Since we came out of lockdown and drifted back into our institutions, and as many instructors returned to in-person teaching, we have been asking ourselves the question about what to do with all our remote learning materials?
Do we consign them to the past and abandon them, as much of our memories of teaching during this time ebb into the haze of covid-times? Just like good script writers, Teachers and Instructors learn never to throw anything away, and although materials can be repurposed and lesson plans adapted from remote to in-person, there is a feeling that we invested so much in the pedagogies that we used during lockdown that we should think about ways we might continue to develop courses that we can deliver learning using synchronous and asynchronous activities.
Blended Learning 2.0
Reflecting on my own instruction, I have always sought to develop blended learning and align the activity with the most effective pedagogy. I’ve been asked many times what percentage of a course needs to be online in order to be properly blended, and I usually don’t give a very clear answer. If a course was say, 90% effectively taught online with only one or two f2f (face to face) sessions, for instance, a meetup or end of course celebration, or even a field trip, then this would still be blended. We know however, that all courses, blended or otherwise need to be balanced and employ a variety of activities to serve a range of outcomes.
Using Laurillard’s conversational framework, we can include activities for learning, and enjoy the affordances that different media have to offer. We can ensure effective pedagogy for learning outcomes, providing opportunities for learner engagement, through interaction, reflection and output.
A good place to start might be to consider a flipped-model where reading and watching, lecture-based delivery takes place online and f2f sessions are used to create outcomes, write essays, create digital outcomes, prepare and deliver presentations.
We know that it can be difficult to get students into the rhythm of flipped-learning, and that there can be many frustrating false-starts, especially when videos haven’t been watched or readings completed ahead of time. Students almost always need support, writing prompts, questions, short quizzes even (although personally, I’m not a huge fan).
In sync with a blended approach
Thinking about blended learning in this way might help us decide which elements of a course need to be taught using synchronous/asynchronous sessions and activities.
Just as in a flipped-model there are a opportunities to provide support and ensure that there a viable structure throughout, so that even when the instructor isn’t present, students are reassured of facilitation and feel part of a supportive community, able to ask questions and check details of assignments, deadlines etc.
I’ve played with various platforms and tools that provide backchannels and forums, currently I’m using Discord, but have in the past used Slack, or the discussion tools in the VLE (Canvas), and sometimes a padlet or dotstorming board. It’s hard to please every student here, some will be familiar with some tools and not others, or prefer boards where they can post blocks of text (answers) rather than join in discussion.
I recommend incorporating starter exercises when using almost any type of discussion board, for instance asking students to introduce themselves by adding the last image on their camera roll and giving it some context, or asking them to dive straight in with a question or prompt. I usually give students a short tour of the space that I’m using, share examples from previous discussions and help them to see how discussion threads can gain momentum. I demonstrate how I search for student names or group discussion points, but has been negative tendancy for students to prioritise quantity, ie. the number of posts, over quality, thoughtful responses that contribute to the flow.
I find that in any cohort of students you will have some that understand the teaching strategy before others, perhaps because they are familiar with similar approaches experienced in previous courses, or that their subject-area (I’m often teaching students from a multitude of disciplines) tends to lend itself to a particular approach, perhaps one that is mirrored in industry or area norms. These students can be champions, super-users who might be encouraged to provide some low-level support and facilitation to other students, perhaps helping to address queries or adding new prompts or links to further reading etc. Champions might make themselves identifiable early on, and their presence in a discussion board needs to be gently nurtured and encouraged.
These are probably the hardest aspects to manage in a synchronous/ asynchronous course environment, making sure to achieve a balance so that students don’t feel constantly tested, but still feel reassured (along with the instructor) that they are making progress and moving along as intended.
Surveys are incredibly useful in this regard, providing an opportunity for dialogue about the course and highlighting areas where students may feel that they need further instruction. Even when I’m running short courses (mini’s) I find surveys useful, and I make sure to incorporate changes and make sure that students know that they are being listened to.
I’m very lucky that many of my courses are project-led with stages in development that can be used as natural learning checks, especially when following a design-thinking process or where teams or individual students are invited to showcase work in progress or share thoughts and reflections of a particular aspect or element of their work.
These moments need to be baked into the curriculum, and I’ve been thinking recently how courses that spiral; ie: moving through the same concepts and theories with increasing complexity and detail; also contain these moments as learning shifts and the course moves up through levels. Taking time to recognize these staging posts is significant, they provide opportunities for meta-cognition and learner engagement.
Learning as a Community
One more thing that I’d like to add, especially as a way of nurturing community, is the use of silent study sessions. I first encountered these during the pandemic as a useful tool for providing focus between scheduled sessions. Many instructors will be loathe to use zoom again, but we have to recognise that video-conferencing platforms are here to stay, but we can use them in different ways. Silent study sessions are online meetings where everyone joins, turns on their cameras but remains muted throughout. Sessions are timed, say half-hour or an hour and participants work on their projects and ask any questions via chat, so as not to disturb the concentration of others. This might look like a virtual library study session, students looking up occasionally from their screens and glancing at their colleagues also working. Students surveyed reflected on how useful these sessions were, providing a focussed time each week to work, and helping them to feel motivated and supported, even if they had no formal interaction during this time.
Together with a backchannel, silent study sessions can contribute to the learning community, and even if you don’t adopt these ideas, it is important when using a synchronous/ asynchronous model, to be able to bring learners together even when they are not actually present in the same room.
Planning a synchronous/ asynchronous course is demanding, and although there is much discussion as to the long-term benefit of asynchronous learning, we know that students who feel empowered, have some flexibility and choice, and feel confident as independent learners, can potentially flourish and enjoy successful outcomes.
- Plan division of synchronous/ asychronous according to learning outcomes.
- Create a visible structure for both modalities.
- Adopt a backchannel and establish a course presence in a virtual/online setting.
- Nurture community through events, shared moments and encourage learners to support each other.
As we move into a post-pandemic phase we should recognise the investment that instructors and students have made over the past few years in adapting their teaching and adopting new pedagogies. This should be an opportunity to cement progress and develop new ways to work. We should find ways to preserve pedagogies that have shown to be successful in online and remote spaces, and recognize that there is a way to continue with effective approaches for blended learning.
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