July 27, 2022

Hybrid and blended learning: the flexible future of higher education?

After the restrictions of the last two years, the fact that university campuses everywhere are once again buzzing with students feels like a cause for optimism.


But, although in-person interactions are gradually being resumed, forward-thinking institutions aren’t side-stepping the profound challenges that were triggered by the pandemic. Instead, they’re using hard-won lessons to explore new ways of delivering an infinitely more flexible, faceted, and relevant learning experience in a digital age.


Capitalising on digital advancements

Campus-based provision remains a touchstone for many students. A 2021 academic experience survey from Advance HE/HEPI reported that 57 percent of students (from a pool of 10,186 full-time undergraduate students in the UK) expressed a preference for majority in-person attendance. Nevertheless, quality digital provision was also highly valued by many – so long as providers offer sufficient variety of formats and delivery options.


It’s a theme echoed by a 2021 study from The Student Futures Commission which found that while 59 percent of respondents thought that face-to-face teaching was a priority, two-thirds (66 percent) actually favoured a blend of in-person and online teaching. Moreover, almost half (45 percent) of those surveyed wanted their in-person experiences supported by regular online interactions, with a further 21 percent keen to flip this equation to mostly online study, supplemented with in-person activities.


None of this is, perhaps, surprising. Universities have long been experimenting with online and digital provision to enrich existing provision; in many respects, the pandemic merely accelerated changes that were already in their formative stages. And, while the rapid and wholesale transition to digital learning in 2020 was deeply disruptive, it also heralded a period of remarkable creativity and innovation which is still playing out today.


One of the biggest – and most welcome – successes has been the increased democratisation of access to HE. The move to digital gave people the option of more flexible study pathways, allowing them to learn at their own pace and schedule their studies around existing commitments – factors that have played their part in narrowing grade attainment gaps. HESA data shows that the attainment gaps between female/male students, black/white students and between students with and without disabilities, all contracted in 2019-20.


As HE institutions begin to rebuild their proposition, one of the key considerations will be how they can plan for the future, while capitalising on the advancements in digital teaching and learning, assessment, and support that were forged during the pandemic.


New routes to learning

In addition to an increase in the breadth and scope of online study programmes, many universities are also facilitating blended and hybrid approaches to optimise the benefits of online and in-person engagement. Hybrid learning programmes are designed for simultaneous in-person and digital delivery – offering students the option of studying on campus or remotely – while blended learning deploys both online and onsite engagement for an enriched experience.


Blended delivery helps to build the collegiate experience that’s part and parcel of every campus community, enabling students to engage in face-to-face meetings with their peers, at the same time offering additional flexibility when it comes to scheduling some elements of their degree programme. Hybrid options are expected to continue to appeal to students who need the flexibility to complete some or all of their learning at a distance.


Both routes present their own challenges – not least, relying on students to play their part in assimilating asynchronous materials at the required pace, so that everyone is (literally and figuratively) on the same page.


Providing online pathways for students enrolled on the same course as their onsite counterparts makes high-quality hybrid delivery a tricky proposition. Essentially, the different needs of two discrete groups of learners must be accommodated within a single course arc – something that requires both careful planning and effective edtech. A watered-down, one-size-fits-all approach that ostensibly includes all-comers while missing the mark for everyone, can end up being the worst of all worlds.


Blended learning ostensibly requires the same enhanced commitment levels from students and teachers as hybrid. But because blended programmes still follow a sequential order, there isn’t the same need to deliver shared course components in different formats for two separate student cohorts.


The benefits of hybrid and blended learning

More flexible ways to engage

The pandemic forced course leaders to rethink their curricula and to re-examine the structure and delivery of course components. In many respects, it’s been the catalyst for long-overdue change – an opportunity to reimagine HE provision without the burden of expectation based on decades of tradition.


Leveraging edtech to help students engage individually – and meaningfully – with a wealth of digital materials and resources has been liberating for those who prefer to learn at their own pace and in their own time.


Technology has also made it easier for everyone to participate in lectures and demonstrations. For example, Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) became the first of its kind in the UK to deliver a component of anatomy and surgical teaching via VR-enabled livestreamed footage of donor dissection. This kind of innovation can be seen as a better-than-life alternative, enabling all students to take their place in the front row, asking questions, sharing observations, and enjoying 360-degree visuals.


Moreover, without the usual capacity restrictions in campus theatres and classrooms, more students can attend more classes without detriment to the quality of teaching or learning. As a result, many universities are reporting increased attendance and participation levels.


Access to wider learning and support networks

There’s little doubt that the rapid shift to online teaching has helped HE institutions to expand their reach, connecting with other teaching and learning networks across the globe. This has led to additional opportunities for sharing good practice and disseminating creative new approaches.


Students have been able to further enrich their experiences by accessing valuable learning resources, as well as academic and student support services via digital platforms. Online options offer fresh ways for students to connect with their tutors, peers, mentors, and potential employers, including digital internships and virtual careers fairs.


The distributed nature of online support also means that universities can target resources to nurturing diverse and underrepresented student cohorts who may historically have been less engaged in university life, in order to better understand which services or support could help improve provision.


More meaningful assessment methodologies

Crucially, the hiatus of in-person exams has led to a rethink of the types and frequency of assessments, including the use of open-book formats, quizzes, and digital portfolios.


The era of exams as a test of an individual’s ability to memorise facts and figures – something that’s becoming less relevant in the workplace – has become superannuated. With the advent of new assessment options, leaders and students have the chance to engage in a no-holds-barred exploration of how learning outcomes can be more closely linked to course content and to their evaluation.


This recent progression towards more meaningful, inclusive methodologies allows coursework and assessments to be submitted and graded through a reliably consistent online platform.


It’s a welcome shift that not only enables students to demonstrate a much broader sample of their knowledge and skills base but also appears to deliver additional mental health benefits – with students less prone to assessment anxiety and more confident about sharing their learning in a less pressured environment.


Finding a new paradigm

Delivering higher education in hybrid or blended ways can deliver better outcomes for students, offering greater flexibility, widening participation, and dismantling barriers for non-traditional learners.


As universities face fresh challenges in a post-COVID world, embracing new approaches that extend and expand opportunities for all could be the key to designing a more creative, inclusive and purposeful experience for all.



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