Even before the current COVID-19 health crisis, “blended learning” was one of the most discussed and researched teaching approaches or modalities in higher education. As Charles Dziuban, Peter Shea and Patsy Moskal (2020) write in a recent article appearing in Educause Review:
“Greater reliance on blended learning may be what a post-COVID-19 higher education landscape will turn to for a variety of reasons, so a better conceptual understanding is much needed (P.1).”
So what is blended learning? How is blended learning best facilitated in higher education? Why does blended learning matter? How can we advance blended learning practices? What is the future of blended learning? If you are looking for answers to these questions, the upcoming course “Making Blended Education Work” on the FutureLearn platform might be for you.
This free online course developed as part of the EMBED project is designed for people involved in leading the design, implementation and research into blended learning in higher education. It covers topics relevant to institutional leaders, learning technologists, practitioners, and researchers who are interested in blended learning related research and implementation strategy. The course, which the NIDL was pleased to co-author with our EMBED partners, starts through FutureLearn on 11th May.
One of the first questions we explore in Week 1 is the thorny issue of the definition of blended learning. There are many variations on the concept of blended learning at different ends of a definitional spectrum, and in this respect the course makes an important distinction between blended learning, blended teaching and blended education. By the time participants get to the final week of the course they will have an opportunity to critically reflect on some of the different perspectives and underlying assumptions of the Blended Education Maturity Model, as we challenge educators to question the future of blended learning in a post-digital world. This discussion will be facilitated by Mark Brown and Mairead Nic Giolla Mhichil from the NIDL where they will also ask how might blended learning take on a different face or new significance in the post COVID-19 era?
Whether the course is able to fully answer these questions will depend on your own perspective. As Dziuban, Shea and Moskal (2020) conclude:
“Perhaps blended learning is best considered an evolving process. Instructors change their blends during a semester, or from year to year, depending on several factors. One semester the blend works well—the next semester, much less effectively. So how does one answer the question, “Does blended learning work?” The question creates a recurring problem because of blended learning’s complexity and emergent properties where the whole is more than the sum of its parts” (P.17).
“Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge”.
I felt this quote was appropriate for the current educational context because although it is a very uncertain time, there could be potential to reimagine our approaches to assessment. For example, we could take this opportunity to clear out some of the deadwood or kill a few sacred cows in the educational system. The sacred cow I focused on was the campus-based examination system.
In the literature on assessment, exams are considered to be a poor measure of student learning which emphasizes knowledge reproduction rather than critical thinking. For example:
“they tend to measure lower order thinking skills in a decontextualized manner at a time when the literature frequently argues for the benefits of a richer, authentic approach to assessment” (Villarroel, Boud, Bloxham, Bruna, 2020, p. 38)
If the literature indicates that richer authentic approaches to assessment can benefit student learning, why are higher education institutions so attached to exams? Face-to-face campus-based exams are surrounded by ritual, bureaucracy and awe in higher education. I think we should take advantage of the opportunity that the pivot online created by the Coronavirus pandemic and kill the sacred cow of closed book campus based exams permanently.
Replicating campus-based exams online through timed proctored online exams is not the solution. In her recent presentation at #Gastagoesglobal, Sheila McNeill talked about how online proctored exams promote a culture of distrust and surveillance and how we should instead be creating a culture of support, trust and development for our students.
Student Engagement and Covid-19
When designing alternative emergency assessments for our students we need to think about student engagement in the context of Covid-19 pandemic. Adapting Kahu’s (2013) model of student engagement to encompass the Covid19 pandemic context is a useful lens to help us understand how our students can engage and learn successfully during this crisis.
Important factors that we should consider are lifeload, course and assessment design, access to adequate broadband and computing equipment, the availability and accessibility of institutional remote online supports. Kahu (2013, p. 767) describes lifeload as “the sum of all the pressures a student has in their life, including university”, and is seen as being a critical factor influencing student engagement. Everyone including students and staff are experiencing increased lifeload pressures due to the pandemic, such as illness, caring responsibilities, home schooling, and remote working. Time management and organisational skills are key skills for student success (Farrell & Brunton, 2020). In addition, students are experiencing difficulties with broadband, access to computers, finding quiet study space and sufficient time to study. These pressures are impacting on our students well-being, their time, and their ability to learn successfully.
Our Approach to Crisis Assessment
In Dublin City University (DCU), the institution identified four key principles for crisis assessment:
These principles were applied across the University coupled with coupled advice for choosing alternative assessments to adapt exams into more appropriate alternative assessments. In our DCU Connected Humanities programmes, for example, which are modular online degrees we applied these four principles and adapted our exams into openbook take home assessments. Openbook take home assessments adhered to these principles and were a flexible, low bandwidth asynchronous assessment approach.
Alternative Assessment Ideas
In the webinar, we discussed a number of alternative assessment ideas, such as:
The issue of academic integrity came up frequently in the discussion at the webinar. Our approach to academic integrity involves creative design of authentic assessment, moderation of marking, text matching software, clear guidelines to students about our expectations around referencing and the use of vivas to verify student academic work. These are detailed further in the resource below, and our Academic Integrity Self-Assessment Checklist.
DCU (2018) Academic Integrity Principles
In these unprecedented times, it is important that we support the well-being of our students, while addressing the need to have quality assessment. In the context of student engagement and Covid-19, using low bandwidth, flexible and asynchronous assessments may enable our students to succeed at completing their studies and #keeplearning.
DCU Teaching Enhancement Unit (2018). Academic Integrity Principles. Retrieved from Academic Integrity for Quality Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (INTEGRITY Project): https://teuintegrityproject.wordpress.com/
Villarroel, V., Boud, D., Bloxham, S., Bruna, D., & Bruna, C. (2020;2019). Using principles of authentic assessment to redesign written examinations and tests. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 57(1), 38-49. doi:10.1080/14703297.2018.1564882