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Review: Accommodating the Distance Learner in Mixed Delivery Courses

Tim Neumann6 June 2019

The second panel discussion in our Autumn term 2018/19 LTU seminar series Accommodating the Distance Learner took place on 14th November and focused on hybrid or mixed delivery courses – courses in which distance and on-campus learners are treated as a single cohort, built around blended synchronous class sessions for all students.

Moderated by Tim Neumann, Head of IOE Learning Technologies Unit (LTU), the discussion featured three considerably experienced programme and module leaders, who have been teaching blended synchronous classes for at several years:

  • Dr CTitle Slide with panellist nameslare Bentall, Lecturer
    Global Citizenship Programme Director, MA Professional Education and Training, MA Education,
  • Dr Manolis Mavrikis, Reader/Associate Professor
    MA Education and Technology Programme Director
  • Dr Joanne Pearce, Principal Teaching Fellow
    MA Education Programme Director

Recording

Watch the recording below on Media Central, or read the full transcript.

The discussion explored a number of issues. Due to the depth of insights, a thematic analysis was conducted on the transcript, and key themes are summarised below.

Graphic displaying discussion themes

Justification

A core question was: Why do we offer blended sessions that are attended by distance and on-campus learners at the same time?

The reasons are somewhat complex, but generally driven by an overarching wish to widen access to UCL IOE degree programmes.

The traditional profile of IOE postgraduate students includes professionals who, for a variety of reasons, cannot travel to London for coursework. This target group would be captured by distance education. IOE, however, also saw a recent influx of international on-campus students, whose Tier 4 visa conditions would largely prevent them from studying distance education modules while in London. Overall numbers on some programmes, however, would not justify separate on-campus and distance versions of the same programme, and the blended teaching approach was identified as most viable economically.

While an economic argument is largely reactive and preferences were raised for separating distance and on-campus education, a panelist highlighted that the blended approach achieves a unique flexibility, in that learners can decide week-by-week which mode they wanted to attend. This maximises attendance, which is particularly appreciated by those professionals who need to travel while studying.

Characteristics

The actual blended sessions run by the panelists display a range of differences, from sessions with 115 on-campus and 50 online students, via 40 on-campus and 10 online students, to small groups of 12 overall, with consequences for the level of interaction.

One panelist identified one clear benefit of blended sessions: an added richness that arises from the sheer fact to have (a) more participants in a class, and (b) participants with a wider variety of backgrounds, which may be a consequence of their different study modes and would therefore be difficult to achieve in separated modes.

However, in a lively discussion, a participant questioned whether this richness was the only conceivable benefit, and whether the blended mode might lead to more problematic issues and a worse learner experience compared to separated teaching. But it was acknowledged that the online mode can give students who are reluctant to raise their voice in a classroom more opportunities to engage.

This led to a more detailed consideration of modes: panelists and participants largely agreed that sequential blending, for example alternating face-to-face and online activities week by week for everybody, was easily accepted as a successful model, whereas synchronous blending with face-to-face and online students taught at the same time was much more challenging, not at least operationally and logistically.

Teaching Strategy

To address the complexity of blended synchronous sessions, panelists offered plenty of details and tips on their teaching strategies. There was for example a discussion on the extent of  interaction between on-campus and distance learners: While cross-mode interaction is easily achieved asynchronously, such as through online forums, blended synchronous sessions require careful design and appropriate resourcing, leading to, unsurprisingly, a variety of practice.

Some sessions, generally those with either large student numbers or no additional teaching staff beyond the session leader, only allowed remote students to field questions and comments through live text chat. Other sessions went all out and facilitated small group activities with on-campus students huddled around a laptop to link up with individual remote students. Somewhere in the middle were sessions that ran small group activities divided by attendance mode. But generally, where a blend of modes was visible in a synchronous session, even if it was as simple as a remote group presenting their project outputs to everybody, it was perceived as proper integration, particularly for distance learners.

It should be noted that all panelists ran sessions that were not exclusively lectures, which would have represented a somewhat easier way to mix different attendance modes simultaneously. While sessions normally included lecture-type parts with a central speaker, at least a third of the time would be spent on discussion and/or group work activities, therefore requiring some ad-hoc facilitation with a level of individual attention, with consequences for proper planning and adequate resourcing in terms of teaching staff.

The bigger sessions tended to have one or two additional staff beyond the session leader. One panelist reported that additional staff were originally intended to have a supporting role, primarily to monitor feedback from online participants and ensure that the technology worked, but it quickly emerged that it was much more of a co-teaching role that required taking independent pedagogic decisions. Teams need to plan for this and be briefed, and quite possibly trained, appropriately, so that supporting tutors are able to properly address the what and how of the learning goals.

Managing learner expectations was identified as a key issue, and there is much to learn from distance education practice in general, where expectations, plans and instructions tend to be articulated much more clearly in advance, owing to a context where clarification and mitigation cannot always be provided ad-hoc. Ideally, expectations would be communicated before course start, or even before enrolment, so that students are aware of what they are signing up to.

Issues

Throughout the panel discussion, panelists left no doubt that blended synchronous sessions are risky and pose many challenges, both for individuals and the institution. Panelists refused, however, to regard their blended practice as innovative, as they had been running similar sessions for five years, or in some cases significantly longer.

But there was a feeling that the institutional support still has not adjusted fully to accommodate blended synchronous sessions: The nature of technical support was still broadly fragmented into hardware and software; relevant support staff often had specialist expertise in one but not the other, with patchy or no availability in the evenings and weekends, which are attractive session times for a professional target audience.

Technology itself has made progress in terms of usability and reliability, but starting up a session still requires a number of steps, plus confidence and knowledge to troubleshoot a variety of issues. A comfortable startup time of 30 minutes would be necessary, but is sometimes difficult to achieve at UCL, mainly due to a high pressure on the estate in terms of room availability – and the standard room setup does not lend itself to click-and-go blended synchronous sessions, pushing an additional responsibility to supply and manage appropriate hardware onto academic staff. Panelists reported that they often opt to bypass room equipment and bring own laptops and microphones as in-room technology can fail, or be out of service without prior notification.

This risk can have profound effects on wellbeing: Even minor issues with technology, such as a non-functioning USB plug, can exacerbate an already stressful situation to the level of panic. One panelist reported that in one term, there was not a single session without technical issue, in one case necessitating an ad-hoc change of room 30 minutes into the session. This stress was highlighted as a very serious issue, with reports of staff looking “stupid” in front of a full class, feeling embarrassed when students lose their connection, fearing the walk into the classroom to get the technology to function, or being exhausted by running a session and reacting to technological issues at the same time.

Conclusion

Running blended synchronous sessions is a complex task, which needs to be acknowledged appropriately. At this point, the implications of these sessions are not reflected in the current workload management system, leading to staff struggling – not just with the technology, but with the pragmatics around organising and running this way of teaching. While some of the issues are difficult to capture, panelists felt that a discussion needs to be had to identify and address all the aspects with a view to provide a positive student experience that is equally positive for staff.

Blended synchronous sessions are not new, and can be put to good use – but we need a sustainable approach embedded in routine.


Interested in studying these issues?

The MA in Education and Technology can be studied at a distance and now includes the online module Learning Design for Blended and Online Learning – enrol now!

 

Review: Accommodating the Distance Learner in Fully Online Courses

Tim Neumann21 November 2018

Introductory slideThe first panel discussion in the Autumn term LTU seminar series Accommodating the Distance Learner took place on Friday 9th November.

Moderated by Tim Neumann, Head of IOE Learning Technologies Unit (LTU), and with support from Jo Stroud, UCL Distance Learning Facilitator, the discussion featured three experienced programme leaders, who each have been involved in distance education for at least 12 years:

Recording

Watch the recording below or on MediaCentral, or read the full transcript. The Text Chat Protocol is also available.

The discussion touched on a number of issues and revealed occasionally surprising insights that have an impact beyond distance education. Some of these themes are summarised below.

The ‘hidden’ Distance Learner

With options to study part time or flexibly at IOE, the boundaries between face-to-face students and remote students have become blurred. According to Richard Freeman, a Postgraduate Research Experience Survey showed that even before the launch of the Online MPhil/PhD, close to half of the respondents (41.5%) were self-identifying as distance learners, despite no distance programme being offered at the time in this area!

We see similar tendencies, albeit not on this scale, in postgraduate taught programmes, where students occasionally register for face-to-face attendance to secure access to sessions in person, while effectively being a distance learner after the start of the programme. Distance education appears to be more prevalent than registry data suggests. While this is a vote of confidence in the IOE’s student support systems and overall flexibility, this mismatch between registration data and reality poses a danger to informed decision-making when it comes to funding the teaching provision.

Equivalent, not Identical

Programme leaders were adamantly emphasising that distance learning programmes were the same in terms of status, value and academic rigour as face-to-face programmes, and not in any way second rate, or a ‘secondary choice’ option. This was an important point, as comparisons to face-to-face provision are still the norm.

In terms of student experience, Richard Freeman pointed out that distance learning is equivalent to face-to-face, but not identical. Direct in-person contact has characteristics that are impossible to capture at a distance, for example around the immediacy of conversations, or when hands-on work is required.

But Will Gibson found that educationally, face-to-face makes it more difficult to achieve what he wants to achieve, mainly because asynchronous online discussions stretch conversations over time, which forces students to think about things. The time to think was raised by the other programme leaders as a beneficial characteristic of distance education, which has no room in fast-paced face-to-face seminars and lectures and needs to be ‘outsourced’ to homework or independent work. While face-to-face classes could obviously also use online forums to stretch thinking time, we see that these tend to have much lower participation rates, whereas they are a highly-used core component in distance education.

All programme leaders agree that face-to-face and distance learning are different, but neither mode is necessarily better than the other. Both modes, while based on identical learning objectives, offer equivalent opportunities for engaging with content, concepts, staff and students.

The concept of equivalence occasionally raises some practical issues: Kim Insley reported an in-depth discussion during programme validation about the online equivalence of attendance, which IOE stipulates at ‘80% of all sessions’. Kim uses five Keep In Touch (KIT) activities per module as dedicated attendance monitoring points, which do not necessarily need to be completed at set dates. Other programme leaders follow a stricter timeline-dependent approach and use monitoring functions provided by the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

The Personal Touch

A common attitude of people unfamiliar with distance education is an inherent assumption of ‘social’ distance alongside geographical distance. All three programme leaders agreed that this could not be further from the truth: Kim Insley stated that she knows what’s going on inside the heads of her distance learners, because they are telling her, whereas face-to-face students do not necessarily do that.

Will Gibson felt he knew his distance learning students much better than face-to-face students, due to an ongoing conversation, as opposed to weekly or fortnightly meetings with not much contact in-between. These conversations include personal interests and issues, and tutors develop a sense of the students’ voice, which is important pedagogically.

Richard Freeman reported that distance learners often drop in to say hello while traveling through London.

The personal connection, including the sense of a student’s voice, ie getting to know their writing style, also addresses plagiarism; both Kim and Will agreed that knowing students makes plagiarism, usually accidental plagiarism, obvious, and it also supports decision-making when the plagiarism checker throws up issues.

Driving Support for All

To accommodate distance learners, the various supporting service departments of an organisation must play their role. Programme leaders praised a genuine interest, sometimes verging on excitement, from support departments in improving access to their services for distance learners. A key rationale was that better access for distance learners will automatically benefit face-to-face learners and the wider university community as a whole.

Specifically, the efforts and willingness from IOE Academic Writing Centre and Library Services were highlighted, but generally it was felt that other services, despite not always being perfect, were accessible to distance learners, or open to introduce more flexibility. UCL’s strong profile for open access, open education and open science was regarded as a key driver for a generally supportive organisational culture.

Overall, the biggest help for distance education students appears to be provided by administrators: Richard Freeman highlighted their unique role, as they are seen as more neutral as well as highly knowledgeable about the support options that are open to students, contributing significantly to the overall pastoral support.

Tips and Tricks

Programme leaders were each providing a parting recommendation on how to accommodate distance learners:

Will Gibson, having previously mentioned quick video summaries, highlighted weekly bulletins as a simple but effective means of guiding students through a course. Written in an informal tone, bulletins provide light orientation prompts to keep students focused and to enhance the social presence.

Richard Freeman mentioned the wide success of the flipped classroom approach, which means offloading content acquisition/lecture aspects to videos and using session time for working on clarification of concepts and understanding. But he also warned that distance education is not for everyone, not for every topic, and not a universal solution to everything: “It’s not about how to make the best online course, it’s [how to make] the best course” – depending on context, this may be face-to-face, blended or fully online.

Kim Insley mentioned the impact of her pre-course handbook, which is circulated to students before they even start their course and helps greatly with setting and managing expectations. This idea has caught on and has been introduced elsewhere since.

Conclusion

A variety of other issues were discussed and can be reviewed on MediaCentral, including the full transcript and text chat protocol. Detailed accounts such as these help identify issues and improve their understanding in distance education and beyond.


Do you want support in improving your distance education programmes, or are you thinking about providing distance programmes?

Accommodating the Distance Learner – Seminar Series

Kit15 October 2018

LTU Autumn Seminar Series

RVSP for attendance: in person or online

Follow the Live Stream on Blackboard Collaborate Ultra
(14 Nov 2pm GMT – other timezones)

Across the IOE and UCL, we use various ways to accommodate distance learners academically. This series of knowledge exchange seminars will explore existing experiences as well as contemplate challenges and opportunities of distance learning in different contexts. Whether you run or are interested in online or mixed mode teaching, this series is open to all.

Date and location Accommodating the Distance Learner seminar
Friday 9 November
13:00-14:30
Room 822, IOE 20 Bedford Way
Panel Discussion: Fully Online
Key questions around distance learners in fully online modules.
Panellists: Will Gibson, Kim Insley, Richard Freeman
Wednesday 14 November
14:00-15:30
Room W3.05, IOE 20 Bedford Way
Panel Discussion: Mixed Delivery
Key questions around distance learners in simultaneous face-to-face and online modules.
Panellists: Jo Pearce, Manolis Mavrikis and Clare Bentall
Monday 26 November
12:00-13:30
Room 604, IOE 20 Bedford Way
Techniques-and-Practice Exchange
Guided knowledge exchange workshop to capture issues and solutions

If you are interested in attending IN PERSON please RSVP at bit.ly/LTU-ADL
To join the online live stream, either check this page at the time of the event or register at bit.ly/LTU-ADL-online

Contact the Learning Technologies Unit (ioe.ltu@ucl.ac.uk) for further information