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A collegial and collaborative approach to blended learning

Stuart LaverickClaire HeywoodAmy Hollier

The rapidly changing landscape of education technology presents challenges to institutions to keep up with new and emerging technologies, let alone how to apply them consistently to ensure online content retains the blended, personalised approach that is so important to assure relevance and standards.

Furthermore, a new ‘internet of skills’ will revolutionise capabilities for industries across all sectors that will require vast innovation in the way we teach, learn, and interact with learners for this next generation of 5G-aligned skills priorities.

At Heart of Worcestershire College (HoW), it is our aim to ensure that no matter where people are on that journey, we can help to develop their abilities to live, work, compete and thrive in society and workplaces utilising digital tools to improve their experience.

Collaboration across the sector

Building capacity across institutions after a decade of cuts to the further education sector has been challenging, yet institutions have been resilient and inventive in their approach.

HoW recognised that collaboration among peers is the most economically efficacious strategy; we initiated building a library of high quality interactive and immersive blended learning resources for all participating members to use through the hugely successful Blended Learning Consortium (BLC), which now has more than 135-member colleges across the UK.

Member institutions not only share and co-create resources but have developed rich communities of practice in which peers discuss and demonstrate emerging technologies and developments. Rather than competing, colleagues are collaborating and supporting one another.

HoW College concurrently developed and refined its own blended learning model, SOLA (Scheduled Online Learning and Assessment), which has since been successfully embedded and replicated by several colleges across the UK. Each learner at Level 2 has one hour of SOLA per week on their timetable; Level 3 learners have two hours.

This blended learning time has enabled learners to develop digital skills as well as develop transferrable employment skills such as time management, work prioritisation, online communication and professional image perception.

Creating a post-COVID-19 edtech strategy, with no one left behind 

The senior leadership team at HoW has been instrumental in driving a digital culture across the institution.

Investment in digital has been significant and strategically focused on the core requirements such as improved channels of communication, an ‘anytime, anywhere, any place’ approach to accessing learning material and to provide tools to enable learners to participate regardless of level or ability.

The college is a Microsoft showcase college and benefits from a strong and supportive partnership that champions our ongoing position in the skills sector for Worcestershire.

Digital learning advisers at HoW have developed a robust digital induction that supports learners of all abilities by offering tailored digital solutions to ensure they are equipped with the right tools required for them to engage, progress and thrive.

Additional integrated tools for accessibility such as Immersive Reader and Read Aloud are introduced at this point to encourage learners to explore these technologies and build up a unique toolkit to use as part of their everyday academic life.

To be fully successful, staff need to embark on a degree of reframing their teaching and support methods in order to learn new approaches. This must be done with encouragement, care and support to ensure successful adoption if sustainable change is desired.

It is easy to become overly focussed with the development of the digital skills of staff who may indeed need some CPD in these skills over the pedagogical changes they will need to explore before successfully experimenting and adopting blended learning approaches in their own practice.

As a priority, teachers need to be supported and given the freedom to utilise traditional classroom methods while engaging in enhanced training to develop skills targeted for online learning environments as they too learn to build, develop, teach, and learn in a blended way.

This process, done well, should seek increased user-generated content from learners to be truly successful.

Peer-to-peer collaboration and the importance of community channels 

The recent increases in remote learning offer opportunities for wider peer-to-peer learning through digital mediums. This enables learners from different campuses, institutions, even countries to work, share, curate and create together.

Not only does this encourage development of professional communication and networks, it helps to maintain presence and the development of critical thinking skills.

Teachers can facilitate sessions, rather than taking a didactic approach to delivery where learners are often passive and can instead begin to focus on the development of 21st century skills such as problem solving, social and cross-cultural interaction and productivity.

During the lockdown, HoW College has employed cross-campus approaches to delivery and brought together learners from a variety of different courses and backgrounds to work together. The limitations of campus travel have been removed and learners have been exposed to a breadth of peer learning opportunities.

Although formal learning is the core of life at college, an integral aspect to character development is informal and social communication.

Working remotely offers flexibility, although learners still require a ‘social space’ to encourage what would normally be corridor conversations. These informal discussions often build relationships, offer a sense of belonging to the institution and can spark relevant conversation around study.

While delivering wholly remote learning, HoW has ensured that community channels are available across cohorts within Microsoft Teams to enable learners to build on the vital social aspect of their time. Feedback from staff and students confirm that community channels, or a small amount of time for informal conversation allocated before lectures, enables lessons to be more focused.

Careful consideration is required to ensure teachers, support staff and learners are well supported to manage the online space as part of a blended learning environment. Support needs to be given to help teachers and learners develop enhanced communication skills; neither can rely on non-verbal cues to address misunderstandings or observe needs or disengagement.

Time management and workload can be a challenge in asynchronous classes with learners expecting to be online at any time, so teachers cannot predict when heavier workloads will occur. Teacher planning time may need to be extended at least initially and enriched content developed.

Finally, as in the traditional classroom, teachers must be able to adapt online content for reaching students with physical or learning disabilities although huge progress has been made with resources to support these additional needs by software providers over the last few years.

Collaboration with industry

The opportunity to re-imagine the curriculum has been presented during college closures through a case of necessity. Many industries will have had to diversify to survive. Some industries will look very different after COVID-19.

This diversification may have also brought with it the need to develop additional skills that weren’t previously required, such as transformed kitchen management in a hospitality setting for takeaways, infection control and barrier nursing in health and social care settings, or video calling for initial consultation for areas of trade work.

As vocational providers we can use this opportunity to work with industry to better understand what these new skills are and integrate them into the curriculum.

The conception of a remote/blended curriculum should be co-created with industry to aid workforce development and equip our learners with an updated and relevant skill set. 

At HoW, learners have been working on live, co-created remote projects in conjunction with industry, mapped against current skill capabilities. In turn, this has offered the opportunity to develop ‘real-time’ problem-solving tasks and offers an acute insight into what is currently happening in their chosen industry.

In addition, the remote work learners have undertaken alongside industry has holistically developed softer employability skills that will now be required as we move into a new way of working – video conferencing etiquette, cloud-based digital skills, time management, and the importance of a healthy work/life balance.

Dual professionals across the institution have used their professional network to engage with industry people, who have been hugely supportive across vocational areas – delivering guest lectures, attending virtual mock interviews and setting project work for learners. It is vital that this rich partnership work continues in the post-COVID-19 landscape.

The enforced scaling of online learning of recent times provides a huge opportunity to also revisit and refresh curriculum content. We all know that we live in a time of fast-paced change and we know, too, that in the workplace there is a need for different skills/ abilities alongside technical/vocational skills.

There is a clamour of opinion and evidence from employer/ industry bodies for greater ‘soft’ skills development. Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2019 and the CBI’s 2019 report, Getting Young People Work Ready are just two of the many contributions to this long-held debate about education and skills provision.

The blended learning approach offers a fantastic opportunity to meet these multiple outcomes.

Instead of asking ‘what do you want to do when you leave education?’ our focus and our curriculum content should be more focussed on ‘how do you want to go about solving problems?’ and ‘what is your analysis of this information?’, along with encouraging debate.

Approaching the learning experience much more as a constructive participatory experience where learners develop meaning from what they learn and teachers means they can evaluate that learning against application in the real world/employment.

Collaboration to drive the national productivity and skills agenda

This ‘new normal’ prepares us comprehensively for the increasing move away from anachronistic approaches, environments and pedagogy.

Methods of teaching and support which prop up simple transmission of content are already under scrutiny in the new OfSTED framework, which seeks to balance less data weighting with more examination of knowledge, skills and behaviours of learners: what do learners know (knowledge) that they didn’t before, and how well can they demonstrate (skills) it but also how well do they understand that progress in order to be able to apply it for the setting for which they have trained (behaviour)?

This fine balancing act is at the heart of the challenge for most educators today, who are still required to meet qualification criteria and curriculum policy expectations, themselves areas arguably due an upgrade.

In all circumstances, the additional use of technology-enabled learning should never determine teachers’ decision making rather, pedagogical goals and objectives should always govern whether a blended lesson model is the best approach for each particular topic/outcome sought.

Despite the many benefits we have set out in this paper it remains central to any strategy that, like all approaches to pedagogy, different methods work well for different objectives.

The intended outcomes should always be the determining factor in deciding an approach; blended learning done well may be a longer-term choice to consider rather than just a lockdown solution and a fantastic opportunity to truly engage all learners whilst ensuring no one gets left behind. 

This article is part of an e-book produced by the Association of Colleges and funded by Ufi - Creating a post-Covid19 EdTech Strategy - bringing together all the wisdom and lessons learned from lockdown.