April McMahon: Creating a blended experience for our students
Professor April McMahon, Vice-President for Teaching, Learning and Students, talks about taking a flexible and hybrid approach to teaching and learning in a COVID-19 world.
How would you like some salsa or tango lessons – online? 200 of our students have recently followed a six-week course arranged by the Ballroom and Latin Dance Society (and most of them weren’t even members). The Run Wild Society has created running routes to help students stay fit, or even take up running. And 300 student volunteers from Student Action have moved their intergenerational project onto the phone and are regularly calling lonely elderly residents across Greater Manchester.
Ah, I hear you say – that’s all fabulous, but that’s the Students’ Union, and students live on Instagram anyway. During the weird days of lockdown though, haven’t we all being learning and building communities online? People are learning to knit online; and everybody seems to be baking, even those who wouldn’t have known their friands from their frangipane before. I have been doing a lot of dance workouts in my sitting room (not salsa or tango, but jumping about has to be better than sitting on the sofa; and nobody can see). And much of this is a genuinely blended experience – you can ask questions and share results (this scarf is now four metres long, but how do I cast off? If I can’t find any self-raising flour, can I still bake this cake?).
Since the long-ago days of lockdown in March, all our teaching, learning and assessment has been online. Every day I hear fantastic stories of how our staff and students are supporting each other, building virtual communities of practice, sharing ideas and improving what we do. Every day colleagues tell me they weren’t sure…but now they don’t want to go back. Yesterday someone said they can’t imagine why all our exams used to involve hundreds of students queuing up to sit in rows in big sweaty halls for hours, and please can we not do that again? We need to recognise that not everyone is going to love everything about these changes – but we hear many more positive than negative comments. And while we will undoubtedly go back to ‘normal’ in some respects, there’s a lot we will want to keep.
I am not, however, an online evangelist for teaching and learning. I’m a blended learning evangelist (or if we’re going to get technical about it, a hybrid-flexible learning evangelist). At The University of Manchester we’re mainly not designing and providing wholly online programmes. We can make the online components higher-quality, with better production values, based on appropriate pedagogy for working with online learners – and our students are guiding us on how to do this, based on their unit survey responses and other feedback (see this excellent blog by our careers consultant Amanda Conway). But we also believe passionately in an on-campus experience, and we miss the buzz of our campus full of students. Those students, wherever they come from, love Manchester. They love walking down Oxford Road in Welcome Week and thinking ‘I’m really a student now’. They want to have face to face discussions with academics and other students, and feel part of an international, intergenerational community of learning. They want to be in labs, and lectures, study in the library and the learning commons, go to the gym between classes, venture out of their rooms in their residences to meet the people they’ll still be in touch with in 30 years. How do we provide that in a COVID-19 world?
A hybrid approach
So for this coming academic year of 2020-21, we have some challenges. We need a safety-net online version of everything for Semester 1 because we don’t know what this virus is going to do. We don’t know what Government guidance is going to be, or if borders will be open. In line with our values and our social responsibility ethos, we must not exclude students who want to come to Manchester but can’t initially get here. At the same time, we want to encourage students to come if they safely can. So we are talking to airlines to make sure there will be capacity from key countries to get our students here if they’re allowed to travel; and sorting out lots of extra cleaning; and providing washable face coverings for our students and staff.
This requires compromise. We’ve already said all our lectures and assessments for Semester 1 will need to be online, which frees up some spaces, helps us accommodate social distancing, and gives clarity for preparation. As much other teaching will be on campus as we can manage safely – which requires a lot of hard work and yes, some doubling up. There will be small group sessions where either we have both on-campus and online learners joining in together; or we need to teach twice, in the two different modalities. Some switching around of elements of the curriculum will be needed, because there are certain practical skills you can’t fully master or assess online (though fewer than we might have imagined back in March).
We need to remember, though, that given a choice, students will often opt for a blended experience. Students are very positive indeed about lecture capture, which lets them revise, or watch back material they haven’t understood the first time. Those who opt for UCIL units disproportionately select the online ones – why wouldn’t you, because they are beautifully designed for online learning, and also include plentiful opportunities for students to discuss, contribute and work together. When prospective and continuing students tell us they are anxious about some of their learning being online, or all of it being online for a period of time, I don’t think they are really saying they feel online means inferior. Rather, they are expressing an understandable sense of loss and disappointment because their student experiences are not going to be exactly as they had anticipated.
Creating a sense of belonging
It’s up to us to explain how we are developing a better blended experience – with enhanced welcome and induction in the coming year; opportunities to contribute and debate and feel you belong in the Manchester intellectual community, wherever you happen to be in the world; and still that unbeatable sense that yes, ‘I’m really a student’. We have unprecedented sources of support for students, including more than £1.2m for student hardship raised through the exceptional generosity of our staff, students and alumni. Students have dealt recently with a period of huge disruption in their lives, and they will need support with their confidence, transition into higher education or re-entry to study. But they have already demonstrated extraordinary resilience, adaptability, courage and drive; our Manchester graduates are going to be unstoppable! If we can communicate that and get excited about it ourselves, we’ll build on everything we have learned in lockdown, and have a year to look forward to together.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a spot of dancing to do in the sitting room.
Thanks April for that uplifting viewpoint. It’s a joy to read. I think the skills of effective online communication as well as personable communication will be so vital, as you have aptly demonstrated. I could understand that being recorded or seeing more of a conversation in writing could make individuals more aware or anxious or worried about being misunderstood or somehow more accountable. It’s harder to know or control who sees/reads what and for how long. I think the more we create a space to allow students/staff to feel safe and feel equipped to express themselves, everyone will benefit from a much richer, authentic experience.
Thank you for your positive response. You are right that we are all starting to understand more about how a blended approach works best, and what the ‘etiquette’ is for these interactions. The question of safe spaces for discussion and contribution is an important one and quite personal too; so for instance I recently spoke to a student who said she had not been confident to ask questions in face to face teaching sessions but had felt empowered to do so online. So we are already hearing more voices in this blended world – and that inclusivity is definitely something to celebrate.