Blended learning Curriculum Design Learning design

Beyond blended: reflecting on Jisc’s curriculum and learning design work

Following publication of Beyond blended, consultants Helen Beetham and Sheila McNeill, share reflections on their work examining post-pandemic learning and curriculum design.

Reflecting on the context of the project

This project built on two decades of Jisc research, development and practice in curriculum design. In 2008-2012 Jisc funded 27 institutional projects on curriculum design in the digital university. Since then Jisc has published a number of sector guides, building on the work of those institutional projects and ongoing reviews of emerging practice.

The context for the current project, initiated in 2021, was one of multiplying stresses on university teaching and learning, as well as creative responses and intentional transformations. The pandemic and wholesale shift to online teaching and learning was a time of intense professional development for academic teaching staff, as well as a time of change for students and their practices of learning. Both groups – educators and learners – developed new skills for online, screen-based modes of participation, but they also saw their place-based, embodied practices through a new lens. Concerns about student wellbeing, student learning differences, and equity and diversity of provision moved centre stage during the pandemic response. The project hoped to consolidate these lessons and demonstrate their value to the higher education sector going forward.

In the event, the response from government, regulators and indeed many stakeholders has been to prioritise a return to what was (or was perceived to have been) ‘normal’ practice before the pandemic struck. This made it a priority for the project to articulate what had been learned about diverse modes of participation. We wanted to re-visit the positive reasons that there had been such a strong focus on wellbeing, diversity, equity and resilience, and to recover what was valuable about this learning despite the many negative experiences that accompanied it.

As well as the push ‘back to campus’, in the short lifetime of the project new issues have emerged that present almost as great a challenge to modes of teaching, learning and assessment as the pandemic did. One is a crisis of student engagement, related to the experience of learning through the pandemic, but with other contributory factors such as long-term changes in study habits, economic and cultural expectations about higher education, and uncertainty about the future. A second challenge is the cost of living crisis for students, which accompanies an ongoing decline in the per-student funding available to universities. Time and space are at a premium for everyone, which means maximising the value of every encounter students have with teaching staff, content materials, campus resources, and other students. The curriculum must respond to students’ lived experiences and constraints (e.g. around travel, paid work, the costs of heating and eating, access to bandwidth).

A third, related issue, has been called the ‘crisis of the campus’. With increasing numbers of students living in their family home, commuting long distances to study, studying at satellite or overseas campuses, or learning at work, the experience of being ‘at’ university is less directly connected with a specific site. The costs of land and rent continue to rise, both for universities and for their community members. Many universities are struggling to offer sufficient teaching accommodation to rising student numbers and many students are struggling to afford the ‘campus experience’ that is typically associated with time at university. Finally, a fourth disruption is threatened by the arrival of generative AI capabilities, rapidly being embedded into the platforms used by students and academic teaching staff. One common response has been to diversify modes of assessment, which creates new opportunities but also new demands on teaching staff. ‘Authentic’, iterative, in-person, in-place and formative modes of assessment can require more curriculum resources than final exams or assignments. There is a welcome opportunity to focus on student development, but associated with this the expectation of more personal feedback. The impact of generative AI goes beyond assessment, however, and adds to the pressures on curriculum teams to provide a meaningful learning experience in a context where alternative forms of knowledge and credibility are available.

With these continuous and discontinuous changes converging on the university curriculum, many universities are engaged in wholesale portfolio review projects, or at least extensive programme redesign. Some are choosing this moment to refresh their Teaching, Learning and Assessment strategies. While these allow for new conversations and exciting possibilities, in practice they arrive at a time of weariness and low morale. Our research indicates that teaching staff find the pace of change relentless. They need real reasons for embracing new curriculum ideas, as well as the time and resource to try them out. With peer support and the chance to experiment, educators can feel a greater sense of agency in curriculum change.

Reflecting on the process of curriculum and learning design

In 2022 the UCISA TEL survey asked respondents about modes of delivery, offering no less than eight different modes to choose from.

Alternative modes of delivery suggested by the UCISA TEL survey 2022:

  • Blended learning (supplementary): lecture notes and supplementary resources for courses studied in class are available
  • Blended learning: parts of the course are studied in class and other parts require students to engage in active learning online (e.g., engaging in collaborative or assessed tasks
  • Hybrid/HyFlex: the programme enables students to attend live classes either in person or online
  • Fully online courses
  • Open online learning courses for all students at your institution, internal access only
  • Open online boundary courses: free external access to the course materials for the public, but assessment restricted to students registered at your institution only
  • Open online learning courses for public: free external access
  • Other

The survey found a significant increase in ‘active’ blended learning models, with 36% offering this ‘extensively across the institution’, up from 20% in 2020. However, the definitions offered in the survey are far from universally understood, as our phase 1 research highlighted. We have tried, in our resources, to provide a clear and pedagogically rich vocabulary for describing modes of participation. While the UCISA TEL survey showed change taking place across organisations, it was not designed to surface where and how this was happening in the course portfolio, as our work has tried to do. In fact, the first three option on the survey list are now available in almost any context of course delivery, and in many combinations within a programme – unlike the options further down the list that tend to define a programme type. And these three options are not well differentiated or logically complete. This highlights the need for modes of participation to be considered in detail during course design, in ways that are clearly linked to what students will be doing (activities and interactions) in what spaces (in-place or online) and at what times (live or in their own time). Again, our phase 1 research highlighted that this clarity was not always there, either in course planning or in communicating expectations with students.

Our phase 1 survey showed strategic responses beginning to emerge around Learning and Teaching Strategies and Course Design processes, and it was these strategic responses that we hoped to influence. We were clear that we did not want to challenge existing frameworks or processes that were working well, but to describe the range of current practices and to articulate the options for organisations looking to adapt or change. As we found, most universities seem to formalise curriculum design at quite a high level, leaving curriculum teams and design workshops to debate the meaning of principles, adapt frameworks and choose resources for design. There was very limited concern about our materials ‘failing to fit’. So long as resources address the generic decisions that design teams make, and are felt to be realistic and actionable, it seems they can find a place.

In the course of our consultations in this phase we have noticed an increase in institutions moving to ‘whole programme’ design. This usually means limiting optionality and focusing on structured progression or development. Students and teaching staff have more opportunities to build a sense of cohort or community, and it is often belived that this will improve engagement and support retention (though it does not work equally well for all students). Some institutions, on the other hand, are pursuing radically flexible approaches such as multiple start times and micro-credentials, but these tend to be in specialist areas or in sandbox developments, and almost always to meet the needs of specific student groups.

Considering time and place/platform as resources to be deployed in curriculum design we hoped would provide an opportunity for better articulation with organisational processes such as room bookings, timetabling, workload allocations and teaching staff support. We do not as yet have any evidence of this articulation taking place through use of our resources, but we do have feedback from our consultation process that there are often gaps in articulating these processes. Our stakeholders are keen to see curriculum (teaching, learning and assessment) considerations leading the strategic conversation.

Key lessons from phase 2

The language of project reports and resources has been described as accessible, equitable and welcome, at least in an HE context (but less translatable to other contexts – and does it do enough?) We have recognised that visual languages, iconography and resources are particularly useable by students and seek to further develop these in the near future. We have been surprised and gratified to find project resources already being used in contexts of design and decision making. It is particularly pleasing that we have been asked for student-facing versions, and that workshop members consistently bring forward suggestions for using resources with students.

The original rationale – post-pandemic learning and consolidation – remains highly relevant but the resources can also be adapted to answer some of the other challenges identified in this (paper/post).

Digital technologies are now thoroughly embedded into teaching and learning, as a matter of deliberate investment and policy on the part of universities, as an ongoing commitment to developing practice on the part of educators, and in the personal study practices of students. This means teaching and learning are always potentially ‘blended’, even if digital resources and modes of participation are not directly called on by teaching staff or designed into the curriculum.

Another key message is that digital participation can compress, extend and reconfigure learning time and space. For example, recording lectures allows students to replay them at their own pace, focusing on the areas they need to attend to, and to do this several times to support review, assignment writing, and revision. For another example, design boards (such as padlet, trello, miro) and collaborative documents (such as google sheets, docs, slides, annotation texts) can be used before, during and after in-class sessions, both live and in students’ independent study time. These are examples of basic, well-established technologies that are radically changing curriculum time and space.

Students are using their digital facilities to connect up diverse spaces and places of learning, conversations, environments, resources and media, feedback and evidence of their progress. Some will simply rely on the VLE as an orchestrating platform. Others will use note-making apps, reference management, filing systems and (increasingly) generative AI to help them organise their experience and find their own pathway through the curriculum. More than ever, students’ experiences of the ‘same’ curriculum can be quite diverse. While it remains important to offer a diversity of ways to engage, following the principles of Universal Design for Learning, there are also trade-offs and risks from flexibility. Some students, and all students sometimes, need clear scaffolding and support for their developing practices of learning. Some topics or skills have to be covered at a certain time or in a certain way. And there are benefits to all students, as well as to teaching staff, from a coherent cohort having a relatively coherent learning experience.

Both to support curriculum design and to support students’ sense-making of the curriculum, we need a more nuanced vocabulary to describe the different ways learners are participating, and their different pedagogic benefits and considerations. The terms ‘hybrid’, ‘hyflex’ and ‘blended’ were not always experienced as helpful by the stakeholders we consulted with. Therefore we set out to develop a clearer set of terms that related more exactly to what students were doing, when, and in what ‘spaces’ (real world, online or mixed).

We continue to be committed to describing and understanding digital modes of participation from the perspective of pedagogy; that is, to ask what are the educational benefits of different modes, media and activities, for different students, studying different topics, in different settings. Of course a single project can’t provide the answers, which is why we have framed almost all our resources as prompts (questions) or as highly flexible principles that call on stakeholders to provide their own meanings and realisations.

Place and platform, time and pace seem to work as concepts that can be built upon to design diverse learning experiences and ways of engaging. They need considerable translation for different contexts. We have begun this translation using the curriculum and strategic lenses, but continue to look for other perspectives.

The four modes also make sense to practitioners. There is ongoing debate about terminology, but we are pleased to see evidence of ‘in place’ being adopted as an alternative to ‘live’ or ‘in person’, recognising that online learning can be both live and highly interpersonal. This dyad works. The distinction synchronous/asynchronous is more problematic – the terms are seen as too technical by many practitioners. But it is precise, where alternatives are not. In presenting synchronous/asynchronous as alternatives we should be mindful to mix in less technical words that also give nuance to the differences e.g. in-class/independent learning, responsive/reflective learning, live/later learning.

Designing with attention to space and place, time and pace, i.e. in the four modes, is understood by specialists to be complementary rather than alternative to traditional learning design with its focus on media, resources, activities and interactions. However, we know from our research and find reiterated in our consultations, that learning design is not widely used as a term or provided as a service in UK HE. So Jisc may consider whether there is value in re-iterating some of these ideas. This might involve revisiting earlier resources and/or working collaboratively with e.g. the ABC team, the Pedagogy Planner at UCL, and other frameworks.

‘Pedagogy first’ and ‘student centred’ are important principles that the project has followed but not always foregrounded. For example, our prompts on the pedagogical strengths and challenges of the four modes show us following the first principle, while our student-facing posters, and our prompts (across all lenses) to consider student differences show us following the second. We follow both principles when we offer a shared vocabulary for talking about the curriculum, its times and spaces, so that curriculum designers and students can engage meaningfully around the question of how learning, teaching and assessment will happen.

Resources from phase 2

Through 12 workshops and by engaging with an expert Advisory Group we have developed and refined a range of resources to bring these ideas into practice. Some of the resources are intended to support curriculum teams, and others are oriented towards strategic teams and projects. We are working with the Jisc team to create interactive, web-based access, with different pathways for different stakeholders. We will report on progress in our next post.



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