Getting started with online and blended learning
Updated: Aug 20
Thanks for talking the time to read my first blog post, I hope you find it helpful in some way. This blog covers the fundamentals of getting started with online and blended learning, from intended learning outcomes through to assessment and with course design and delivery in between :)
This Covid situation has really turned things on their head and higher education is no different. As someone who has taught online and used a blended model for teaching for many years now, I wanted to share some of my experience and thoughts with you.
For me, we are going to have to teach online by necessity in September and in fact we have had to teach and assess online at very short notice to be able complete the academic year, which has been a monumental effort for everyone involved.
How can technology help?
"One benefit of the surgency in technology is the development of digital education, which allows us to create engaging learning experiences for students to study what they want, where the want and when they want."
This is particularly relevant to online distance learners who are juggling work and family alongside their studies.
However, technology has also been used to provide a blended learning experience for students, where a course includes both online and face to face elements. Hybrid learning is very similar to blended in that a combination of online and face to face learning takes place, except in hybrid the focus is on finding a balance that promotes the best experience for individuals. I’ll talk more about this is future posts, but for now I want to take a look at getting started and being ready for the next academic year and I'm using the terms online and blended here as that's what most people are aware of.
"Firstly, don't panic and make sure you drink coffee (or any other beverage of your choice) and eat cake :) Remember you are not alone; everyone everywhere is trying to do this right now."
Where to start?
If you are not sure where to start, my advice is to keep it simple! The best solution is often the simplest one that doesn't require complicated software or hours of development time. Also, a simple measure can be an interim measure, to get started. The COVID19 situation is a good example of this.
If you do have a little time to reflect on your course, or teaching materials, then a good place to start is with the intended learning outcomes (ILOs). What do you want your students to be able to do or know? Firstly, are they still fit for purpose? We often forget to go back and look at course specifications over the years – so now might be a good time.
For me, the next place to go is to the assessment. How are you going to assess the ILOs in the current situation, can you move away from a high stakes’ exam? Or can you reduce the percentage contribution the exam makes to the overall course assessment. This might be a good time to think about how assessments could me more authentic and prepare students for the real world, in the 20 years of working as an academic I have never been asked to sit in a room for 2 hours and write as much as I know about a subject, with no access to any information 😊
Based on ILOs design your assessment. Try to make it authentic, provide choice (where possible). Some examples of formats for online: multiple choice exams, essays, reflective blogs, podcasts, presentations, paper critiques, social media posts, wikis, reports and more .....
Working from the course aims and ILOs, what learning activities will provide students with the opportunity to develop and demonstrate their skills and knowledge required to achieve the course learning outcomes. Then decide which of these would work best online and which are better suited to face to face. For pre-recorded lectures, keep these short (10-15 mins), you can also add links to peer reviewed articles, book chapters, and open access web resources that are applicable to your course. What is vital is that you signpost what students are required to do; for example, make it clear what are core learning materials and what are additional.
Communication and collaboration
This is crucial for online learning. You can use asynchronous discussions boards in the VLE, but you need to prompt and support discussions to get things started. Live sessions can take place via your virtual classroom (e.g. Zoom), but again it usually takes students a bit of time to build confidence in asking a question in a live session, even if it’s just using the chat function.
It can help if you don’t record these sessions as it has been seen that when a session is recorded it can impact on the level of interaction. The downside of this is that the session can’t be revisited at a later date and therefore you may want to consider producing a summary of the session or some FAQs that have arisen from it.
Students may be used to using technology and social media, but that doesn’t mean they will come equipped with the skills to learn online. There are two things to consider; firstly, can you provide an induction to the VLE and other technologies that will be used prior to the formal teaching session – this will allow students to become familiar with using these tools in a low-risk way that if they don’t work it means they don’t miss out on their learning. Secondly, by doing this it can get students more comfortable with chatting online because, again it’s not about a specific subject where they may lack confidence in their knowledge, it’s just a get to know everyone conversation.
Copyright and accessibility
I can’t finish without the important copyright and accessibility discussion. It’s important that copyright is followed, which in short means that you have to link to articles, not download then and upload them to the VLE, and any images you use that are not your own need to be a) relevant to the presentation and b) are attributed to the source. Further information on copyright can be found here.
The changes in accessibility laws, whilst this is very important and necessary, has also added pressure to the development of online materials. Materials need to be provided in a range of formats and all videos need a transcript and captions and, ideally, be available as Mp4 and Mp3 files that can be downloaded. More information on this here.
I have deliberately put technology last, as once you have decided on your course design, learning activities and assessments, you can then decide on the best tools to deliver what you are looking to achieve. Again, my advice is to keep it simple, not only to make life easier for yourself at this very busy take, but also avoid overwhelming students with numerous tools and environments.
Find a friend
Finally, find a learning technologist or an academic who has experience of delivering online and blended courses and ask for their help. My experience is that most people are happy to help and share their experience. Twitter and other social media platforms are also a good way of learning about what others are doing and to pick up some tips and advice, that way we can all help each 😊