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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Sustaining Innovation in Practice: Researching Blended Learning


Written by
Clare Sansom

The second day of RIDE 2023 was opened by CODE Director Linda Amrane-Cooper, who began by reminding delegates of the overall theme of the meeting: ‘Sustaining Innovation’. The conference programme had been designed to focus on how researchers and practitioners in open and digital learning can sustain innovation in people, in technology, and, hopefully, for the planet as well. This day was focused on practice, but on practice that is research-led and research-informed, and on the scholarship of practice. This link with research was highlighted in the title of the first keynote lecture: Researching Blended Learning. The speaker, Dr Melissa Highton from the University of Edinburgh, was already known to many RIDE delegates as one of the panellists in the excellent keynote panel session that had concluded the first day. Linda introduced Melissa as the Director of Learning, Teaching and Web Services and Assistant Principal Online and Open Learning at Edinburgh and, perhaps more usefully, as an ‘inspirational digital leader’ in online education. 

Researching Blended Learning at Edinburgh and Beyond

Melissa began by summarising her talk under three headings. She would be reflecting on:

  • Her experience as part of an expert panel, researching blended learning across multiple institutions.
  • The strategies and successes of sustained innovation in online learning at the University of Edinburgh, and
  • The role of insiders in researching culture within organisations.

Throughout the presentation, she would also be introducing four ‘provocations’ – statements that she was inviting delegates to agree with, or to critique – and these would be open for discussion in a ‘world café’ session immediately after the talk. These were:

  • Innovation undermines sustainability.
  • Findings about blended learning cannot / should not be generalised.
  • Students can choose when to come to campus.
  • Insider researchers struggle to effect change.

She then gave an overview of her institution, the University of Edinburgh, as an innovative provider of a wide range of online and blended courses. It has always been forward-looking, since its historical beginnings: it was the first university in the UK not to have been founded by the church, and was known as the ‘Toon’s College’ for people of the ‘toon’. More recently, it has provided online courses for over 20 years through a mixture of free short online courses and fully online Masters’ degrees. The statistics for each of these are impressive; over four million learners have taken the short courses, and over 6,000 online learners have graduated with Masters’ degrees.  Postgraduate students have come from over 150 countries and all continents, and, she emphasised, they all feel a sense of ‘belonging’ to the university even if they never attend campus. 

Melissa Highton

The expert panel on researching blended learning

The expert panel on researching blended learning that she had joined was convened by the Office of Students (OfS) and chaired by Professor Susan Orr, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education at De Montfort University, Leicester. The OfS covers England and Wales only, so, she said, she was able to be truly disinterested. The panel produced a survey that offered a ‘snapshot’ in time of several English and Welsh Higher Education institutions of different shapes and sizes. One of the challenges panellists faced was that there is no single accepted definition of ‘blended learning’ so they had to settle on one: they chose to describe it as a ‘deliberate and thoughtful blend’ of modes of teaching. Metaphorically, however, this blend can be thought of as like a tea, a whiskey or a smoothie, depending on the number of elements to be blended and the skill set needed to do the blending.

The panel discussions took place at a time when there was a trend to ‘demonise’ online education, particularly lecture recordings, driven by the media and by some students’ parents. Recorded lectures, however, are popular with students, and were so even before the pandemic, primarily for reviewing material and for accessibility. It is engaging and easy to do, as long as institutions have the kit needed.  Diversity in the sector is good and necessary but the elements of the learning blend provided must depend on the technology available. Therefore, to echo one of the provocations, blended learning will be specific to an institutional context and time, and findings cannot be generalised. The panel’s recommendations to institutions were to make sure that potential students – and their parents and teachers – always know what will be available, by, for example, keeping websites up to date. Quality teaching does not depend on modality, and ‘going digital’ can never fix bad teaching.

The provision of blended learning implies changes to a university’s physical estate. There is a tendency to think of students as either being fully online or fully on-campus, and to expect online students to always work from home. That mode is defined as hybrid rather than blended learning, and the latter term implies the mix of online and offline activities that many students prefer. The Office for Students is concerned about student choice: for a student, choosing whether and when to come to campus is different from knowing which bits of the course are on-campus and which are not. Universities should make sure that on-campus students can access facilities for studying online.
Melissa discussed how institutions can best sustain innovation in teaching and learning, when the concepts of ‘sustainability’ and ‘innovation’ can be in conflict. She referred back to one aspect of this that had been raised in the previous day’s panel discussion: how to make sure that innovations can be sustained when key members of staff leave. 

Sustainability also requires flexibility and adaptability. Ideally, distance learning should replace ‘the tyranny of time and space’, with ‘any time, any place, any pace’ learning, but distance learners miss out when online and on-campus sessions are held synchronously, through missing activities that work in-person only or through time differences. This risks ‘bothering’ online students, which is something she has always sought to avoid. During the pandemic, some teachers had become ‘intoxicated by Teams’ but simply reproducing lectures in Teams sessions offers neither the most innovative nor the most sustainable solution. And finally, she discussed the difference between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ researchers. There is a general view that research must be objective and so researchers must struggle to work within their institutions, but insider researchers have the advantage of understanding their own institutional context which can help them effect change. 

Delegates then spent half an hour discussing three of the four listed provocations in a world café format, before coming back together for a brief plenary discussion. The issues raised there included how to build community between online learners without live online sessions, and the various contexts behind the word ‘sustainability’.