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The large lecture (theatre) is dead… - Professor Alejandro Armellini

The University of Northampton is putting active blended learning at the heart of its teaching – to the extent that its purpose-built Waterside campus will have no large lecture theatres at all when it opens next year. In this Q&A, its dean of learning and teaching, Professor Alejandro Armellini, explains the thinking behind this radical move and the benefits of taking an active blended learning approach.

Professor Alejandro Armellini

What’s wrong with the lecture?

We may need to qualify the term lecture. What’s wrong with the broadcast lecture? Probably what’s wrong is the understanding that “same place same time” seems to be equated with quality.

That clearly is not the case with lectures, particularly with broadcast lectures, when one single person is delivering information to a large group of people with hardly any interaction. If we look at National Union of Students (NUS) reports over the years, the students’ criticism of lectures is consistent: should a broadcast lecture count as contact time?

My argument is that it shouldn’t, and it should not count towards “teaching intensity” either. In other words, “same place, same time” is not enough to guarantee quality when the so-called teaching method is actually “information delivery”: the notes of one person copied into the notes of 200 people without going through the brains of anyone. That is highly problematic.

How does active blended learning (ABL) fill the gap and how do you define blended learning – how does it differ from flipped learning?

A module or a programme is taught through ABL when it deploys consistent use of student-centred activities that support the development of subject knowledge and understanding, independent learning and digital fluency. 

Our face-to-face teaching at Northampton, for example, is facilitated in a collaborative manner, clearly linked to activity outside the face-to-face classroom, which provides opportunities for developing autonomy, what we call changemaker  attributes, and particularly employability skills. That is our standard definition of ABL.

Note that the traditional view that the blend is a combination of online and face-to-face is pushed to one side. ABL is far more sophisticated, interesting and exciting than a mere combination of face-to-face with online teaching. What matters is high quality teaching and student engagement with that teaching – in and outside the classroom, in a single “blend”.

Our approach has not been taken on the basis of cost. It is not a cost-cutting exercise. It’s a quality enhancement exercise which, by definition, requires teaching in smaller groups. It requires much more in the way of interaction of the three main types: student-student, student-content and student-tutor.

ABL provides a different learning environment where students play an active role and are given the opportunity to engage in a variety of ways in and outside the classroom, in the field, in the lab, in the studio and in the workplace. Those study modes are fully integrated into a proper blend, not different strands of a course running in parallel. The flipped classroom is one element of ABL.

Of course, you can apply the traditional techniques associated with the flipped classroom, as long as it is appropriate for the type of students, the level of the course, the discipline that you’re teaching and the context in which students and tutors operate. The flipped classroom is just one part of a bigger puzzle that contributes to the whole structure of ABL.

So it very much depends on context and learner profile and other elements?

Yes. And there is another variable there, which is the teaching repertoire of a tutor.

Each tutor will have his or her own stance on these techniques and will feel more or less confident to deploy them. It is fine and proper to ensure that the tutor experience is also highlighted. We can fill gaps in our expertise through development and further practice, while ensuring that what we do with students is what is best for them. 

At Northampton you are actually killing off the lecture theatre on the new Waterside development – there will be no large lecture theatres. Can you say a bit more about the plans and the process for that new campus? 

Firstly, the shift to blended learning is not related to the new campus. The shift to ABL was taking place regardless, even before the move to the new campus was firmed up.

Secondly, it is true that the new campus has one “larger” space, which accommodates 80 people. The rest of the spaces are smaller, with an average size of around 40. So over the past three years we have been redesigning our curriculum to ensure that the principles of ABL are followed but also that we review space allocation and timetabling to accommodate the students in smaller teaching rooms, which may require multiple teaching. 

But what happens when we host an open day or a session with a distinguished guest speaker for which we need a larger space? We are minutes away from the centre of town, where we have access to plenty of larger spaces in which those events can take place. We use them regularly. If we had built such large spaces on the campus, we would be encouraging the teaching practices that we want to move away from. So we didn’t.

How are you preparing staff and students for the shift to blended learning?

It is true that when you change a teaching approach you’ve got to work with staff very closely so, on that front, we have a highly structured, very flexible programme of staff development which is called C@N-DO – “Changemaking At  Northampton – Development Opportunities”. That leads to various levels of professional recognition by the Higher Education Academy

Within C@N-DO, we run our course redesign workshop, CAIeRO (also known as Carpe Diem in the literature) – a standard, well-established, well-researched approach to course redesign that we have deployed systematically across the board since I joined Northampton five years ago. 

We also have bespoke provision that addresses particular circumstances and needs. One thing is to redesign a Master’s programme that attracts 25 students a year. It is a very different challenge to redesign an entire undergraduate programme that attracts 250 students a year. We need to tailor our staff development programme to ensure that it meets those needs in the context of ABL.

Student representatives are invited to all of our redesign workshops. We have run activities at the students’ union. We have invited students to facilitate C@N-DO workshops with us. They are fully embedded in the process of change and they have been consulted in the process of change. They have expressed their concerns: we have discussed those concerns at multiple levels, in workshops, staff development programmes, in conferences, roadshows and symposia. They have been fully integrated into the process of change.

What kinds of concerns do they express? 

They are mostly concerned about the perceived loss of contact time. That is a real and legitimate concern, shared by some parents too. To be clear, we are not compromising contact time. We are making sure that the two key different types of contact time are included, embedded and integrated for higher quality teaching.

The first type is face-to-face contact time, which is the one we value the most. We are a campus-based university and we will continue to be a campus-based university. The shift to ABL doesn’t turn us into anything else. Instead, it integrates the high quality contact time in the classroom, in the lab and elsewhere with high quality online contact time, which is the second type.

We have to be very, very clear about the difference between quality online contact time and independent study. And that is at the centre of the discussion with students and with parents.

What counts as quality online contact time?

If you set online activities for students to do and you as a tutor “disappear” and let them work on those activities – that is independent study. That is not online contact time at all. If you set an online task but you remain active, engaged and visible throughout – and that does not mean that you have to be online at the same time, this can and should work asynchronously – then that activity can count as part of your online contact time.

There is a huge temptation here of uploading materials to the virtual learning environment and pretending that your students “do the blended bit” because you put your content online. That is not what we want. What matters is not the content I upload; what matters is what students do with it to achieve outcomes. The activity that students do with this content must be aligned with the learning outcomes, the rest of the teaching methods and the assessment.

We're trying to discourage colleagues from running two-tier courses where there is a bit online and a bit face to face. Instead, we favour an approach in which a tutor runs a course which has a true blend of different components. The online part of the blend has to run primarily on the basis of online contact time.

Of course, there will be independent study as well, as there always has been, whether it is online or otherwise, but quality contact time has to be present, has to be prominent, both in the classroom and in the online environment. Like students, tutors must be engaged, active and visible, both in the classroom and online.

How does technology help and hinder ABL – hinder in terms of the perception people have that blended is all about online when in fact it should be about the blend – but also how it helps insofar as you could not have blended learning without the digital resources…? 

The key word here is personalisation. There is a tendency to believe that doing things in a blend, which includes online work, has the risk of depersonalising the process when, in fact, if it's done well, it generates the opposite effect. It not only improves the level of personalisation – the quality, the level and depth of engagement – but it can also enhance, if done well, accessibility and flexibility. It can accommodate the needs of students in specific situations and with specific needs. 

The use of technology is indeed an enabler. As such, the technology works for the benefit of all concerned, as long as one or certain key aspects are met, such as digital fluency. For the purposes of learning in higher education, but also to operate freely in life, you need increasingly sophisticated levels of digital fluency. And that's what we want to promote with our students and colleagues alike.

To be the changemakers of the future you need tools and skills. Digital fluency is one of them.