Achieving access to quality blended learning for all

Shortly after the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, UNESCO Bangkok started to promote online and blended learning in partnership with a number of key universities in the region.

This timely collaboration led to the publication of an important book, Blended Learning for Quality Higher Education: Selected case studies on implementation from Asia-Pacific, first published by UNESCO in 2016, but our confidence in online learning was still nascent.

At the time, online learning was still experimental and largely perceived as a supplement to ‘real learning’ in a traditional classroom setting – something that could add a little bit of seasoning to the long-established routines and in-person practices of teaching and learning at colleges and universities.

Given the complex challenges we face today, the online learning sceptics may be right. Collectively, we face significant gaps when it comes to ensuring universal access to well-functioning ecosystems to support the delivery of quality online and blended learning programmes.

The fundamental enablers, both internally and externally, are simply not present in many countries to make online delivery of learning programmes quality assured and, therefore, officially recognised.

A forced reality

Countries are fighting the far-reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This crisis has called into question our priorities, our ways of life and the functioning of our societies.

With lockdowns, travel bans and physical distancing having become the toolbox to contain the spread of the virus, we have seen school, college and university closures on an unprecedented scale and for an unprecedented length of time, in almost all countries.

Campus- and classroom-based learning have been unexpectedly disrupted, while higher education providers have raced to develop solutions to ensure the continuity of learning.

In 2020, online learning has quickly become the most sought-after alternative to in-person instruction, even in countries where infrastructure and preparedness are underdeveloped. It is interesting to see that, once there are no other choices, things can move forward in a more efficient way. What people need to think about is simply how to make things happen.

Indeed, this forced reality has been much more powerful than advocacy or the research outcomes presented before and has generated significant momentum for scholars and the public to reimagine the role of technology in the delivery of quality higher education programmes at scale.

The post-pandemic scenario

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no lack of good practice to promote the effective use of technology in higher education. As we can see from the previous UNESCO study jointly published with the Education University of Hong Kong, MOOCs (massive open online courses) and blended-learning strategies were already well established and implemented by higher education institutions in many countries and systems in the region.

However, the outbreak of the pandemic has tremendously accelerated the process of mainstreaming online and blended learning in higher education.

We cannot return to the old normal in which in-person learning was the dominant modality, with online learning playing only a supplemental or marginal role.

It is also unrealistic to go for 100% online, as online learning has its own limitations. Offline learning still has its advantages in many ways and remains one of the most important sources of learning experiences for many students.

Blended learning solutions are necessary in the post-pandemic era and have become the new normal. The mainstreaming of online and blended learning is critical to ensure equitable access to quality higher education for all.

This is not a contingency plan but a fundamental principle for action under Sustainable Development Goal Four (SDG 4). Going forward, UNESCO is working to redefine ‘normal’ as we build a new understanding of inclusive quality higher education based on sustainability and supportive ecosystems.

Supportive ecosystems

In line with SDG 4, mainstreaming requires different levels of new norms, including through regulating, institutionalising, financing, empowering and incentivising.

Mainstreaming involves policy support from the government, infrastructure development and upgrading, institutional capacity-building, professional development of faculty, as well as working in partnership and networking.

These constitute the ecosystem needed to support the effective implementation of blended learning at higher education institutions.

In terms of policy support, it is essential that robust quality assurance mechanisms for online and blended learning are developed and implemented so that credits and qualifications obtained from online and blended learning modalities can be mainstreamed into the national qualifications systems.

Infrastructure-readiness is another key factor affecting the online teaching and learning experiences of both teachers and students, such as the speed of internet connectivity and the availability of online learning platforms and learning resources.

On top of the physical infrastructure, we may also need to strengthen the academic infrastructure (for instance, qualifications frameworks, subject-specific quality standards, templates for programme development and course planning, and so on) that support online and blended learning for colleges and universities.

At an institutional level, online and blended learning should be integrated into institutional strategic planning, budgeting, administrative and capacity-building processes so that concrete platforms, templates, workflows and internal regulations can be developed to empower and incentivise faculty.

An institution-wide teaching and learning support centre, or its equivalent, should be established within colleges and universities, with a mandate to facilitate the continuing and professional development of faculty to improve information and communication technologies, pedagogy and quality-assurance competencies.

Programme development and course planning

At the operational level, online and blended learning require faculty to bring online elements into their programme development and course-planning processes. It is important that these processes are aligned with many possible upstream frameworks, both external and internal, such as national qualifications frameworks, subject-specific quality standards, institutional vision and frameworks on teaching and learning, and so on.

Eventually, online and blended learning modalities should be reflected in different parts of all programme and course profile documents that are developed.

As part of setting expected learning outcomes, whether through online or offline learning, the end results should be the same or, if not, should include relevant online-related objectives and outcomes.

The same is true of modules of learning. The most relevant parts are modalities of delivery, pedagogical considerations and assessment of learning achievements as well as the availability of online learning resources.

The percentage of online and offline learning should be decided depending on the nature and needs of the study programmes and courses.

Online learning pedagogy should be developed properly, taking into account the evolving dynamics between students, teachers, learning materials, parents, local communities, and so on.

Online-learning assessment is quite different from in-person assessments and concrete techniques should be developed to deal with these challenges. Faculty may also need to contribute to and make the most of available online open educational resources to benefit more students in their local education systems and beyond.

To overcome the gaps in delivering high-quality teaching and learning, institution-supported rapid innovation is more critical than ever.

Dr Libing Wang is chief of Section for Educational Innovations and Skills Development (EISD) at UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, Bangkok, Thailand. Excerpts from this editorial will also appear in Blended Learning for Inclusive and Quality Higher Education in Asia, edited by Cher Ping Lim and Charles R Graham (expected in February 2021), Springer.