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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Hybrid delivery, what difference do we make and deconstructing the water cooler


Written by
Clare Sansom

The third day of RIDE 2022, Friday 17 June, marked an important moment: the first in-person event to be organised by the Centre for Online and Distance Education (formerly CDE) since the beginning of the pandemic. CODE director Linda Amrane-Cooper was clearly delighted to be welcoming delegates to Senate House for a packed programme; she commented that it was lovely to see so many ‘in 3D’ and also warmly welcomed those joining online, including many international delegates.

The concept and practice of hybrid delivery: Past, present, future

Linda then handed over to Sarah Sherman, a CODE fellow and manager of the Bloomsbury Learning Environment to introduce the first keynote speaker, Tim Neumann, head of the Learning Technologies Unit at the UCL Institute of Education. Sarah described Tim as a long-term friend and colleague as well as a highly respected education technology professional.

Tim began his talk with the thought that, in the course of the last two, difficult years, we have forgotten much of what we used to assume. Hybrid learning – that is, learning that is both in-person and online – did not spring into being at the beginning of the pandemic; its history is decades-long. He would be dividing his talk into three sections dealing with the past, present and future of hybrid delivery.

The first example from the past dated from 1987, the era of the 3.5-inch floppy disk. In that year, Malcolm Tight of Birkbeck College published a paper in which he argued for diversifying methods of providing higher education, mixing distance and face-to-face modes. This is as relevant today as it was 35 years ago, despite the huge advances in technology over that time. A paper published a decade later highlighted the importance of offering learning models appropriate for three different groups of students: those studying on campus in the traditional way, distance learners and those who prefer a combined approach. This is what we now know as the ‘hyflex’ model, although that term was only used first in 2019. And finally, it was the introduction of HTML5 in 2008 that enabled the forms of rich communication through a simple browser interface that we use so extensively today.

At present, we can view any teaching event on two independent axes, from synchronous to asynchronous and from local to remote: so, for example, a classroom session is (synchronous, local); a lab that students can book at any time is (asynchronous, local); a webinar is (synchronous, remote) and an online forum (asynchronous, remote). We should, however, be introducing a third dimension – a ‘Z axis’ – for the way a teaching programme is structured into courses, modules and sessions. Hybrid courses can be planned at any or all of these levels.

Turning to the future, Tim suggested three areas where technology is likely to drive rapid change: audio, speech and synchronicity. Firstly, microphones were invented in the 1870s and until now have evolved only slowly, but the most recent developments are bound to prove game-changing. It is now possible to detect the location of a speaker and focus automatically on that person, avoiding the so-called ‘cocktail party effect’; this will make it much easier to capture the whole of a classroom discussion in a live teaching session. Zoom and Teams, which rapidly became the mainstay of remote teaching during the pandemic, are now introducing automatic speech recognition software with advanced AI to improve accuracy; these features were under development before covid but this development has accelerated rapidly in the last two years. And editable whiteboards, padlets and similar tools are beginning to bridge the gap between synchronous and asynchronous delivery. 

Tim concluded a fascinating tour through the history and immediate future of hybrid education by stressing the importance of interdisciplinarity, in teaching technology just as much as in research. We need to get out of our particular technical bubbles to work together if we are to improve the experiences of all our students, whether in the classroom, online or in between.

Does Online and Distance Education Work?

The keynote panel session on Friday addressed a question which must be close to the hearts of all RIDE delegates: Does online and distance education actually work? This important question triggered a fascinating discussion between four distinguished CODE fellows: Norbert Pachler (UCL Institute of Education), Stylianos Hatzipanagos (independent consultant), Steve Warburton (University of New England, Australia) and David Baume (independent consultant). David had stepped in at the last minute to replace Alan Tait, who was ill, and Steve was speaking from his home in New South Wales where it was very late at night. The session was ably chaired by Mary Stiasny, Pro-Vice Chancellor for International Learning and Teaching at the University of London and another CODE fellow, Christine Thuranira-McKeever from the Royal Veterinary College; it focused on how higher education establishments have been able to exploit the benefits of open and distance education (ODE), from a research perspective.

Mary invited each of the panellists in turn to give some initial thoughts on the topic. Norbert cited a recent meta-analysis of publications on student outcomes, which suggest that students who mainly or only work online perform ‘moderately better’ than those who study face-to-face. This work also identifies student attributes that lead to improved outcomes, among them flexibility, student engagement with the topic materials, peer interactions, motivation and self-efficacy. Good pedagogic design of online learning materials will tend to encourage these. 

Steve looked at the question of who our students are. Distance-learning students are highly heterogeneous; they tend to be older and have more responsibilities, and there are more women, more disabled people and more from ethnic minorities than in a similar cohort of traditional students. Many of them will face serious barriers to learning, but they are often very highly motivated. Open and distance learning does open access to people who would otherwise find studying difficult, but a focus on wellbeing is essential to improve student retention and help all succeed.

Stylianos posed a slightly different question: Does online assessment work? The last two ‘terrible years’ have increased students’ isolation but there have been silver linings, among them significant improvements in how students are assessed. The end of traditional exams has been popular with a majority of students, and we have seen how a well-designed, open note online equivalent can be pedagogically robust and assess deeper learning.  Questions remain around the balance between formative and summative assessment, the role of peer assessment, and also, importantly, the need to maintain academic integrity. Two contrasting methods are available: online proctoring and ‘designing out’ cheating through design. The latter method is preferred by students and is thought to be better at assessing skills.

Finally, David deconstructed the question itself, asking how ‘online’ and ‘distance’ education should be disentangled, and also what it means to say that education ‘works’. It is tempting to answer the question simply by comparing ODE to face-to-face methods, but there are problems: it is difficult to compare like with like, students’ circumstances determine their choices, and this comparison assumes that face-to-face education is the norm and that it works. Clearly, ODE ‘works’ if it allows those who couldn’t otherwise contemplate studying at degree level to do so. Otherwise, we are required to use the Office for Students’ ambitious criteria to evaluate our courses, and these may not be appropriate for our students. If student retention is used as a criterion, we can take heart from the recent OU China project where retention was 97% in a cohort of 250 students. Better questions to ask might be ‘how well does ODE work’ and ‘how, and in what ways, does ODE work’, and we can look to successful case studies like this one to suggest answers.

These initial presentations were followed by a short but lively discussion. One delegate asked if this question would have been answered differently before covid, and the panellists agreed that the pandemic had accelerated change that was already happening. Other questions concerned the differences between fully online and blended learning, and in particular whether Norbert’s list of attributes applied equally to these modes. The session ended on a note of optimism, but with as many questions raised as answered.

Deconstructing the Digital Water Cooler

The second Friday keynote session – and, therefore, the final keynote of RIDE 2022 – was chaired by two CODE Fellows, Leo Havemann and Julie Voce. The speaker was David White of the University of the Arts in London. This is Europe’s largest higher education institution devoted entirely to the performing arts, with 20-25,000 students (depending on how they are counted).

David began with the comment that performing arts share one feature with the STEM subjects: many subjects in each area involve students doing things with their hands, and teaching these topics was particularly challenging during the pandemic because these activities are so difficult to replicate online. 

The broad topic addressed in this fascinating and intriguingly titled talk was the differences between the assumptions we make about higher education, what it actually is, and what it might – in the post-covid world – become. He showed a Venn diagram with intersecting circles representing culture, education and sustainability, with ‘the post-pandemic university’ located in the centre. Our universities are cultural as well as educational institutions, but that culture is changing. The old ‘university is a cultural rite of passage [mainly for 18-21-year-olds]’ truism, which was always truest of the Oxbridge and Russell Group model, is still significant but the move online has upended ideas of what a university is and what a student is. Even the University of the Arts with its practical focus now has many distance learners studying online.

This point brought David to a discussion of the water cooler: a symbolic meeting point, and, thus, a symbol of what is lost in a move online. The water cooler, he said, is ‘synecdochic for belonging’, meaning that gathering there is part of what it means to belong. Traditional students find it easier to ‘belong’ to an institution than online ones, which is seen as a disadvantage, but we should also admit that belonging is not always chosen and not always easy (such as in a difficult family or unpleasant neighbourhood). In fact, in a university, increasing belonging by gathering students together means a decrease in flexibility (and vice versa). It might be better to think about connectivity or something that might be called ‘eventedness’ rather than belonging. People who meet at events benefit from connection, and while this is easier face-to-face it can be worked on in a virtual space.

Perhaps we think too much about whether students feel that they belong to our institutions. Remote students are often older than on-campus ones and have established lives and loyalties elsewhere. Instead, we should worry about whether our students feel that they are important, that they matter, and that they feel part of their cohorts. We don’t necessarily need water coolers when students can, for example, engage in informal text chats (sometimes in multiple languages) around the edges of webinars.

We often talk about the value of serendipity, of encounters that ‘just happen’, in academic life and how difficult it is to replicate in an online environment. We don’t always realise that serendipity is a privilege; students with jobs or caring responsibilities, or with some types of disabilities, will tend to miss out on casual encounters even in a face-to-face environment. Serendipity itself is not a bad thing, but universities will do well to design out the need for it by providing all students with opportunities to meet casually in ways that work for them. Flexibility and agility in our courses, programmes and pedagogies will be key.

David’s keynote led into a short discussion and then into an ‘world café’ session with delegates moving around tables discussing different topics related to the theme ‘How to survive: Learning from experience, sustaining innovation’. This lively and interactive session was a fitting end to a day of rediscovering the joy of water cooler moments, and of investigating how best we might replicate this joy online.