Some things never change!

At the recent meeting of the Academia and Education Community Advisory Group, which I chair, I asked those present what were their achievements during the pandemic of which they were most proud. The answer from everyone involved in a teaching role was the same – successfully moving to an online model. I then asked what was the biggest worry going forward and, unsurprisingly, it was uncertainty. Uncertainty around funding, around student numbers, around delivery models, around approaches to assessment. In whichever direction anyone looked there was uncertainty. There was however a consensus that one thing what could well emerge from the lockdown would be some form of blended hybrid learning model – one with some face to face and some online elements.

I have been an Associate Lecturer at The Open University (OU) for most of the last twenty years and blended hybrid learning is what the OU has always done – although it more modestly used to describe it as distance learning! Typically there would be a few face-to-face tutorials but most interaction was online through communities and forums, with the much-valued box of course materials arriving in the post. Before I became an Associate Lecturer I was an OU student and I can vividly remember in the late 1990s how stressed I used to feel trying to log on to online platforms. When I failed I never knew whether it was the system being down, or that my laptop only had 32mb of RAM when 64mb was recommended (yes, really), or that I was incompetent! The fear was if anything greater when as a tutor I later needed to host sessions myself. On Kolb’s learning cycle I learnt best through reflective observation. The active experimentation of going online did not play to my strengths. Indeed I was so affected by the experience I actively considered doing research into how the ability to learn online might be impacted by one’s preferred learning style.

Although systems and capacity have improved enormously, I still have a feeling of triumph whenever I successfully connect to an online environment – be it Teams, or Lifesize or Zoom or Skype or any of the others. And I suspect that some learning styles will indeed be more suited to online interaction. Some things never change!

Around 2000 the OU introduced a ground-breaking online-only module which introduced students to the internet. Thousands enrolled but what was fascinating was that after the first presentation an initial face-to-face session was introduced. The feedback from students was that they would prefer to have some initial contact with their fellow students before venturing online. Some things never change, although if we are able to ‘see’ fellow students online the problem could be less acute.  

Financial constraints then meant the OU had to move most tutorials online. Many of you reading this will have experienced the challenge, in a face-to-face classroom, of trying to engage the students who choose to sit at the back. And there is of course an online equivalent. Whether it’s on forums (where you can at least see who has read messages) or in an online tutorial, some students will always contribute more and some less - or not at all. And while eager students are fantastic at getting a discussion going, trying to get everyone to participate is never easy. Some things never change! What did change, when we moved the tutorials online, was the ability to record lectures and tutorials. Suddenly my revision and pre-exam tutorials recorded record hits! But if material is recorded, how do you get students to attend in real time and contribute to the group learning in the first place?  There are pros and cons to most changes, as you will doubtless all be realising.

So how to get the best out of a blended hybrid model? Technology is now infinitely more sophisticated, powerful and accessible than it was twenty years ago. But learning still involves three key aspects: the cognitive - developing knowledge and understanding; the interpersonal – learning from others; and the intrapersonal – reflecting and internalising your learning. The challenge is to decide how a blended hybrid model can be used to deliver most effectively each of those three elements.