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 Clare 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.