Is now the perfect time to reimagine the student experience in higher education?
This week the Office for Students published its Blended Learning Review, which is significant for higher education strategy in the UK. University leadership teams in the UK are seeking to respond to the findings and recommendations of this report. Key points that jump out of this report include the following:
- The reasons behind blended learning provision should be more clearly communicated to students.
- Quality and pedagogy must drive decisions around the design of that experience.
- The learning experience should be more coherent for students.
- The diverse needs of students must be more carefully considered.
At the same moment, universities worldwide are still weighing the impact of the global pandemic on higher education. One long-term change appears to be the adoption of blended learning as a ‘new normal’, as universities make the most of the experience gained from the rapid shift to online learning. Yet there are many unanswered questions as we move out of crisis mode and into a new and more uncertain future.
In this article, we consider how universities can approach some of the challenges they now face, including those relating to student engagement, increased expectations of online learning, and how they can begin to implement a plan to reimagine their distinctive ‘new normal’.
Blended learning as the new normal
Let’s dig a little deeper by unpacking ‘blended learning’. You will find a lot of disagreement on definitions, but this term (sometimes used as a synonym for ‘hybrid learning’) usually refers to offering a mix of alternate modalities for most students on a given course. Usually, this includes face-to-face experiences combined with online ones – synchronous (like a Zoom meeting) and/or asynchronous (like readings or videos). Nominally, the whole cohort has a similar set of experiences, resources and support. One may say that hybrid learning was already the accepted student experience prior to the pandemic, although it would be much harder to argue that it was as fully entrenched as it is now.
Hyflex gives learners choices
Since at least the mid 00s we have heard the call for a more ambitious level of flexibility. Beatty’s (2007) highly influential paper coined the term “hyflex” by combining hybrid learning with flexible participation. A central principle of hyflex is that students make choices about their preferred experience. They could be logged into a class in real time, or they could watch a video instead, for example, and their experience in each mode should be designed to be equivalent. I highly recommend referring to Irvine’s (2020) excellent description of ‘merging modalities’ if you are keen to learn more about accepted distinctions between terms like hybrid and hyflex.
Streaming to the rescue?
Blended synchronous learning has been widely used as a form of hyflex learning aiming to provide greater flexibility within a given cohort, even though it arguably fails to meet Beatty’s definition as it still requires students to participate in real time. Typically, some students attend classes in person while some are keeping up at home (“real time remote”). This happened a lot during the pandemic and a drawback is that students and teachers often complain that it is the worst of both worlds. Evaluations of blended synchronous learning put in place over the pandemic (such as Detyna et. al, 2021) are showing that cognitive load and social presence remain major challenges. Taking a learning experience design view on this, trying to cater for students with significantly different experiences together in one class is difficult. As anyone who has taken part in an online meeting that has one or more groups of people together in a room, keeping control over the audio is tricky at best. Kitting out classrooms with expensive audio equipment like beam-focusing microphones does not get around the problem that it can be a technical and logistical mess that is generally to be avoided if possible. Our usual advice in this situation is to focus on providing students with a first class on campus or online experience rather than compromising both by forcing them into one cohort.
Online learners want flexibility as well as connection
While the trend towards online was already underway prior to the pandemic, most higher education students still wish to study on campus. For the minority who do choose a fully online experience, it is not surprising that they generally prefer to be able to time-shift by completing most of their work in an asynchronous mode. After all, let’s remind ourselves why on demand TV is winning over live TV. The point is really all about being able to fit the experience around your complex, messy life. Blended-synchronous approaches are just not suited to fully online learners. This is one reason many university leadership teams are considering making a better long-term plan.
The flexibility offered by a mainly asynchronous experience is not the entire picture however, as recent results from Wiley’s ‘Voice of the Online Learner’ (2022) report shows. This large post-pandemic survey of US students shows that while online learners certainly want flexibility, they also want to connect with their peers in real time. Thus while online learners generally prefer asynchronous formats (69%) and fully remote (79%) participation options, most would prefer the inclusion of some level of synchronous online learning (79%) as part of the picture. As Phil Hill (The Synchronous Opportunity, September 13) points out, this appears to be a significant upwards trend from previous surveys and bears noting.
“Universities in 2022 are offering the full gamut, including tri-modal, dual mode, hyflex, blended synchronous, and hybrid/traditional. Indeed, there have been almost as many different types of responses to the pandemic as there are institutions.”
Multi-modal learning is the future
A more ambitious strategy being adopted by some universities is to plan a ‘multi-modal’ (or ‘multi-access’, Irving, 2020) offering. That is, some universities are seeking to offer courses in multiple modes, often with independent cohorts, on a large scale. While not necessarily a cheaper option in terms of the course development and support, this strategy offers students the power to choose between a range of modes for a given course offering, sometimes allowing them to switch modes whenever they like.
Universities in 2022 are offering the full gamut, including tri-modal, dual mode, hyflex, blended synchronous, and hybrid/traditional. Indeed, there have been almost as many different types of responses to the pandemic as there are institutions.
An oft-cited response is Arizona State’s, who announced early on that they were moving to a tri-modal system. This included in-person (blended/traditional), ASU Sync (blended synchronous using Zoom) and iCourses, a fully asynchronous online mode. Offering an exceptionally large number of courses in multiple modalities is resource-intensive but offers the greatest flexibility for students. Far more common are responses at the other end of the spectrum by broadly offering blended synchronous courses as a response to the pandemic. A great many universities sit somewhere in between, for example by offering two modes: fully online (particularly for a subset of postgraduate courses) and hybrid for the majority.
Challenge 1: Student feedback on experience
It is no secret that many universities are struggling to attract students back to on campus university experiences. Attendance at classes was on the wane before the global pandemic, and now students must weigh the importance of being in lecture theatres with wellness in their work and home life.
Moreover, during the pandemic, students and educators were being asked to move into modes that were not their first choice during the pandemic, so naturally many found this rapid transition challenging. In Australia the annual Student Experience Survey reported a drop in positive feedback from students on their experience (QILT, 2020) and equivalent survey results in the UK (OfS, 2021) showed a similar impact. The QILT survey results showed that the impact was significant: “Student ratings of the quality of their entire educational experience among undergraduates fell sharply from 78 per cent in 2019 to 69 per cent in 2020”.
One of the most telling items in the OfS survey was the response to the question “I am content with the delivery of learning and teaching of my course during the covid-19 pandemic”, which garnered only 48% agreement. Adding to this, the Student Academic Experience Survey 2021 found that only 27% of fulltime undergraduates felt they received ‘good or very good’ value (HEPI, 2021). Yikes.
Challenge 2: The bar for online learning has been raised
The impacts on student satisfaction caused by experiences that may have been hastily developed during the pandemic highlight a tension between student choice and student belonging, a topic which is experiencing an increased focus in higher education.
It would be a mistake to believe that a post-pandemic backlash means students do not want to learn using technologies and yearn for a return to campus. Their frustration is to be expected following a period of forced online study, and it is likely that their expectations have increased as a result. Nobody should be satisfied with learning experiences that are a poor imitation of a previously rich experience, especially when there is no pay off in terms of increased flexibility. If a student’s original choice was to study on a campus, the flexibility offered by online learning is not so much the point.
It is no doubt more useful to see the lessons learnt through the pandemic about online learning as a net-gain for student experience that should now be amplified. A recent survey of people working in higher education by Kortext on behalf of WonkHE asked some very pertinent questions, such as “How do you feel about the potential for learning and teaching change post-Covid?” (57% optimistic or very optimistic) and “I am concerned about the pedagogic implications of a shift towards digital learning resources” (30% agree or strongly agree). While challenges certainly remain in areas such as online assessment and creating community, there is some reassurance from the data reported here that these academics feel they did well in the emergency response and want to make the most of it.
Calls to a return to an ‘old normal’ post pandemic are questionable, as WonkHE editor David Kernohan points out: “We’re at a liminal moment in the life of digital learning. Recent practical experience has both proved that it can be done (at a cost) and suggested that the kinds of “revolutions” predicted by some over-excited commentators are wide of the mark. Many respondents picked up on the disconnect between the institutional willingness to learn from and incorporate the best of emergency online provision to meet the increasingly diverse demands of students and the current governmental messaging on the primacy of face-to-face and a need to return to “normal”.”
“With the momentum gained from the rapid transition to online learning, there really is no better time to reimagine the student experience.”
Challenge 3: Implementing the plan for your university’s ‘new normal’
Where does this leave us when thinking about your university’s strategy during in the next phase? With the momentum gained from the rapid transition to online learning, there really is no better time to reimagine the student experience. Universities leaders must now develop a strategy for provision that puts learner desires into the context of a post-pandemic world, considering their preferences for modality and providing them with the support they need. This plan also needs to be made according to the university’s own capacity and capability to move at the required speed and scale. But how? Here we offer three ideas.
By offering choices
We recommend an approach that offers learners genuine choices as to how they study according to their preferences. This might mean looking at the preferred modalities of existing as well as potential students. It is possible to start by offering a small number of courses/modules in alternative modalities while building a larger portfolio, and just as you may target specific modalities for some offerings. The important thing is to make well informed decisions that take into account student perspectives.
By earning the commute
Universities need a plan that puts an emphasis on the value of the learning experience. With many lecture halls standing empty, universities need to think about how they earn the commute. This means not only giving learners a sense of belonging and community, but also designing learner experiences around the things that makes an on-campus experience is distinctive. This includes creating connections and collaboration between learners, opportunities for real world inquiry, practical experiences, and access to expertise in conversational as well as didactic modes.
By thinking about pedagogy, space and technology
Thus Laurillard’s (1993) conversational framework, and her call to rethink university teaching is just as (if not more) relevant today. We also need to continue to reimagine our learning spaces as distributed across the physical and virtual, with learners at the centre (Keppell and Riddle, 2012). Curio’s approach to the design of an on-campus learning experience appropriate to the post-pandemic world iterates on the pedagogy-space-technology model by Radcliffe et. al (2008). This allows university leaders to focus on design principles across all three domains (see Acton, Riddle and Sellers, 2018). As a starting point, consider the questions raised under each of these areas in Table 1 below.
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We advise institutions, organisations, and thought leaders to translate expertise into forward-thinking learning and development solutions. If you are facing some of the challenges raised in this article and would like a deeper dive, please feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Acton, R.; Riddle, M.; Sellers, W. (2018). ‘A Review of Post-Occupancy Evaluation Tools. School Space Occupation’. Available at: https://brill.com/view/book/9789004379664/BP000021.xml
- Beatty, B. (2007, October). Hybrid Classes with Flexible Participation Options – If you build it, how will they come? Proceedings of the Association for Educational Communication and Technology International Conference, Anaheim, CA.
- Capranos, D., Dyers, L., Magda, A. J.(2022). ‘Voice of the online learner 2022: Shifting preferences in post-pandemic online learning’. Maitland, FL: Wiley. Available at: https://universityservices.wiley.com/voice-of-the-online-learner-2022/
- Detyna, M., Sanchez-Pizani, R., Giampietro, V. et al. (2022). Hybrid flexible (HyFlex) teaching and learning: climbing the mountain of implementation challenges for synchronous online and face-to-face seminars during a pandemic. Learning Environ Res. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10984-022-09408-y
- HEPI, (July 2021). Students highlight the challenges of their 2021 academic experience. Available at: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2021/06/24/students-highlight-the-challenges-of-their-2021-academic-experience/
- Hill, P. (September 2022). The Synchronous Opportunity: Wiley’s 2022 Voice of the Online Learner Report, PhilOnEdTech blog website. https://philonedtech.com/the-synchronous-opportunity-wileys-2022-voice-of-the-online-learner-report/
- Irvine, V. (2020). ‘The Landscape of Merging Modalities’, EDUCAUSE Review 55, no. 4, October. Available at: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/10/the-landscape-of-merging-modalities
- Keppell, M. and Riddle, M. (2012). ‘Distributed Learning Spaces: Physical, Blended and Virtual Learning Spaces in Higher Education’, in Keppell, M., Souter, K. & Riddle, M. (eds). Physical and Virtual Learning Spaces in Higher Education, pp 1-20, IGI Global: Hershey, PA.
- Kernohan, D. (June, 2022). ‘Learning technology needs to support learner success’. WonkHE blog. Available at: https://wonkhe.com/blogs/learning-technology-needs-to-support-learner-success/
- Laurillard, D., (1993). Rethinking university teaching: A framework for the effective use of educational technology. Routledge/Falmer: London.
- QILT, (2020). 2020 Student Experience Survey. QILT Website: https://www.qilt.edu.au/docs/default-source/default-document-library/2020-ses-national-report.pdf
- Office for Students (2021). ‘The National Student Survey: Student experience during the pandemic’, Insight 10, July 2021. Available at: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/1480/insight-brief-10-nss-finalforweb.pdf
- Office for Students (2022). ‘Blended learning review’, October 2022. Available at: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/dc1c3c84-269a-4c40-8f87-15bfae0fcced/blended-learning-review-panel-report.pdf
- Radcliff, D., Wilson, H., Powell, D. & Tibbetts, B. (2008). Designing next generation places of learning: Collaboration at the pedagogy-space-technology nexus. Australian Learning and Teaching Council Limited.
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