I’ve been involved in a number of discussions with colleagues across the sector recently regarding delivery next year. I have the benefit of being experienced with with blended learning (indeed, much of my early research in FE was based on blended delivery), however, next year will be a unique challenge in its own right. We will still be socially distancing (though, we don’t know to what extent), and a number of our learners will be shielding. Furthermore, is is likely that people will need to isolate themselves due to being symptomatic (or living people people who are) throughout the year. These considerations make next year a very distinctive challenge.

In response, the landscape of higher education will likely go through significant changes. In the immediate we can be certain of a need for flexibility and accessibility of learning activities. This has been at the core of all the discussions I have had with my colleagues. The following post represents my general thoughts in the area after having spoken with a number of colleagues I trust. It is provided in good-faith, given in full understanding that all subjects and institutional contexts are different, and that these ideas may not be equally suited to all. I hope it is of some use!

‘Online Delivery’ is not ‘Remote Learning’

Firstly, remember that blended learning is not the same as dedicated remote remote delivery. Full remote learning requires a significant infrastructure to support it, and often several years to plan how best to apply that infrastructure and resource. However, by the same token the blended learning next year will not be the same as an emergency response to lock-down. We now have time and experience to help us in making the most of our online resources, and student expectations will arguably be higher.

Reconsider expectations about what is achievable

When students are on campus we can guarantee a general standard of facility and resource to allow them to undertake their learning. In the online space this may not be possible, any lab work or practical task may need to be refactored to consider what is possible at home with minimal equipment. Regarding technology, work with the assumption that your student is working with intermittent connectivity from an old, or low specification device (such as a chromebook or smartphone). Your maximum technology expectations should be what is possible and available through an institutional cloud desktop service. This will allow students to work from home when they need to, or if they are isolating.  

Asynchronous delivery, synchronous support 

Moving online presents new challenges with regards to engagement. Home life is inherently more distracting making watching lectures online a challenge. Some households may even be sharing a single computer with multiple users making synchronous engagement in events such as live-streams a challenge. Consider moving all taught materials into asynchronous formats such as videos, animations, podcasts, or books. These allow the students to engage with them proactively around their other commitments, and plan their work-time accordingly.

Furthermore, we should consider that it is increasingly likely that students will take extended periods of leave due to illness (of themselves or a family member). So try to upload asynchronous content 4 weeks in advance to accommodate this. I;m not suggesting a “fire and forget” approach to delivery, where content is placed online and left to the students to discover. Instead use synchronous content (such as live-streams, video calls, and web-chats) to run support sessions, tutorials, and pastoral case. But rather than running single large sessions, consider multiple shorter sessions that may be easier to engage with

Reconsider the format and structure of learning content 

It is absolutely possible to live-stream a two hour lecture. However, moving online presents different challenges and opportunities, and you may find that different formats better suit the new environment. For example, some psychologists claim the typical student’s attention span is about 10 to 15 minutes. Outside of a “live” environment (where we can see students face to face) we are often unable to dynamically deploy strategies to re-engage students mid-session. So, rather than a single one lecture, why not consider creating four 10 minute videos that focus on individual topics. This is not only easier to produce, but also facilitates easier revision, as the students no longer have to search through videos to find the specific theme they wish to revise. Long story short – the methods you use in a face to face engagement, may not be the best methods for a blended engagement.

Consider flipping elements of delivery

Evaluate what you are delivering through your lectures. If this content is covered equally well in a book, consider using that book to deliver key topics, setting chapters to read. Rather than (essentially) reading the content to the students through lectures. Books are the original asynchronous delivery format, and the online provision available through libraries makes the material very accessible. As a module team, you can then use your time to focus on support and mentorship. Using this approach allows you to easily cater for differentiation by setting extended reading, and using your video content to contextualise the material, and support those students who need it most. 

Provide opportunities to check engagement

Some students need the structure of a timetable, and “check-in” time with their academic staff. Indeed, this structure is one of the key advantages to a physical university over a dedicated distance learning institution. Without this structure, some students will delay engaging with tasks, and will find themselves completing work only when deadlines approach. Providing the students with a list of milestones, or pseudo-deadlines can really help here. A schedule of dates that says “by week one you should understand…”, “by week two you should have achieved…” can empower a student to monitor their own engagement and encourage them to reach-out when they have difficulty. You may also want to consider formalised milestones, or portfolio submissions where students submit assignments in chunks spread throughout the year, rather than single monolithic submissions. 

Don’t reinvent the wheel

There is a plethora of open educational resources available for all subjects and disciplines. For example, there is a huge variety of learning materials, some of them professionally produced, available through YouTube. OER commons  https://www.oercommons.org/ also contains a useful library of resources which are openly licensed and free to bring into your modules. While we still need to deliver contact hours, in some cases, pulling these resources into your subject may free you up to do more tutorial support or mentoring. Again, consider what will work best when moving your particular subject online.

Pick your tools wisely

If you are planning on producing content you will want to consider some production tools. Blender, a free 3D animation package has some surprisingly powerful video editing tools which are easy to learn (see video). If you are planning on producing audio content (such as podcasts) then Audacity is a free tool which can make editing much easier (see video) both are available for Mac and PC users. However, regarding delivery remember to stick with university supported tools. This is for your own protection (ensuring GDPR compliance) in addition to maintaining consistency for the students. Remember, many students are not confident with digital technologies, limiting the possible platforms they are exposed to helps us make their education accessible. 

Work closely with personal tutors

Personal tutors should be maintaining regular contact with their tutees, and they can help to support engagement with your module. Ensure that module coordinators are aware of what you are doing in your modules so they can check how individual students are coping with the content. If you are producing a milestone map, make sure that your personal tutors have access to this information. 

Simplify how you signpost materials 

When we deliver physical sessions it is easy to remind students (during lectures for example) where support materials can be found. However, when online you need to carefully consider how you signpost and present information. Through your VLE ensure that all documents have meaningful file names which describe the content (rather than lecture 1, lecture 2). Also consider how you are laying out your folder structures so that information is easy to find. A little work at the beginning setting up your folders so that content is easy to find can save you a lot of work down the line (and avoid students needing to email you asking where certain information can be found). You may also wish to unify structures within your school so that modules are laid out in a consistent way. The less time that students are searching for information, the less frustrated they will get.

Consider communication load

Your student’s will likely get a lot of communication sent to them over email, and there is a risk of them suffering from communication burnout. The email burden could take up a significant amount of time, and have a negative impact on their engagement – specifically certain communications may be lost. Consider trying to limit your use of emails. Combined coms (such as a weekly school newsletter) can help to reduce the overall load. 

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