Danielle George: Blended and flexible learning
Associate Vice-President for Blended and Flexible Learning, Professor Danielle George, shares her experiences of preparing for Semester 1.
Last month I was told I had the worst academic role in the University. In my next meeting I was told I had the best job in the University. I agree with the latter and it is certainly an interesting time to start a role as Associate Vice-President (AVP) for Blended and Flexible Learning!
September is usually very busy for most of us but this year it’s like preparing for semester 1 in a 10 times speeded up version of reality. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to switch our entire Teaching and Learning operation to one of online delivery overnight. There have been some amazing accomplishments to prepare teaching materials by so many people since our rapid exit from campus in March. Rather than simply replicate traditional lecture courses, colleagues have taken time to think about the opportunities the new medium affords us such as asynchronous discussions and drawing upon a different range of resources and tools.
It’s an understatement to say the start of the 20/21 academic year presents us with additional challenges to overcome. I think it’s also fair to say that semester 1 won’t be exactly the perfect blended provision we would ideally like for students or staff. What we’re doing represents a marked shift from how we’ve done things before. It will be tough for lots of academics to teach online if they have little or no experience of it, so it’s key that we get the necessary support required in a short time frame. Otherwise we face frustration and errors, which will make educators and students feel stressed or vulnerable. Technology is one of the keys to enabling a successful transition to more blended learning and so I formed the Online and Blended Working Group (a great mixture of academics from across the Faculties, PS and ITS colleagues) which is taking a tactical approach to get the right tools in place to ensure a successful start to the year. We are also investing in more learning technologist posts so we have colleagues who can support us in designing our teaching materials and bringing them to life.
We’ve got various initiatives we are currently progressing in order to provide our new and existing students with a seamless online teaching offering. We’ve achieved a great deal already and we have more in the pipeline. We’re looking at subtitle and transcription service for pre-recorded teaching and learning content as well as for live teaching, combining remote and on-campus access to IT Clusters and, something we have historically thought more about for research – export controls.
Many of us also have a whole a new set of vocabulary to learn: what is blended, flexible, online, flipped …and do we all agree on the terms??, does face to face teaching mean on-campus or can that be on Zoom?, …. the list goes on. To help us get to grips with this I recommend watching a video made in FSE Teaching College by Steve Pettifer.
In recent months the timetabling teams deserve the Mastermind trophy. Every year it’s a complex problem to solve. A computer can easily check that a timetable has no clashes but a clash-free timetable cannot (in general) be guaranteed, so finding a timetable with the minimum number of clashes is a genuine mathematical challenge. Add to that our reduction in estate use due to much-needed safety measures and … oh my head hurts now. (The ability to solve timetabling efficiently hinges on one of the foremost unsolved problems in mathematics: the so-called “P vs NP” problem but that’s for another day). But I know how committed many staff are to ensuring we have some timetabled teaching activities on campus in semester 1 as we recognise how important (socially distanced) on-campus activities are for the wellbeing of our students. One of the functions of face to face education is that it does a lot of the organising for a student: here is a timetable, here are locations to be in, here is where the resources can be found, etc. The physical structure of a campus is also a time and planning structure which helps our students enormously.
In the spare minutes I’ve tried to let my thoughts wander to a longer-term strategy and what a successful blended and flexible learning strategy looks like for us. The short answer is – I don’t know yet, but I think that’s ok, as I haven’t yet had the chance to chat to colleagues across the University and gather your thoughts and opinions. So that’s my next task. I am going on the road (so to speak) and attending as many open meetings, FLTs, School, Departmental and Division meetings as I can to discuss my thoughts so far and to get your ideas. What do you want our teaching provision to look like in five years’ time? How best do we utilise our assets such as UMW and UCIL? Should we provide degree apprenticeships? What about micro credentials or joint degrees with other institutions globally, or CPD? Any and all suggestion and comments are most welcome, and I look forward to chatting to you at an open meeting near you.