When Higher Education comes out of lock-down: thoughts on blended learning (examples from EU law teaching)

Universities all over the world have paused their life teaching and academic discourse, closed their libraries, and limited access to their buildings severely. Yet, while the first European states relax their lock-down measures, there is hope that lecture halls, libraries and research seminars may be able to open again, possibly as early as autumn. However, nothing will be as before. The global pandemic caused by COVID 19 will not be over, as research finding a cure and/or a vaccine will not be completed before long. This means many borders will remain closed globally, preventing international students to travel to their guest universities. Meanwhile, the economic deprivation will prevent many local students from starting their studies. Especially for universities in the UK, the US and Australia, this scenario means acute loss of income, which may motivate some university managers to resume teaching at all costs, ideally in ways which induce students abroad to continue paying fees.

There are more idealistic reasons why universities should resume teaching and research in autumn. Those students who will arrive are motivated, and given the economic downturn may have no alternative. Research in economics, law and social sciences is more urgent than ever, to expose ways in which societies can resume life within and after the pandemic. Well educated citizens are also necessary for that, and taking up studies as first year undergraduates is the first step to achieve this.

This leaves the question how to resume teaching. Some university managers already float a full switch to on-line teaching as a way to maintain the UK’s share in the global market of higher education (and presumably hope to limit the economic losses). However, there are serious doubts on whether full online teaching is suitable for first-year students, quite apart from the fact whether high-quality online degrees can be stomped up on a whim. But if universities are to maintain social distancing measures while resuming their activities, lecture halls can only be half filled, tutorials will have to be half empty as well. One way to achieve this is blending on-line teaching and life teaching, to create a blended learning experience. I have some experience in offering EU law by way of blended learning, and have observed others doing the same, also in other subjects. While those experiences and observations were focused on adult learners, here are some ideas what it takes to transform a traditional module into a blended learning experience for new-comers to academic learning.

Those new-comers cannot be expected to follow a traditional approach to blended learning, which starts with a supported self-learn phase followed by face-to-face teaching. Even if our new students have spent their last weeks at school in lock-down, the step-change to academic teaching will require us to meet them in university. The demands of social distancing mean, however, presence teaching will have to be phased with self-directed study. Self-directed study (distance learning) obviously existed long before the internet. Even in times of the internet, blended learning takes recourse to printed self-study materials, and as students progress, also to library research. Electronic learning platforms constitute an ideal way to support self-learning processes through on-line tutorials, chat-rooms and other techniques.

When offering an introduction to EU law to adult learners by way of blended learning for a further-education programme in business administration (now deprived of its EU-Law component in English), I built on my experience of writing study-materials for the “Fernuniversität” and used the following sequence:

  • Students received printed self-study materials, combining a textbook-type introduction with self-test questions. This comprised about 80 pages text, 10 pages glossary and 20 pages self-test questions. Students were able to study this in their own time, while we assumed that they would need 4 weeks if studying 4 hours each day. Students who could foresee that they had less time, were encouraged to start earlier
  • Students were encouraged to use the self-study questions to revise their studies.
  • A dedicated tutor for  group of 15-20 students was available for questions.
  • At a specified date, students were required to answer on-line questions, in an asynchronous tutorial. The tutor encouraged students to submit the answers in time, and gave feedback on answers.
  • Students came in for a presence phase of four weeks, starting with an interactive class revising the self-study phase, followed by an exam confirming the successful completion of that phase.
  • The presence phase continued with students preparing a presentation on a section of the theme in groups of two or three. They were introduced to academic research and to using the library, while also being able to consult with the lecturer and/or tutor at specified times
  • Students presented their work during a two day intensive work-shop
  • the final assessment consisted of a long essay, written individually on the basis of the presentation.

This format would not be suitable for first-year students in their late teens. For them, traditional lectures introducing the subject, as well as explaining the sequence of the self-study phase, would constitute a necessary component. Nevertheless, the interaction between the different elements is suitable to guide first-year students into academic work, even if face-to-face teaching has to be reduced considerably. Given suitable technological equipment, presence phases could also be offered by way of video-conferencing, should lock-down continue longer than until end of September.

The crux of this format is, that – while it works very well – it requires considerable investment. Writing a whole book for self-study purposes either requires employing a teaching assistant, or an intensive team-effort of existing lecturers. Such a team effort presupposes building subject teams, who can cooperatively construct such materials. Further, while the construction of self-test questions and the equivalent exam questions is a task to which lecturers are used to, the establishment of intelligent and dynamic tasks for the second self-study phase requires support by those well versed in blended learning. Possibly, cooperating with existing tutors who have experience in working with the Open University would be a way to achieve this.

The face-to-face teaching phase can hardly be used in the same way for large groups of students typical for undergraduate programmes in UK law schools. However, tutorials could be used to provide a similar engagement. Anyone having had the pleasure to teach on-line tutorials, will have experienced lower attendance rates than usual. Inserting a compulsory presentation into some of them (which is graded) could improve this, allowing to offer some tutorials on-line. Obviously, platforms such as Blackboard, Canvas, and their homemade equivalents offer multiple apps to format the specific tasks helping students to engage with self-learning materials, and also ensuring that they participate in synchronous and asynchronous on-line teaching. However, the academic and didactic task to write the content remains.

I hope that sharing this experience can be useful for informing strategies for coping with the ongoing COVID 19 crisis as the year 2020 progresses.

A word of caution (PS): The success of such a programme depends on the quality of the printed teaching materials, and of the on-line environment. Since creating the academic content is more challenging than “just” producing a lecture, academics will need administrative support. Just as academics are required to retrain for blended learning, administrators could be retrained to revise the lay-out and style of printed material, as well as improving the appearance of on-line materials. Support should of course not mean to tell academics that they need to invest more work, but instead administrative staff making those changes, taking work off the hands of academics (who should be given a chance to give feed-back on changes). All this already demonstrates that staff needs a physical working place of high quality for some of those activities. If the face-to-face elements are to be offered by video-conferencing, even more sophisticated work-places (aka video-studios or filming in lecture theatres) would be necessary. There is no way of avoiding a deep-clean of universities, even for full on-line teaching. Students need high-quality equipment too, if they are to complete some tasks from home: the free laptop for all policy comes to mind. Higher education in blended formats (which might be offered on-line only temporarily) is a huge opportunity, which too requires public investment into those institutions.





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