for any university looking to do the same. Take a look at their use of technology to engage the learner here.

In the UK, we have BPP University, a university for professionals. BPP has a platform called ‘The Hub’ which ties together everything from the student application process, scheduled face to face classes, and virtual learning assignments. Take a look at how ‘The Hub’ works here.

It is time to ask questions about the traditional way universities operate and whether we are ready for the rapidly evolving future expectations of students. A blended learning approach is the logical next step, so what’s holding us back?