Blended learning and the future of university teaching

My parents always liked to tell me about their time as university students, in the Faculty of Law in Barcelona in the 1970s. Those were interesting times, towards the end of General Franco’s dictatorship, when students could be found more often than not trying to get away from the political police after one of the frequent demonstrations against the regime. Among the many anecdotes of that period, among the ones that always struck me the most was the way their lectures took place. Imagine a packed lecture hall, with maybe a couple hundred students or more. The professor would step in at the beginning of the lecture (full three-pieces dark suit, tie or bow-tie, glasses), open his (it was inevitably a he in those times) notes, and start reading them. No blackboard, no fancy support material, no handouts, nothing. Just reading aloud the notes for the whole duration of the lecture, while the students struggled to scribble something before going back to their books in the library. Interestingly, it seems that most professors spent the whole lecture smoking (!), some even cigars, leaving a characteristic smell that filled the classroom and the student clothes for days. A funny detail was that there was no clock to check the time, no alarm to indicate the end of a lesson: once the time was over, the janitor would inevitably enter the class and politely indicate the professor that he was done with his sacred duties. Following this ever-present ritual, the professor would gather his notes and leave the hall, with next-to-none time for discussions or questions (no, there were no student evaluations in those days, why would you ask that?). You might also guess that there were not that many contact hours or tutorial sessions to assist digesting the material.

A typical university classroom in the 70s, minus the smoke (source).

Why am I mentioning this anecdote to start the post? Because from several points of view the way we teach university courses today is not that different from what tool place in the seventy’s classrooms. Sure, we don’t have smoke now (thanks Heavens for that), and we use slides, blackboards, provide fancy handouts to our students, and enjoy (struggle?) with an insane amount of different Learning Management Systems, but the big picture nevertheless remains unchanged in many cases. A professor enters the big lecture hall, talks for some time about the topic of the lecture, and tries to engage (often unsuccessfully) with their students, who will be at different times during the class taking notes, fiddling with their phones, eating their sandwiches, or simply looking at cat videos of Youtube (I have even seen students playing StarCraft during lectures as well, in case you are interested, no kidding). Actually, what I said is not completely true, since nowadays few students even take notes, and most stare at you and/or your slides (or their own screens) as if they were focusing in absorbing the delivered knowledge the same way a plant absorbs sunlight to generate energy. The bottom line is that most university lectures, specially in bachelor programs which involve big groups, are taught using the time-proof traditional method of standing up and speaking for a long time in front of the class. And maybe this is a good thing, it might very well be a very succesful teaching strategy. At the end of the day personal contact is crucial to the what might be called the experience of learning. For the last two decades many education gurus have declared the demise of traditional teaching in favour of things like MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), but fortunately these gloomy predictions have failed to materialise. However, like it or not, things are going to be quite different in university teaching due to the Corona crisis, certainly for the next academic year, perhaps even in the longer term. Just today the University of Cambridge announced that all lectures will be online-only for the 2020-2021 academic year. The requirements of social distancing impose of course many challenges for higher education, but also offer opportunities that could change the way we teach and learn in the long term.

Traditional lectures might be out of the question for some time.

The position of the Dutch universities in this respect is that for the next months (years?) one should carry out teaching on campus when possible and online when not possible. The former will be affected by severe restrictions to ensure the safety of the students and teachers and prevent further virus propagation, such as scheduling lectures only outside rush ours, keeping the 1.5 meters distance all times also in the labs, and using large lecture halls only for small-group teaching and tutorials. So how can we effectively deliver high-quality teaching while ensuring that all safety rules are satisfied? The answer might be related to something called called blended learning, a big buzzword these days. According to Wikipedia, in blended learning one combines online educational materials and opportunities for interaction online with traditional place-based classroom methods. To cut a long story short, the philosophy is that the core content of a course is provided online (either via live or recorded lectures), followed by self-study by the students, again with the support of online tools and materials, followed when possible by a discussion time, tutorial style, when the instructors assist the students to digest the content of the course, following on open issues and dark spots in their learning rather that on parroting textbook material or lengthly mathematical derivations. This model is not that different e.g. from the tutorial system in place in Oxford and Cambridge, modulo the fact that lectures would be online and that the small-group tutorial discussions require suitable rooms. Of course the Oxford and Cambridge model only works because colleges employ copious numbers of academics for these tutorials, so generalising it to other situations is far from straightforward. Yet, in my personal experience such small-group interactions are by far the most effective way to learn and to communicate knowledge, so what we can learn from this?

A tutorial session at Oxford’s Oriel college, minus the social distancing (source).

Now, assume that we cannot have on-site lectures anytime in 2020-2021. What do we do then? Many of my colleagues have made an amazing work turning their courses into online format in a very short notice, but if the situation persists for several months perhaps we can sit down for a while and try to think how we can optimise our efforts. One example that is close to my experience is the teaching of math courses in the hard-sciences degrees, the beta disciplines as they are called in The Netherlands. In principle, one would need say a single Mathematical Methods course, a single Algebra course, a single Statistics course, and so on. Surely enough, now we have a significant degree of repetition of such courses. And for good reasons! The first is that the scheduling of courses and lecture halls is already a nightmare, and you can fit only so many students in a lecture hall, so one needs separate courses for each education program even if the contents are basically the same (I have been told that effective scheduling is one of the titanic problems that could only be solved by a quantum computer, and I for one I am really looking forward to them). The second reason for this duplication is that ideally one wants to tune the content of math courses to the rest of the courses in a given program, for example if one is teaching Statistics for Physics one could use examples of data analysis from particle colliders but if the course is Statistics for Medical Science one might illustrate the same concepts using for instance the procedure to determine whether or not a given treatment is efficient.

In this specific example, how could one implement blended learning and deliver an effective education while at the same time improving the efficiency and resource management? One option would be to coordinate the math courses in different education programs and identify which are the core concepts and those more specific to individual programs. Then one could take the core concepts and prepare a set of recorded lectures and the corresponding online support material and exercises. These lectures could be chopped into separate short modules, and instructors would provide a tailored path for the students in the different programs. Further, one could have specific modules for each program, with examples focused on topics of interest for the rest of the courses, to ensure a coherency in the education pathway followed by the students. Now, this sounds great in theory, but the practical implementation requires a ton of work and professional support, if one wants to produce high-quality online educational material. Then, it still needs to be complemented with face-to-face teaching, whether online or on-campus in small groups remains to be seen, so scheduling and personnel allocation are far from trivial. But potentially by combining efforts one could end up with powerful educational resources while at the same time improving the accessibility of our higher education, since students could then adjust their schedule better to their own constraints, for example if they have to juggle study with a temp job. Similar ideas could be applied to other types of courses, think of for example introduction to programming, where actually mostly-online courses are already in place. The key aspect of a succesful implementation of these ideas is to find the appropriate balance between online and face-to-face teaching, since the latter is truly essential for a real educational experience. Technology can never replace the human ingredient in education, so I would not bank on getting replaced by robots anytime soon (but also I missed my chance to invest in Zoom stocks, so who am I to make predictions)!

The future of higher education might very likely involve a more extensive use of education technologies, though for the time being we will not be replaced by AIs.

Needless to say, maybe tomorrow a vaccine is discovered and we all go back to the normal times – but as often said making predictions is difficult, specially for the future. Maybe the current situation becomes the new normal for universities and higher education, maybe not. But in any case, we have an opportunity to rethink how we deliver education and find ways of maybe doing things a bit better. It would be naive to think that the way we do things now is the best, this is not written in stone. Crisis are often the starting point of revolutions, and perhaps (?) the current crisis will induce long-term changes in universities so that people will look in awe back to the 2010s in the same way that we now find striking the university classrooms from the 70s. Only time will tell, but in any case these are certainly interesting times for higher ed.

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