Ending blended learning: Will COVID continue to haunt us?

With a blended approach of learning being phased out, one of our writers evaluates the efficiency of blending learning practices.

Anna Goclawska
14th December 2021
Image Credit: international journal of research
Last year most of the classes were held remotely. From the beginning of October 2021, the blended approach applied to a greater or lesser extent to almost every course at Newcastle University. leaving many students and lecturers on the fence in terms of its efficiency. Although the vision of the complete abandonment of online learning seems somewhat distant, it's worth unpacking its strong and weak points. 

Let's start with the things that are not going well. Who else is guilty of browsing social media whilst unsupervised by a seminar leader in a breakout room? Imagine how frustrating it is for people who have their microphone open and are trying to do something. Online synchronous lessons are rich with distractions and temptation. Even though the decision to give in to temptation relies on us, the likelihood of losing focus is bigger than in face-to-face lectures or seminars. Despite the governments release of the distant learning policy for lower education institutions released in November 2021, participation and attendance are barely measured or covered by the university due to their independence. Although there was an ordinance last year, obliging faculty to have their cameras turned on , this was not respected by the majority of members. This caused a lack of active participation and dropping out of breakout rooms from students who did not receive sanctions. 

Another reason students go missing (sometimes literally) is limited engagement with peers and faculty members. Asking a seminar leader for assessment advice equals a sequence of mundane steps rather than raising a hand and getting an answer. When sitting in class, we know we're being observed in a social situation that demands a certain etiquette. Whilst creating a relaxing atmosphere can positively influence the speed of information absorption, too much relaxation can drag down our motivation. This leads us to another pivotal downside of online teaching. It's easier. Lack of supervision or engagement framework, for example, in the breakout rooms lowers the demands for the seminar and discussion preparation. 

In some modules, students were encouraged to put answers or questions in the chat box instead of speaking up if they were too shy! While in some respect this worked for short questions and issues as these opportunities can prove to be time-efficient. However in the long term, they can lead to the deterioration of social skills and underdeveloped answers.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Even though most teaching is now back on campus, some assessments that used to be based in class remain online. Language tests, use of external resources such as online translators, dictionaries, the help of friends from Milan (this will be my case) and zoom dialogues recordings substitute reliable face to face exams. Short term, that might work in our benefit, but in the end, our grades and full degrees will not be worth as much. When more people receive higher marks, they are devalued. 

Though these concerns do not leave us without judgement, there are other aspects of a blended approach, which can intensify our learning. For instance revision materials, quizzes and summative assessments, can make learning more efficient and fun.

Doing online quizzes as part of class material or exam revision enables us to test our knowledge several times prior to the actual test. They facilitate information retention and enhance long-term memorisation through spaced repetition. It makes room for more critical discussions and activities that could not be done off-campus or without help from a staff member.  

'Lectures or tutorials in a podcast or video format can easily be adjusted to help an individual's needs and capacities'

Lectures or tutorials in a podcast or video format can easily be adjusted to help an individual's needs and capacities; one can speed up or slow down the pace, rewind and listen again in chosen time and space. Lengthy classes during which our attention span usually dropped down after the first quarter are now chopped into smaller chunks, allowing a break. 

Aside from the didactic aspects, there are those related to the flexibility and comfort of commuting students. If one needs to take a half an hour (or more!) train just for one seminar or a lecture, it may be more efficient to stay home, have the class online and make the most out of the usual commuting time. Similarly, someone who juggles a course, part-time job, and other activities might want to multitask during the class (which apparently, according to psychologists, no one can do!). However, I firmly believe that the quality of teaching shouldn’t come at the price of ‘more convenience’ significantly if we narrow it down to such things. I understand the frustration in attending 9 AM seminars on a gloomy winter morning. However I know that once I am in class with like-minded people and a seminar leader, my motivation and productivity level will be much higher. The satisfaction from that is much more rewarding! 

So, shall we be enthusiastic about the end of blended learning?

How do these pros and cons balance each other out? Unless we introduce some ground rules and framework to synchronous online lectures and seminars, we can be happy to get them over with. On the other hand, it would be a shame to go back to square one by cutting out all the revision tools, extensive sways and extra resources. If we manage to keep those, and transfer as much revision and extras to the digital sphere while leaving the teaching to the faculty members on campus, we might find the perfect solution!

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