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Flexible future


Danielle George and Simon Thomson argue that universities must prepare for multiple teaching modes

It’s probably a good idea to start a piece like this by talking about terminology. Blended, hybrid, mixed and hyflex are terms that have been—and continue to be—bandied about across the higher education sector and beyond, with little thought for their actual meaning or origin.

So, in the interest of avoiding an argument about which to use when, and what it means, we’ll use “mixed-modal” as a catchall term to mean the varied use of in-person, on-campus and online experiences and everything in between, with the sole purpose of designing and developing a curriculum that makes use of more than one teaching mode.

During the pandemic we saw a huge swing of the pendulum towards the use of digital platforms for online (synchronous and asynchronous) teaching. Learning technologists, digital educational developers and technology enhancement learning teams had been preparing themselves and colleagues for this their whole careers, and we have seen academic staff enhance their digital skills more in the past two years than in the previous 10. We now have the most digitally competent academic colleagues we could possibly have hoped for, and if we fail to capitalise on this moment and instead allow the pendulum to swing back too far, generations of students will lose out on the possibility of enriched mixed-modal learning.

What learners want

A 2021 Unite Students survey pointed to an alarming increase in mental health issues among students, heightened by lockdowns and isolation, and, unsurprisingly, students wanted to get back to face-to-face in-person teaching again as quickly as possible.

This was exacerbated by a less than helpful narrative from government and media stories that positioned “online” learning as of less value than face-to-face, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of students have successfully studied fully online for many years and had very good experiences.

The latest Hepi 2022 Student Academic Experience Survey indicates a strong preference for in-person teaching, which is no surprise considering that almost all the students surveyed are those who signed up to a campus-based experience. We must also remember that online teaching sessions during the pandemic were not necessarily designed for that mode of delivery, so the experience wasn’t exactly comparable to sessions designed for online.

However, data from the Student Futures Commission and reported by Universities UK does show that “66 per cent of students want a blend of in-person and online teaching”, so it would be remiss of institutions not to explore the potential for this.

What we mustn’t lose sight of is the observed benefits that the use of online teaching has in terms of flexibility. While we know that students who apply for on-campus courses naturally prefer in-person, on-campus experiences, we also know they welcome the flexibility that online study offers.

Then there is the government’s Lifelong Loan Entitlement. This includes a proposal to “bring about change to the way that individuals can choose to study, enabling adults to study flexibly at levels 4, 5 and 6 throughout their lifetime”. While the standard three- or four-year degree is still the most common, it does not suit all learners, particularly those who may not be able to commit to full-time degree programmes.

Achieving balance

The challenge facing institutions now is how to get this balance right and how to move to a more flexible model that takes the best of online and in-person learning and combines them into a high-quality mixed-modal experience, including the bite-size learning that modern learners want.

The University of Manchester has ambitious plans to “offer a university experience that is truly accessible, inclusive and international to support learners’ individual choices, enabling us to adapt as the world continues to change around us”, achieving this through flexibility of study, a blended curriculum and lifelong learning.

Our future students will expect an education that prepares them for an increasingly flexible, digital, interconnected and intercultural world. To achieve this, we must think differently about what to offer and how to deliver it, involving all areas of the university.

It will almost certainly mean changes in processes and involve adapting approaches to curriculum design and pedagogy, including a more considered approach to using technologies for learning and teaching. As demonstrated during the pandemic, just having the technology and digital infrastructure is not enough; we need to understand the value of all the modes that we teach in (online and in-person), so that we design curriculum experiences that make the most of each and demonstrate their value.

Student voices

At the heart of this process should be students—not as a single homogenous group but as a collection of voices that are representative of the broad range of those who make up our learning communities, and particularly those who feel excluded from accessing higher education opportunities.

They should not just be partners in this process but leaders and pioneers, helping to shape and steer the strategy and its implementation alongside academic and professional service colleagues, working towards a shared vision of the future of a hybrid/flexible education.

Moments like this don’t come along too often, so it’s important to capitalise on the momentum that has been gathering since the pandemic and ensure that those doors that have opened do not close. It’s an opportunity to bring together our collective wisdom and experiences in order to move towards an educational experience that increases access to learning and improves chances of success for all students.

Flexible mixed-modal teaching is the future of higher education. We need to identify, articulate and recognise the value of each mode and design our curricula with all of them in mind.

Professor Danielle George, associate vice-president for blended and flexible learning, and Professor Simon Thomson, director of flexible learning, University of Manchester