How to ensure that blended teaching caters for all students

The COVID-19 crisis and the enforced lockdowns it led to in order to protect lives had serious implications for university teaching with a lot of radical changes needed, but is it worth keeping any of the innovations borne out of this necessity?

From the few people who practised it before the pandemic, online learning had been shown as having the benefits of cost effectiveness, flexibility and the ability to reach people off-site.

However, for most subjects it had remained much underused. My subject, entrepreneurship, which is traditionally a hands-on subject with face-to-face networking and with group working being an important part of the teaching, had a lot of catching up to do with other subjects, with only 5% of teaching being online pre-COVID.

Many decisions in 2020 had to be made in a hurry. To do synchronous teaching meant being reliant on lecturers’ IT set-up (and potential interruptions from inquisitive home-schooled children), on students’ IT set-up and the acceptance of lectures at unsociable hours in some time zones.

Asynchronous was used where lectures could be uploaded (when the lecturer was happy with the quality) and students could access them when convenient (with some students watching lectures at 1.5 times the speed to save time!) – but the downside was that the lecturer and students felt very detached without any live interaction.

Many followed the prevalent advice of trying to mix both, with recorded lectures broken into smaller segments and opportunities to speak to the lecturer in flexible synchronous sessions being provided.

A mixed experience

The feedback has been mixed. Students have complained about teaching quality and lack of engagement, with record complaints made to the United Kingdom ombudsman and students wanting fee refunds.

It seems teaching staff have also reacted to criticism that teaching online didn’t count as hard work and that online teaching was not value for money – so many staff have been overpopulating their online sites with many hours of material, from lectures and links to other reading material, and all courses seemed to require a weekly online quiz.

Some students were so bewildered by the amount of material to get through that they needed guidance as to what was compulsory and what was optional – especially with the reduced contact students have had with each other in order to discuss things amongst themselves.

Students have also been criticised for having their cameras off – some for genuine reasons such as to conserve bandwidth on a poor internet connection for the lecture, but others just logging in with cameras off to show they were present while they were doing other things.

This has made it more difficult for lecturers to visually check that students are present and engaging. Students have, of course, also been frustrated by losing out on campus social activities and feeling they are alone with it being much harder to get to know those on their courses.

Embracing hybrid learning

However, despite mixed reviews, now that lockdowns are (mostly) over, universities have embraced ‘blended learning’ – a broad term referring to a mixture of online and face-to-face teaching in various proportions.

Many are continuing with hybrid teaching (online and in-person simultaneously), where university IT facilities allow, to take advantage of the benefits – some unexpected – that were observed from lecturers having taught online for a year.

For good hybrid teaching, it is important to ensure both groups have as similar experience as possible, checking regularly with online learners. If you are lucky enough to have multiple cameras in the lecturer theatre, these can be used to try to provide some atmosphere, but are also good for capturing white board activities to keep online learners involved.

One advantage that online platforms have concerns the chat function, which has proved especially useful for students who are nervous about asking questions in class, and for those who want more time to articulate their question and ensure it sounds right before posting it – especially if it’s in the student’s second language.

The benefit of flexibility

Hybrid learning allows flexibility for those who commute to university from nearby towns, perhaps due to living with family – timetabling can be a lottery and the worst outcome for those commuting is to need to travel to university every day but for one lecture each time.

For disabled students, with the journey to university potentially difficult, this offers some respite, as it does for those who are immunocompromised and for whom attending university might not even be possible.

Being hybrid rather than purely asynchronous can also be useful in giving structure to a student’s day. Of course, lectures can still be recorded for students to access at a later date.

Live subtitles are a useful addition for those with a poor connection or where the lecturer is hard to understand – although some technical words are not well translated and can lead to the amusement of the audience on occasion and the lecturer’s words appearing on screen can be slightly distracting.

There are clearly risks: the students won’t feel the need to attend in-person; and the need to be aware that many things take longer, such as placing students into break-out groups and remembering to pause regularly to check in with the online viewers.

But if you can spare a few extra minutes at the start of your lecture to log into your Zoom or Teams account, greet any students who are learning online that day and check in periodically during your lecture, then hybrid teaching could be a way to ensure all your students are catered for in a way that suits them.

Dr Robert A Phillips is a senior lecturer at Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, United Kingdom.