Students at several universities have launched petitions demanding a return to face-to-face teaching, rejecting the proposed blended learning model that many universities are planning to implement next year. With 20 of the 24 Russell Group universities planning to deliver at least some of their teaching online, and many students waiting to hear confirmation of how their teaching will be delivered, we can expect a sharp rise in student complaints in the next academic year.
Managing Student Expectations to Mitigate Complaints
As students prepare to return to university in the autumn, many realise that recorded lectures will have to remain in some form. Even the student petition from the University of Manchester acknowledges that “it is essential that there is an option for online learning due to continued restrictions and access requirements”. With test and trace still in place, students need to be able to access course content in the event of being pinged, but this must be balanced with the return to face-to-face teaching.
In order to avoid the continuing trend of increasing numbers of complaints, universities must be clear with students. Clarity from the outset on what will be online, what will be in person, and what would make that change will set student expectations early on. This will avoid complaints when students feel that they have been “mis-sold” their experience at university.
Blended learning also creates the opportunity for more focused use of in-person contact hours. With some universities limiting the number of students in each seminar, there is a chance small group learning. Communicating these changes is key. Keeping these high quality in person sessions, and supporting them with online lectures and learning materials, is a far more attractive sounding option than simply stating that you are continuing online teaching.
The University of Manchester followed this approach, with a spokesperson saying: “This is not online teaching, but about augmenting in-person lectures, seminars, labs, Q&As and discussions, and workshops with high quality online materials for self-study. We have been speaking to students for some time about ways to increase flexibility and choice and we will continue to do so to help shape this activity to their needs and the needs of each discipline.”
Benefits of Blended Learning
Students need to be convinced that the benefits of blended learning mean that they are not losing out, both in terms of quality and experience. With the petition from students at the University of Leeds saying that online teaching “is in no way a substitute for in-person learning and it is ridiculous that the University would expect us to agree with or even accept their decision on teaching for the next academic year. We welcome discussion with the University over this issue, but our aim is clear: Normality must return in all areas of society, and most importantly we demand a complete return to in-person teaching”, it is clear that some students will need a lot of convincing.
There are 3 main aspects of blended learning that may appeal to students:
- Quality: Blended Learning is an opportunity to keep the best of both online and in-person teaching. Taking this approach means that the quality of teaching should not be affected, and students will receive the same high standard they would have done prior to the pandemic, with added benefits such as flexibility and accessibility.
- Flexibility: The ability to progress at your own pace and to watch and revisit lectures when suits you is a significant benefit of all lectures being recorded. Whether revising for exams, or fitting in lectures around other commitments, this flexibility benefits students, and can make their university experience feel less pressured.
- Student Life: It is important to note that, while blended learning may mean that some lectures are online, the relaxation of Covid restrictions means that student life is able to return to relative normality. Sports facilities, libraries, and nightclubs are all able to open, and the ability to meet and build a sense of community does not rely solely on in-person lectures.
How to Deliver Blended Learning
To delivery blended learning effectively, and minimise complaints, there are two key things that need to be done: it must be delivered to a high standard, and communication with students must be clear.
The standard expected by a generation of digitally native students may require staff to be trained. Digital skillsets need to expanded to allow staff to make igh quality digital delivery a part of their standard practice.
As discussed above, communication with students is essential. Clarity about what will be online and what will be face to face and why, and highlighting the benefits already mentioned, can position blended learning as at least equal to pre-pandemic teaching. Students need to feel that they are getting the value for money and quality of education that they expect, and they will not feel this way if they see blended learning as an opaque excuse for taking away in-person contact hours and putting their university lectures online.