Blended learning is a combination of in-person activities and digital tools and resources designed to deliver the best possible learning experience.
The use of learning tools can occur before, during or after an in-person session and support a variety of pedagogic purposes. The blended component, for example, might aim to extend the time students spend on a task, develop their information literacy skills, stimulate their interest before a class, or enable them to work at their own pace afterwards.
The term suggests careful and deliberate integration of online and in-person activities.
Impact of blended learning
A well-developed offering and programme of blended learning can:
- Enhance the student experience
- Potentially improve student outcomes
- Widen participation
- Improve accessibility and inclusion
However there are also risks as parts of the course are moved online that could result in:
- Loss of community and cohort cohesion
- Challenges of reconciling the inconsistent experience resulting from the differences between the physical and virtual student experience
- Impact on connectivity and bandwidth on the experience
- Poor student experience due to insufficient skills and capabilities across staff and students
Universities are in a continual process of planning and delivering programmes of study. The landscape has now fundamentally changed and universities are looking to mitigate risks, ensure continued high-quality provision and a positive student experience while ensuring continuity of service through uncertain times.
Effective use of digital technology is seen as fundamental in helping to ensure continuity of learning, and engaging positively with students.
In 2020/1, universities across the UK are deploying a range of hybrid curriculum models, inviting students to participate in a combination of in-person and online learning. Working in this way requires specific skills for both learners and staff and a well-planned, blended learning programme which effectively integrates a range of techniques and resources.
Simply moving content online is not sufficient, though staff may instinctively feel more comfortable with simply automating their established styles of delivery and content. Translating established techniques onto new platforms without altering design and delivery is not enough. It requires real transformation, which demands an adjustment in thinking and sufficient staff comfort and confidence to shift to new ways of delivering blended learning.
When deploying a hybrid mode of blended learning, the course and programme is responsive to changes in the landscape and environment. Sessions can be switched from one mode to another; sessions can move to or from online or a physical location.
Hybrid modes allow universities to clarify with prospective students about their experience and how learning and teaching could potentially change. It helps staff plan their teaching and assessments to take into account the environment and changes to the situation.
The higher education landscape has changed, and will continue to change, meaning existing models of blended learning may not be appropriate or practical. Universities will need to reflect not just on how blended learning can be used to deliver modules, but how existing blended learning curriculum models will need to be adjusted to fit this new future.
Effective blended programmes are focused on the learning experience and outcomes before considering the technology. As with physically presented learning, blended and online programmes have clear aims, objectives and assessment points. Effective blended learning emphasises active participation over consumption of “content”.
A wide range of elements need to be considered to support effective blended learning programmes:
Do you have a clear understanding of what ‘good’ blended learning looks like, including how this aligns with requirements for learning, teaching, assessment, and quality assurance? How is this understanding communicated and shared within your institution?
Have you identified your aims and what success will look like in terms of the use of blended learning within your institution (and/or for individual programmes or specific groups of students)?
How will blended learning look in the short term and how will it look in the short term, medium term and long term?
What digital and pedagogical skills are required by staff to design, develop and deliver blended learning programmes? How will you ensure that staff not only have the technical skills, but also have the knowledge and understanding to design pedagogically sound programmes?
Have institutional policies (eg GDPR, online safety, accessibility, inclusion, complaints and wellbeing) been updated to reflect the change in how courses are delivered?
Universities should ensure they have strategies for maintaining high levels of student motivation and engagement as a core feature of the technology-enhanced learning experience.
The University of Northampton started from a strong position. Since 2014 it had been moving towards its current institutional approach to learning and teaching: active blended learning.
While never perceived as a large-scale online learning or distance learning strategy for campus-based Northampton, successful active blended learning does rely on fluent, purposeful and thoughtful use of technologies for learning, which stood the university in good stead when lockdown hit in March 2020. As a result, much of the teaching that took place was well planned rather than a rushed emergency response.
Teachers found that, thanks to the work they had done in the past few years around active blended learning, they were able to apply those lessons in the context of an unexpected scenario like this and do so quickly. There are also challenges around community building.
One of the benefits of the crisis occurring when it did was that, in most cases, tutors and learners knew each other and they already had an element of trust built in. With first year students arriving in September, new relationships and sense of cohesion and belonging will need to be built from scratch in an environment with limited face-to-face contact time.
There are many ways in which Jisc and others can support and help you in transforming the student experience though the use of blended learning and supporting digital technologies.
Advice and guidance
- Applying the SAMR model to aid your digital transformation – as we start transforming the way we do things, we must remember that innovation doesn’t have to be all about using the most advanced technology
- Active learning in the digital world - active learning is the opposite of passive listening. In this article we explore some key teaching methods and a range of digital tools and techniques to help
- Learning and teaching reimagined: emerging good practice - stories from across higher education of great ideas already put into practice
- Building a taxonomy for digital learning – this QAA guide aims to help UK higher education providers build a common language to describe digital approaches to programme delivery and support them in setting students' expectations of their programmes
- Getting started with accessibility and inclusion
- Designing learning and assessment in a digital age – focuses on elements of learning and assessment design that research tells us are significant and how digital tools can make a difference to the art of learning design
- Expert support and practical assistance to help you transform your organisation and practice through digital technologies
Building digital capability - tools and resources to develop the digital capabilities of your staff, students and organisation
- Digital learning rebooted - this report highlights a range of responses from UK universities, ranging from trailblazing efforts at University of Northampton with its embedded 'active blended learning’ approach, to innovation at Coventry University which is transforming each module in partnership with learning experience platform Aula