Blended hybrid online digital dual delivery learning and teaching – will students get lost in the design?

By Matt Cornock

The approaches taken by higher education institutions to continue teaching and learning during the Covid-19 pandemic have shown the imagination and creativity of the sector. New ways of thinking about the purpose of higher education, how learners can achieve the same objectives through different learning media and be more responsive to external factors is certainly driving some exciting developments. Of course, there is the bottom line issue of… the bottom line, and this has already led to a number of institutions initiating measures to reduce salary costs. Income streams, particularly from students who travel across the country and from around the world to complete their studies on campus, are at much higher risk of drying up through postponement or attrition. Innovation and change programmes are attempting to mitigate this and approaches include, at least for some programmes, compressed degree programmes with January start (Brunel University) and the ability to switch modes based on circumstances (University of Essex). These changes in approach to course delivery have radical implications for course design. In this article, I comment on the transition to a new pedagogy, how this will affect students and educators, and some examples from the sector.

It’s not all about lectures, but that’s where it starts

Common messages from higher education institutions state all lectures will be recorded, socially-distanced small group teaching continues, and for those who can’t attend campus, then the vague term of online delivery creeps in. In many cases, this involves live or pre-recorded lectures, with the added benefit of cohort text chat (the University of St. Andrew’s video for students demonstrates this well). Arguably, the online lecture may be a more social experience than the traditional face-to-face lecture, with live commenting and questions being shared alongside the lecture video. Small group tutorials will no doubt continue too, albeit via synchronous video conferencing.

Yet, there is more to the higher education learning experience than attending lectures, seminars and lab sessions. Aside from the social aspects, many universities also provide study skills support, non-course language and mathematics skills support, academic literacy and library services. Technical skill development based on the discipline, with research-grade laboratories also form part of the non-timetabled learning for project work. Computing suites still exist for some specialist software, though most can be installed on student devices, I recall from my own studies, some of this software is not the easiest to configure. All of these are learning experiences will need to be considered to support or complement academic content.

Making educational choices

When you look at the guidance available, it’s clear that there are still many options and many choices that educators can make about how they construct their courses. The challenge many educational advisers are facing is how to convey the complexity of designing effective learning across delivery modes. The University of Sheffield’s Elevate programme has extensive and comprehensive guidance for redeveloping courses. Their 2×2 matrix mapping synchronous/asynchronous and offline/online gets to the crux of what blended learning design is about. Whatever learning intentions an educator has, whatever experience or activities they are planning to design, they will fall within one of these four approaches:

Synchronous offlineSynchronous online
Asynchronous offlineAsynchronous online
Source: Elevate, University of Sheffield

The educator then makes a choice about which type of learning suits which environment. Except, that whilst this approach would form the basis of blended learning design where it is the combination of different spaces and modes that forms the overall design, hybrid and dual delivery approaches require a different tack.

Opportunity through hybrid learning/dual delivery of teaching

With hybrid/dual delivery of teaching approaches, the choice of mode is not based around what is the most appropriate space or approach for the type of learning intention, but the choice of mode is determined by what the learner is able to engage with by their circumstance. In some cases, it is implied that students can switch between modes on a week-by-week basis (indeed this may be required if self-isolating). This distinction between blended learning design (established pedagogy for some time now) and the new form of hybrid/dual can sometimes be conflated. Indeed the QAA reported that the terms blended and hybrid are used interchangeably, but did provide this useful distinction:

“While hybrid learning is not as prevalent, it has begun to be used by some providers to describe programmes designed to provide students with a greater degree of choice as to how they engage with their learning. Where this is the case, programmes have been designed to be delivered both onsite and remotely, allowing students to move between the two methods of delivery seamlessly. Students are therefore given agency to construct their own ways of engaging with these hybrid programmes, defining how much they want to engage with the onsite or digital learning activities.”

Building a Taxonomy for Digital Learning, QAA, 2020

Hybrid/dual delivery therefore is about designing equivalences. For example, virtual labs (asynchronous online) rather than physics labs (synchronous offline). Yet the equivalences all must lead towards the same learning outcomes, if not at the module or course level, then certainly at the programme level.

The University of Edinburgh’s definition of hybrid learning adds another layer, that all students are part of the same cohort, regardless of whether they study online or face-to-face:

“Hybrid learning – where no separation is made between remote and on campus student cohorts. Students are brought together by the way teaching is designed and students are able to move easily between online and classroom-based learning activities.” 

Institute for Academic Development, University of Edinburgh

This dimension leads us into thinking about how groups are formed within cohorts, study groups, project groups and even the sense that the cohort are all in it together to learn collaboratively. There are many skills involved in forming groups with people you are not familiar with. The fluidity of how those groups will form with and without social interactions, with and without corridor conversations, and constrained somewhat by scheduled-in web conference time, will no doubt develop unique skill sets not even comprehended before now. In fact, students who choose to start university in September/October this year, may find it a challenging experience, but through it they could be the most adept cohort at modern, digital age, professional working practices.

For educators, there are both positive and negative consequences of the hybrid/dual developments. On the negative side, the workload involved in creating the very best hybrid courses is grossly underestimated. A ‘best efforts’ approach is more realistic, even in the medium term, particularly as there are many unknown variables involved (including educator and student capabilities to teach and learn remotely). Designing perfect equivalences that operate in either mode essentially require rethinking delivery from scratch. This is not achievable within a year, or two years. Instead, drawing upon what educators already know works effectively in both the online and offline spaces, both as synchronous and asynchronous activities, learning can be planned for in either space towards the same outcomes (not the same activities). On the positive side, this is a time for risk-taking, creativity and pushing the boundaries of how learning and knowledge can permeate lives.

The hybrid learning/dual delivery models are a new form of pedagogy. If, in the truest sense, they allow students to seamlessly shift between different modes of learning and teaching, this is a revolutionary concept for education. Arguably, more so than open educational resources and free-to-access open courses, the hybrid/dual pedagogies that are being developed could truly bring democratisation of education. Learner choice over the mode of study enables greater flexibility around life commitments and paid-work for income. Similarly it provides scope for ongoing, lifelong and professional learning for a broader spectrum of the workforce. 

Yet, with all this optimism also comes a concern that it is dependent on the capability of a learner to learn within this complex construct of an educational programme. Some of the basics of being an online learner are already shared by academic support teams. For instance, at Edinburgh, guidance includes setting aside ‘undisturbed time’, considering your own approach to study, making notes and being active in discussions (online and offline). These are all sound points to support learners, but the course and discipline nuances of online learning will need to come from the structure and design of learning activities developed by educators. Educators know the misconceptions that arise in their subject, and they need to be designed for with activities and contact points that enable peer or expert discussion of fundamental concepts. Only then will student not get lost in both the complexity of design and complexity of content.

Starting designs for hybrid learning / dual delivery of teaching

In online learning, setting clear expectations as to what is required, how it is to be done, with whom and by when, are important to provide as without them learners can misinterpret the task and with no immediate channel for clarifying expectations, can lead to disengagement. In creating a hybrid learning/dual delivery course, educators are being given guidance that, in some cases, extends to several tens of pages. There is a sense that perhaps this is all too new, but the reality is that many approaches that have been used in course design previously can equally be used with hybrid learning, except with the extra added dimensions that the space and time of learning is fully flexible.

Here is a short selection of approaches I have used for blended design, which transfer to dual delivery:

  • Identifying the roles required of the educator, learner and cohort as a whole, but considering and stating who will be responsible for doing what learning and teaching activities. Note that this also provides the opportunity to consider peer teaching and the relationship of the individual learner with the cohort, for example group work which is still achievable remotely.
  • Determining the educational value (in terms of meeting learning outcomes) of both asynchronous activities, for example transmission of content, private study and self-assessments, and synchronous activities, for example for debate, questioning, group problem solving (and in many cases providing a thread of engagement with the cohort). The links between both synchronous and asynchronous learning need to be meaningful and show progression of understanding across the course, rather than a series of disconnected and unrelated sessions.
  • Storyboarding to enable branching and converging through the course design. Considering where it is possible for learners to branch off from specific points in the course to undertake learning through their personal choice of learning activity, and how this learning is then brought back to align with the assessment of learning outcomes. For instance, there may be a key seminar which requires discussion with learners in a room. Those unable to participate in person may have a parallel discussion online, yet the learning from both events converge into the outputs of subsequent work.

Answering some of these questions will help form the activities:

  • What is(are) the learning outcome(s) for an individual learner on this course?
  • What content do they need to know in order to meet this(these) outcome(s)?
  • What skills will they need to practise in order to meet this(these) outcome(s)?
  • How can new knowledge be conveyed and linked with prior knowledge through each mode (a/synchronous on/offline)?
  • How can understanding be applied and demonstrated through each mode (a/synchronous on/offline)?
  • How will an individual learner be supported to meet the outcome(s)?

These sorts of approaches and questions have been modelled by programme design teams in universities. For example, Teesside University’s Principles of Course Design for Hybrid Learning, take a step-by-step approach to piecing together a course. The key though is to always have the a learner’s ‘end goal’ in sight as you navigate the design path. The ABC design approach from UCL uses such a story-boarding approach that builds a sequence of activities towards the learning outcomes. 

Enabling learning by an individual

In the prompt questions above I make the point also that educators should think not about ‘learners’ as an anonymous group, but an individual learner and how they would complete the course. This point of view will enable an educator to walk through their learning design with an individual’s experience. You could even roll a dice to reflect changes to that individual’s circumstance to see whether they had to engage with the course online or offline at different points and still complete their studies and achieve the learning outcomes. Timelines or course maps are perfect ways to sense-check the feasibility of designs, ensuring a coherent flow of concepts and development of understanding.

Enabling individual learning therefore requires the scaffolding of skills and guidance, resources, and accessibility of learning, to enable progression through the course. This does not preclude group learning, where similarly the group may form and together switch modes, or perhaps even have to exist as a mixed-mode group for some time. Learners will, undoubtedly, have to take greater ownership of both their own learning and that of their peers. As an aside, the idea of student-led tutorials (posed by Hayton (2017) from Liverpool John Moores University) and the structures in place for those may form part of the supporting wrapper for mixed-mode study.

Not all learning can be online

Most of the focus of the hybrid learning/dual delivery of teaching guidance has been shifting from the offline to the online space. This is based on the (incorrect) assumption that all learning can be undertaken face-to-face to begin with. Yet the means for delivering these learning activities, online and offline, may inform the specific construct of the activity. Use of a simulation online may offer a particular form of learning that cannot be achieved face-to-face (health and safety, expense and access to realistic subjects are all reasons why simulations are used). This forces the learner into the online a/synchronous mode of study, and having the choice to undertake something similar face-to-face is not an option. 

Similarly, educators should not feel constrained by the apparent need to replicate the face-to-face experience online, where it simply would not be possible. This is particularly true of disciplines that require physical skill development, assessment of interpersonal skills and development of practical experimental technique. Online equivalents can only go so far to enable the learner to develop and experience learning required to master the discipline. That is no fault of online learning.

This dilemma is obviously being discussed within institutions too. For example the University of Manchester’s Faculty of Biology, Health and Medicine, in their minimum expectations document provide options quite easily for lectures and seminars, but the practical aspect is, by its nature, “more challenging”. There are quick wins, and these should certainly be explored to make learning available to remote students. Whether the same level of investment needs to be made into making all forms of face-to-face learning available online is something I would question. That may come as a surprise from someone who is an advocate of online and digital education.

I was once asked at the ALT Conference, “What can’t we do through online learning?” and my response was: “You can teach anything through online learning, but it is the activity that doesn’t always work online… You can probably teach anything, probably apart from human-human development skills… You can deliver something online but you have to link it back to the face-to-face environment, you have that face-to-face practise opportunity.”

There is of course a difference between an educator being able to ‘teach’ something and a learner being able to ‘learn’ something. Practical skills could be taught online, but mastery by a learner in the physical space would require physical resources and assessment in that mode. If I were to rephrase my response to the question, it would be “you can teach anything online, but learning takes place offline” as learners are, after all, existent in the offline space. The transference of learning between online and offline spaces is what needs to be considered as part of the course design, as much as the specific learning activities undertaken in each space. Making those direct connections between spaces, and between activities, needs to be factored in at the design stage. Acknowledging that some learning activities must take place in different spaces may help to alleviate attempts to square-peg-round-hole during hybrid/dual delivery designs.

Embracing the opportunity

Recording all lectures, provisioning resources on a virtual learning environment, digital assessments and even video tutorials have all been commonplace in many institutions for some time now. Yet, the primacy of face-to-face instruction means that such technological solutions were not always welcome, even though there was (and is) clear evidence of their contribution to educational practice in support of their adoption. Times have changed, and online learning is accepted and required for higher education to survive. The mix and combination of these modes will determine the success of a course, where the individual learner is considered and the path they may take between the a/synchronous and on/offline learning.

Both learners and educators alike will undergo vast changes in their approach to learning and teaching. They will develop skills they never knew they needed and experiment in ways they never thought they would have to. They will look again at courses, content and learning designs from the perspective of feasibility of delivery, effectiveness of teaching and opportunity of flexible learning. It is a challenge, but it’s one that will need to be embraced together.

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