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Blended learning: what’s in it for the learner? A Digifest debate

Blended learning is a buzzword in teaching, but what does it really mean for the learner? We take a look at the practical impact that flexible and creative approaches to blended delivery is having on different kinds of learners in a range of higher education (HE) and further education (FE) institutions.

“We live in an age where technology is becoming everyday life. It is for me,”

says a student at Sheffield Hallam University.

Yet, when the institution surveyed their students, they found widespread concern about a lack of consistency in their digital experiences.

In findings likely to be replicated in institutions across the country, some lecturers used technology as a matter of course, others not so much, and students observed a big difference between those simply producing digital resources and others more fully integrating technology as part of a blended learning approach.

Blended learning, in essence, involves the combination of digital technology and face-to-face teaching – and it looks like the future for both FE and HE.

Minimum expectations?

At Sheffield Hallam,  students reported that they expected “the majority” of their learning – both tutor-led and independent study – should be supported by the university’s online Blackboard platform.

As a result, Sheffield Hallam decided to create a set of “minimum expectations” that were distributed to all teaching staff, including making lecture slides and resources available digitally, offering online (and possibly audio) assessment feedback, and encouraging the use of social media for staff-student collaboration.

It’s a work in progress - with so many different digital approaches to choose from, finding those that best serve the needs of your particular learners can be challenging.

Getting pally

Students themselves are often best placed to help with that. Blackburn FE College have pioneered a DigiPals project1 encouraging students to take an active role in supporting their peers with technology.

One of the participants says,

“it has been really useful to have DigiPals in class. If you run into any technical issues, they are always there to help!”

Blended learning offers unique opportunities to involve students in the construction of their own learning, whether by setting up partnerships so that staff can chat with them about what they’d like to include on courses, or by tracking student experiences with technology, something being explored by our student digital experience tracker project, to help identify the next big thing for teaching.

Social media, for example, is already a crucial ingredient in most students’ lives, but its potential for colleges and universities is only just being realised. Managed social spaces can encourage students to collaborate informally outside of directed teaching time, by talking to each other about their work using their own devices.

Calderdale FE College in West Yorkshire has found it especially useful in supporting students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities2, by incorporating the closed social learning network Edmodo into their teaching. Edmodo is similar to other social media sites in design and practice, so it doesn’t take students long to get up to speed with how to use it. Staff and students go on it to do quizzes, sharing notes and resources, and communicating with each other about assignments.

Lecturer Laura Lavender says the main advantage is how interactive Edmodo is: because

“it allows learners to catch up on study at a time and place that suits them via the mobile app, it increases student engagement”.

Handheld classrooms

But it’s not just outside the classroom that blended learning can provide an innovative approach to teaching.

Lecturers in the construction department at Forth Valley FE College, near Falkirk in Scotland, began experimenting with digital technology and came up with the idea of the “handheld classroom”. They use an augmented reality app to enable students to see beyond the physical equipment stored in their workshop.  The app allows students to view the inner working of any piece of equipment, system or resource through any mobile handheld device.

As lecturer Rob McDermott explains,

“this means that, via the app, students can pick up on videos, tutorials, manufacturing instructions etc in a much safer environment”.

The result is an interactive learning experience that is accessible, fit for purpose and, most importantly, fun for students to use.

Flipping lectures

Accessibility can be a key benefit of blended learning. Students with disabilities are often disadvantaged by traditional teaching approaches: dyslexic learners, for example, may find it difficult to take notes effectively in a lesson or lecture, but many feel their independence is undermined by the provision of a notetaker. Technologies such as lecture capture provide opportunities to do more than just record the talk for transcription purposes.

There are lots of different approaches, but Professor David Read at the University of Southampton uses the lecture capture system to flip the learning. By providing a 15-minute pre-lecture recording, the topic can be introduced in advance, which gives students the chance to familiarise themselves with the subject matter before throwing themselves into a full-on lecture.

Read then uses that extra 15 minutes he’s freed-up in the lecture itself to make the session more interactive, by designing gaps in his lecture slides that students need to actively fill with responses and use voting pads to test understanding.

The results have been overwhelmingly popular. Particular beneficiaries seem to be students with hearing impairments and dyslexia, but there have been positive responses from international students (where language barriers can be an additional challenge) and the student population as a whole.

As one explains:

“it is good to come to class and start feeling content instead of puzzled”.

“A huge grin”

Resources such as lecture handouts and presentation slides, meanwhile, are almost always more accessible in digital formats than their equivalent hard print copy, but learners are often unaware of what’s available – and staff may be unaware of what they can do to help.

Ben Watson, accessible information adviser at the University of Kent, promotes the hidden accessibility features in everyday software tools. He tells of a visually-impaired student who was struggling to keep up with the reading for her course. She needed a high level of magnification that was difficult to provide (and bulky to manage) in print, but when she read on screen she needed so much magnification that she spent all her time trying to scroll left and right to find the next sentence.

“I showed her how to use the reflow options in Adobe Reader,”

Watson recalls,

“so she could magnify as much as she wanted and the text wrapped to the screen. Then I showed her the autoscroll feature. A huge grin lit up her face and she seemed to grow two inches taller. This was a way she could read as quickly and independently as anybody else.”

21st-century learner

It’s important to remember, however, that the skills that feed into blended learning transcend the world of education.

Walsall FE College is a Microsoft Certified Educator, which means their e-learning expertise has been assessed against the Unesco ICT competency framework.

As Jayne Holt, assistant principal - learning services, explains, their college strategy is

“to prepare students for their digital life and the digital workplace”.

The college’s blended learning places particular emphasis on developing the skills for students to keep themselves and others digitally safe; they collect digital badges for study skills, but also safeguarding and personal development activities. 

The college reminds them that while social media can be a useful learning tool, everything they post leaves a digital “footprint” – which could have implications for their future employability.

Student collaboration is a wonderful blended learning innovation, agrees Holt, but

“we also recognise the importance of the role of the teacher in this digital transformation”.

“Educators continually discuss how to meet the needs of the 21st-century learner, but many of the students in our colleges have never known a different century. We are not preparing for the future – we are preparing for now,”

says Holt.

Join our debate at Digifest 2017

This is the first in a series of features on topics that will be covered at this year's Digifest, which takes place on 14-15 March 2017.  

We're holding a debate during day one of Digifest at 17:00, which will ask: how can blended learning truly enhance the learner experience? If you're not attending in person, we'll be livestreaming this session as part of our online programme and you can join the conversation on Twitter using #digifest17.

Full details of the debate, and all this year's sessions, can be found in the Digifest 2017 programme